Professing evolution

Posted: Feb 06, 2003 12:00 AM
At Texas Tech, professor Michael Dini, an associate professor of biology, faces Justice Department scrutiny and a lawsuit for his public refusal to write letters of recommendation for any student who fails to "truthfully and forthrightly affirm a scientific answer" to the question of the origins of human beings. By which he means a student must not only be able to describe the evidence for evolution and the current scientific consensus in its favor, but he must also affirm an inner emotional attitude toward the theory.

Let us leave aside, for the moment, other important questions, be they religious discrimination, the liberty of the professorate, or the overreaching arm of Justice to zero-in lazerlike on a single, neglected query: Is this the behavior of a scientist?

Professor Dini evidently thinks so. "The policy is not meant in any way to be discriminatory toward anyone's religious beliefs, but instead to ensure that people who I recommend to a medical school or a professional school or a graduate school in the biomedical sciences are scientists," he told The New York Times.

In other words, he will not recommend students based on his observed knowledge of their competence, intelligence or commitment. He will instead require them to have reached certain substantive conclusions about an event which, because it happened in the past, is in some sense beyond the reach of the most powerful tools of science.

One of his students, Greg Lubbock, a 36-year-old pre-med student, agrees: "I believe in God and evolution. I believe that evolution was the tool that brought us about. To deny the theory of evolution is, to me, like denying the law of gravity."

Well, not quite. The authority of science, which is impressive, is based on its ability to build a consensus among the educated through a process of repeated (and repeatable) experiments. As a Catholic, I have no personal beef with evolution. Indeed, I would go further and say that Genesis itself refutes the assertion that the text is intended as an account of the mechanics of creation (e.g., What the heck can a day mean before God separates light and dark?).

But any scientific theory of the origins of the species is necessarily not based on repeated and repeatable experiments. At best it is based on inferences from existing experimental data. As impressive as the evidence for evolution as the origin of the human species may thus be, it will always remain in part akin to social science: the scientific effort to explain what cannot be directly proven. Lots of scientific theories (such as the big bang) are in this category. And theories of this kind tend to evolve over time as new evidence emerges.

On the practical level, what is to be gained by excluding from med school or grad school people like Micah Spradling, who felt that affirming evolution as a personal belief would violate his faith? Mr. Spradling's dream is to study prosthetics and orthotics at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Will his ability to treat people with injured limbs be seriously compromised by his inner feelings about the origin of the human species?

If professor Dini had required students to be able to intelligently explain the evidence for evolution and the reason for the impressive scientific consensus behind it, I would have no problem with that. But to define scientists as a guild of people who swear inner loyalty oaths to certain particular truths is not only unjust, but bad for science.

We cannot advance science by turning its conclusions into a new form of dogma. Have faith, professor Dini: Scientific truth does not need to be defended in this way, at such a high cost.