A Scopes Trial for the '90s
The Wall Street Journal, December 6, 1993
Stephen C. Meyer
When most of us think of the controversy over evolution in the public schools, we are
likely to think of fundamentalists pulling teachers from their classrooms and placing them
in the dock. Images from the infamous Scopes "monkey" trial of 1925 come to
mind. Unfortunately, intolerance of this sort has shown itself in California in the 1990s
as a result of students complaining about a biology instructor. Unlike the original Scopes
case, however, thiscase involves a distinguished biology professor at a major university
-- indeed, an acknowledged expert on evolutionary theory. Also unlike Scopes, the teacher
was forbidden to teach his course not because he taught evolutionary theory (which he did)
but because he offered a critical assessment of it.
The controversy first emerged last fall after Dean Kenyon, a biology professor at San
Francisco State University, was ordered not to teach "creationism" by John
Hafernik, the chairman of his biology department. Mr. Kenyon, who included three lectures
in biological origins in his introductory course, had for many years made a practice of
exposing students to both evolutionary theory and evidence uncongenial to it. He also
discussed the philosophical controversies raised by the issue and his own view that living
systems display evidence of intelligent design -- a view not incompatible with some forms
of evolutionary thinking.
Mr. Hafernik accused Mr. Kenyon of teaching what he characterized as biblical creationism
and ordered him to stop.
After Mr. Hafernik's decree, Mr. Kenyon asked for clarification. He wrote the dean, Jim
Kelley, asking what exactly he could not discuss. Was he "forbidden to mention to
students that there are important disputes among scientists about whether or not chemical
evolution could have taken place on the ancient earth?"
Mr. Kelley replied by insisting that Mr. Kenyon "teach the dominant scientific
view," not the religious view of "special creation on a young earth." Mr.
Kenyon replied again (I paraphrase): I do teach the dominant view. But I also discuss
problems with the dominant view and that some biologists see evidence of intelligent
He received no reply. Instead, he was yanked from teaching introductory biology and
reassigned to labs.
There are several disturbing aspects to this story:
First, Mr. Kenyon is an authority on chemical evolutionary theory and the scientific study
of the origin of life. He has a Ph.D. in biophysics from Stanford and is the co-author of
a seminal theoretical work titled "Biochemical Predestination" (1969). The
book articulated what was arguably the most plausible evolutionary account of how a living
cell might have organized itself from chemicals in the "primordial soup."
Mr. Kenyon's subsequent work resulted in numerous scientific publications on the
origin-of-life problem. But by the late 1970s, Mr. Kenyon began to question some of his
own earlier ideas. Experiments (some performed by Mr. Kenyon himself) increasingly
contradicted the dominant view in his field. Laboratory work suggested that simple
chemicals do not arrange themselves into complex information-bearing molecules such as DNA
-- without, that is, "guidance" from human experimenters.
To Mr. Kenyon and others, such results raised important questions about how
"naturalistic" the origin of life really was. If undirected chemical processes
cannot produce the coded strands of information found in even the simplest cells, could
perhaps a directing intelligence have played a role? By the 1980s, Mr. Kenyon had adopted
the second view.
That a man of Mr. Kenyon's stature should now be forced to lobby
for the right to teach introductory biology, whatever his current view of origins, is
absurdly comic. Mr. Kenyon knows perhaps as much as anyone in the world about a problem
that has stymied an entire generation of research scientists. Yet he now finds that he may
not report the negative results of research or give students his candid assessment of it.
What is more, the simplistic labeling of Mr. Kenyon's statements as "religion"
and the strictly materialistic view as "scientific" seems entirely unwarranted,
especially given the philosophical overtones of much origins theory. Biology texts
routinely recapitulate Darwinian arguments against intelligent design. Yet if arguments
against intelligent design are philosophically neutral and strictly scientific, why are
Mr. Kenyon's arguments for intelligent design inherently unscientific and religiously
charged? In seeking the best explanation for evidence, Mr. Kenyon has employed the same
method of reasoning as before he changed his view. His conclusions, not his methods, have
The problem is that in biological origins theory, dominant players currently insist on a
rigidly materialistic mode of explanation -- even when, as Mr. Kenyon maintains,
explanation of the evidence requires more than the limited powers of brute matter. Such
intellectual strictures reflect the very essence of political correctness: the suppression
of critical discourse by enforced rules of thought.
Fortunately, San Francisco State University's Academic Freedom Committee has come to a
similar conclusion, ruling decisively this summer in Mr. Kenyon's favor. The committee
determined that, according to university guidelines, a clear breach of academic freedom
Apparently, however, Mr. Hafernik and Mr. Kelley disagree. Mr. Hafernik has emphatically
rejected the committee's recommendation to reinstate Mr. Kenyon, citing his own freedom to
determine scientifically appropriate curriculum. In response, the American Association of
University Professors informed the university last month that they expect Mr. Kenyon's
mistreatment to be rectified. Meanwhile, as SFSU considers its response, a worldclass
scientist waits -- yet another casualty of America's peculiar academic fundamentalism.
Copyright © 1993 Stephen C. Meyer. All rights reserved. International
File Date: 12.29.98
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