Dispute Over Darwin And Divine

13 February 2003

By Stentor Danielson

Micah Spradling is the latest in a seemingly never-ending series of plaintiffs to claim a right to ignore evolution on religious grounds. Spradling claims that he transferred from Texas Tech to Lubbock Christian University because he knew that biology professor Michael Dini would never write him a letter of recommendation for graduate school. According to a policy posted on his website, Dini will only write letters for students who can give a "scientific answer" to the question "How do you account for the scientific origin of the human species?"

Spradling says he is unable to give an honest response to Dini's question because he is a creationist. The Liberty Legal Institute has taken up Spradling's case, charging that Dini is engaging in religious discrimination. Dini contends that evolution is so well established, and so fundamental to biology, that he questions the scientific competence of anyone who cannot accept it.

Most of the commentary on the issue has revolved around the question of whether a working knowledge of evolution is necessary for a physician -- the profession Spradling aspires to. Some argue that few physicians do research or experimentation that would require them to understand the underlying processes that led to the development of the human body, so a creationist physician would be fine knowing only the rules of what treatments to give for what diseases. Others reply that knowledge of evolution is critical for modern doctors, citing as an example the evolution of antibiotic-resistant strains of diseases.

The answer to this question is, however, not entirely germane to the case. A letter of recommendation is a personal opinion. It represents the writer's assessment of the student's competence in the field. Thus, what needs to be shown is not that knowledge of evolution is necessary for postgraduate work in biology (recall that Dini's policy applies equally to students wanting to go on to be molecular biologists as well as physicians). What needs to be shown is that in Dini's professional opinion, knowledge of evolution is necessary for postgraduate work in biology. That case is amply proven by Dini's elaboration on his website.

If the requirement was something irrelevant to biology -- if, say, he stated that he would not write recommendations for Italian-Americans or for people whose names started with "L" -- then there might be cause to take action. But evolution, however true it is, is unquestionably part of modern biology. To challenge Dini's use of evolution as a criterion by lawsuit is to ask the courts (which are hardly scientific experts) to rule on a matter of science.

Nevertheless, creationists have been unabashed in asking the courts to make scientific judgments. This seems to be the very reason Dini asks students wishing recommendations to know evolution. His website lists three criteria for obtaining a letter: the student must have received an A in a class taught by Dini, know the professor well, and explain human origins scientifically.

Evolution is the only stated, direct test of knowledge. Dini doesn't ask students to explain the germ theory of disease, or how cells divide. What's more, the evolution question is phrased in its most politically sensitive aspect -- the origins of humans. It seems clear Dini is trying to make a political point.

Simply to gauge a student's knowledge of evolution does not require a question of the type Dini sets forth. If a student has met the other two requirements, it seems strange that Dini would be in the dark as to the student's command of evolutionary theory. And the professor is certainly interested in studentsí command of other biological principles, which would be ascertained without direct questioning or the need to state a "litmus test" sort of requirement -- I canít imagine a responsible biology professor writing a recommendation for a student who doesn't understand the germ theory of disease. For most areas of biology, Dini can privately weigh what they say about the student's competence and make a judgment based on informal criteria.

Evolution is stated forthrightly as a requirement on Dini's website because it has become so politicized. Even the geological time scale, which is comparably fundamental to geology and contradicts the book of Genesis just as much, does not receive the attention that evolution does. Evolution is the starting point for people who believe that science conflicts with their religion. Creationists have mounted a large effort to challenge evolution, not on the grounds of faith, but on the grounds of science.

The latest form taken by this campaign is "intelligent design" (ID). While ID theory is not formally religious -- it never specifies who the designer was, saying only that organisms are too complex to have not been designed -- it has become the vanguard of creationist attempts to defeat evolution. ID-ers eschew attempts to beat evolution in the pages of biology journals, claiming that the scientific establishment is close-minded and refuses to listen to their claims (which has a grain of truth to it, as biologists refuse to listen to creationism in the same way that they refuse to listen to the Raelians' claim that humans were cloned by extraterrestrials). Instead, ID has turned to politics to advance its case. Legislatures and courtrooms populated by lay people are more likely to be swayed by ID's use of scientific forms into seeing it as a legitimate competing theory, and enforcing that opinion on biologists.

In this context, Dini's evolution question makes sense. He is making a political statement, directed at his colleagues in biology (including those who read his recommendations), that he considers evolution to be the scientific explanation for the origins of species. At the same time, heís making students face the controversy and affirm their allegiance to his (and the majority of other biologists') side. Because of the forthright way in which Dini staked out his ground in the struggle, he has become a target of the other side.

Dini's controversial requirement is not about religion, and it's not really about science. It's about politics -- specifically, a political situation that creationists have made.

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