Monkey business at Texas Tech

Some fool who teaches biology at Texas Tech has announced that he won’t write recommendation letters for undergraduates applying to graduate school in biology, or to medical school, unless they tell him they believe in the theory of evolution. Predictably, this gives the right-wing Bible-thumpers another chance to act as if they were an oppressed minority. Yech.

If the rule applied only applicants for graduate work in biology, it wouldn’t be utterly baseless. After all, you probably wouldn’t recommend someone for graduate work in physics who insisted that Newtonian mechanics was “just a theory” and held out for the Aristotelian theory of motion. But there is plenty of scientific work to do in biology that never touches Darwin: lots of biochemistry and molecular biology, for example, or biostatistics.

And applying the rule to medical school is just pointlessly nasty; of course there are insights to be gained from Darwinian medicine, but since most physicians don’t know about them and most med schools don’t teach about them, a creationist med student wouldn’t be at any practical disadvantage whatever. My oncologist’s views on paleontology aren’t of much more importance to me than my auto mechanic’s.

Eugene Volokh has several posts on this issue, asking a number of good questions both legal and moral. This one raises difficult questions about why religious beliefs that seem absurd to those not members of the religion in question aren’t held to “count against” their holders in the same way as comparably far-fetched beliefs of other sorts.

Here’s my two cents’ worth on that point:

One reason religious beliefs get downplayed as evidence of either rationality or character is that many of them are held as “Sunday truths,” either not really believed or believed in a special psychological compartment not allowed to touch real life. There are physicists who are also Biblical literalists; what do they really believe about the day Joshua made the Sun stand still in the sky? (Stopping the rotation of the Earth might be a miracle; stopping the rotation of the Earth, and then restarting it, without any effects of angular acceleration, is a contradiction in terms.)

Another reason is that many of those beliefs are held as metaphors; C.S. Lewis has a wonderful riff where he invites the scoffers who make fun of crowns and harps in heaven to stop reading literary texts that are too grown-up for them. If “man made in the image of God” and “God blowing the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils” are read poetically rather than prosaically, then they’re really not on all fours with the idea that the earth is flat or that the moon is made of green cheese.

It seems to me that many people who say they “don’t believe in evolution” don’t actually have any fixed opinion about the origin of species; rather, they’re denying an apparent implication of that belief: that, in reality, human beings are merely animals. Those people are holding out for the idea that humans have something of the divine nature. That view can be taken as a metaphysical proposition about human beings, but it can also be the expression of a moral stance: that it’s wrong to treat human beings the way animals are treated. Neither the metaphysical proposition nor the moral stance is obviously false. (And if we take the “divine nature” statement as an image rather than a proposition, then a simple evaluation of truth or falsity isn’t even appropriate.)

Linking the belief that humans are special to a particular view about paleontology seems to me a mistake, but, given the intellectual history of the matter, not a silly mistake. Poorly understood Darwinian views can be, and have been, given very wicked practical applications. So if someone wants to make a principle of refusing to say that humans descended from animals by natural selection, nothing compels me to think the worse of him for doing so.

The best reason to refrain from judging people negatively on the basis of their expressed religious beliefs and their religious affiliations is that such self-restraint is part of our liberal tradition. People care deeply about their religious commitments, and we should be very reluctant, not only as voters but as individuals, to do anything that puts pressure on them to disavow those commitments. Whether Prof. Dini has a legal right to his stated policy, and whether his university can compel him to change it, oughtn’t to be the central issues. This is a matter of ordinary human decency. Handicapping someone in applying to medical school because he won’t say something he thinks is false is mean and stupid, just as kicking a kid out of Scouting because he won’t pretend to a belief in a Higher Power is mean and stupid. [The fact that the “Christian conservatives” making a fuss about the Dini affair defended the right of the Boy Scouts to discriminate on religious grounds is a good debating point, but two wrongs — unlike three lefts — don’t make a right.]

I’ve written at length on the problem of bigotry against some forms of religious belief that exists in some portions of academia, which I find just as revolting, and less easy to explain, than the bigotry against atheists that persists elsewhere in the social system. I wish Professor Dini hadn’t decided to illustrate my point again.

UPDATE

According to Prof. Dini’s webpage, virtually all of his education was in Catholic schools, and he spent fourteen years as a member of the Christian Brothers order. He says nothing about his current religious affiliation or practice, but he does mention a strong interest in how high-school biology is taught, and in the evolution v. creation controversy. I must say I’m delighted that the teacher in question wasn’t an atheist named Rabinowitz.

SECOND UPDATE

Kevin Drum, the CalPundit, thinks everyone is missing the point here. The point, he says, is that recommendations to grad school in biology ought to be based on how well the student knows biology, that evolutionary theory is central to biology, and that anyone who believes in Creationism doesn’t understand evolutionary theory.

Kevin and I usually agree, but I have to dissent here, on two points. First, as noted above, the policy extends to med school, not just bio grad school. They’re not the same thing. Second, it’s perfectly possible to understand a theory without accepting it. I can give fairly competent accounts of the labor theory of value, humoral medicine, Lysenkoism, and the doctrine of the Real Presence, without believing any of them. If the professor wants to say that he won’t recommend a student who can’t explain the theory of evolution by natural selection, with appropriate reference to the evidence supporting it, that’s fine with me. It’s the required confession of faith that sticks in my craw:

If you set up an appointment to discuss the writing of a letter of recommendation, I will ask you: “How do you think the human species originated?” If you cannot truthfully and forthrightly affirm a scientific answer to this question, then you should not seek my recommendation for admittance to further education in the biomedical sciences.

Does Kevin want to assert that truth is self-evident, so that no one can understand a true theory without accepting its truth? Otherwise, his equation of disbelief in evolutionary theory with ignorance of biology doesn’t seem to be valid. [For a critique of that optimistic epistemology, and an argument that its political consequences are noxious, see Popper’s “On the Sources of Knowledge and of Ignorance.”]

Kevin wants to know whether the Liberty Institute (the lawyers for the student) would complain if a divinity professor refused to recommend a student who didn’t believe in God. To that I would respond “Recommend for what?” If the student is applying to a Christian seminary, the refusal would be a reasonable one. But it if she’s applying to law school, or wants to do graduate work in history, I think it would be an act of bigotry. If she aced a divinity course, (Prof. Dini’s policy is to recommend only students who earned an A in one of his courses) presumably that’s evidence of her capacity to absorb, and work with, a body of complicated material, which is what the law school or history graduate department is interested in. Creed is irrelevant to the study of law or history, and I would say it’s equally irrelevant to the study of medicine.

My job as a teacher is to supply my students with the facts, the skills, and the ideas required for them to be able to form serious opinions on whatever it is I’m trying to teach them about. It’s not my job to make their opinions coincide with mine. That’s the difference between a university and a fundamentalist seminary. And I happily write enthusiastic recommendations for students whose political beliefs differ radically from mine. (I just sent one off for someone who might wind up on a Republican national ticket some day.)

In the case Kevin cites, quite possibly the Liberty Institute would be in favor of intolerance. That would confirm Kevin’s guess (and mine) that they’re a bunch of religious bigots. But that’s the difference between us and them. We’re not bigots. We believe in tolerance.

Don’t we?

[Follow-up post here. ]

[Further follow-up here: the Justice Department has opened a formal inquiry with a demand for documents. I thought Dini’s policy was wrong — it’s since been modified and, in my view, is now largely unexceptionable — but I think this intervention into university affairs is intolerable.]

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com