Darwin’s DictatorshipCéleste Perrino-Walker March/April 2005
One hates to generalize, but you'd think that of all possible professions, scientists would be the group to keep an open mind. That's what you'd think. But Samuel Chen discovered that at least one scientific theory—evolution—isn't open to speculation. In October 2002 Chen, then a high school sophomore, was cochair of Third Eye Open, a student organization at Emmaus High School in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, that emphasizes the importance of truth in controversial issues. They "advocate looking beyond personal prejudices and searching for facts on which to establish truth."1
The organization members had decided to explore the issue of evolution because it was taught as science at the school, and they wanted to discuss it in more depth and look at the other side of it. Chen contacted Michael Behe, Ph.D., a professor of biological sciences at Lehigh University and author of Darwin's Black Box, who agreed to present a lecture titled "Evolution: Truth or Myth?" in February 2004. In his letter to the Science Department Chen introduced Behe as the speaker by listing his many professional credits, which include a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Pennsylvania, presentations at a congressional hearing, presentation of his work in conferences and debates at prestigious universities such as Notre Dame, Princeton, and Cambridge. He concluded that "Dr. Behe is respected by many to be one of the world's foremost experts on evolution."2 Clearly, he was an ideal candidate for a presentation on evolution. Chen considered it an honor for the school to host such an "internationally acclaimed scientist."3 Wouldn't anyone?
Unaware a storm of controversy was about to break over him, Chen went about making all the preliminary arrangements: he obtained Behe's commitment as well as approval from school officials and secured the school auditorium for the lecture. The school term drew to a close with no hint of storm clouds on the horizon.
During the summer Chen called the school to check on his arrangements and was told that the event had been canceled. "I was shocked. For one thing, it was also my graduation project. The fact that they just canceled it was a shock." The principal informed him that his adviser had resigned, and because there was no other teacher to advise the group, it had folded and the lecture was over. But he gave Chen permission to look for another adviser and promised to hold his reservations until September.
Once Chen obtained a new adviser, his reservations were reinstated. When he returned to school in August, now president of Third Eye Open, he was told that the group needed to raise the funds for the lecture, which he expected, because as a student organization they didn't receive school funding. What he didn't expect was that the school would give him a deadline for procuring the funds two full months before the event. "We had a hundred days to raise the money," Chen said. "No other group ever had a deadline two full months before their event."
It took them just 50 days to raise the $2,000 they needed for the lecture. "The school was kind of shocked," Chen says. "I think it shows that the community was very excited about having an internationally acclaimed scientist speak at the school."
Despite this a rumor began to circulate that the school was wasting a ton of money on Behe's lecture. Chen's adviser squashed the rumor in an e-mail to the faculty reiterating that Third Eye Open was not a school-sponsored club and received no funding whatsoever from the school. She also pointedly wondered if other clubs were subject to the same type of scrutiny about funding of their events; if anyone, for example, was going to dances and counting balloons to estimate how much things cost.
In early December of 2003 Chen approached the Science Department at Emmaus to ask if it would endorse the lecture. At first he received a favorable response. Teachers invited him to speak to their classes about the lecture because they felt it was a very valuable learning opportunity. Then the Science Department chair sent an e-mail stating that Dr. Behe was an intelligent design (ID) advocate, and therefore the Science Department would not endorse the lecture anymore. "He said the Biology Department had researched Dr. Behe and reported to him that he was an intelligent design advocate . . . so what he was presenting couldn't be science," Chen said. He gave Chen a copy of the school's science statement, supporting the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), which asserts, "There is no longer a debate among scientists about whether evolution has taken place. There is considerable debate about how evolution has taken place."4
At this time one of the science teachers took it upon himself to speak to the teachers in the Science Department individually about the lecture. Then "he asked the principal to cancel the entire lecture on the grounds that it was completely unconstitutional and it was only an attempt to destroy evolution," says Chen. The principal refused, saying there were no grounds.
Next, that teacher approached Chen's adviser, derogatorily referring to the student group as "Third Eye Blind" and claiming that Chen had misrepresented Behe's true stand on evolution, saying ID was antiscientific and scary stuff. Following that, he began to harass Chen, insisting that Third Eye Open also bring in an evolutionist to speak so that their "third eye" would be "open."
"As he walked away, he kept shouting for me to keep my third eye open," says Chen. "I sent him an e-mail and invited him to attend Dr. Behe's lecture and ask questions during the Q&A session. I even offered him the opportunity to comment and speak a little following Dr. Behe's lecture; he could be the evolutionist if he wanted to be." He responded, requesting five or 10 minutes to speak by himself; he didn't want to argue against the scientist.
Though initially set for February 20, 2004, the lecture was later moved to February 27 because a snow day bumped a choir practice. "The school literally told me to tell this world-class scientist that we're going to push him back a week because a choir needed to practice," Chen recalls. Then he found out that someone had relocated the lecture from the main auditorium, an appropriate setting for an academic lecture, to the cafeteria.
The lecture did eventually occur—in the auditorium—followed by the science teacher's "rant," which, interestingly enough, Chen reports, was the only time during the lecture when religion was mentioned. "He said the lecture was based upon ignorance," Chen related, and after insulting the guest speaker, the science teacher left.
The controversy didn't end with the lecture, as Chen hoped it would, but continued over sales of the videotape that Third Eye Open had commissioned of the lecture. When the one science teacher learned of the videotapes, he objected, citing copyright violations. Because arrangements for the teacher's rebuttal comments were made so late, Chen didn't have permission to release them, so he attempted to have them omitted, but the company refused, saying it would be illegal, and forwarded his remarks to the teacher, who then accosted Chen in the hall, screaming that he never said the tapes were illegal. He said removing his remarks was censorship, and he would take action against Chen.
"At this point I was going to be sued if I kept him on the tape because it was copyright violation," says Chen, "and if I took him off the tape, he was going to sue me for censorship."
Chen says the teacher wouldn't stop harassing him, pulling him aside in the halls to yell at him. Finally his parents were forced to go see the principal and demand that the teacher not be allowed to speak to their son again. "The school ordered him to refrain from speaking to me," Chen says. Because of the intense stress he endured throughout the course of the controversy, Chen's health declined, and he collapsed several times.
An article about Chen's difficulties hosting the lecture sparked much debate in chat rooms on the Internet and revealed the cutting antagonism between evolutionists and creationists and ID advocates. "If," wrote someone identified as Right Wing Professor, "as it is stated, this was an after-school activity, then the school had no business interfering. Of course, it would be unwise to take anything in a creationist article at face value, including the words 'the' and 'a'." To which MEGoody retorted, "How unbiased of you. Excuse me, your agenda is showing." MCG1969 provided a ray of sanity, posting, "If the school allows the use of school facilities after school hours for extracurricular
student groups, then it cannot discriminate between them based on content."5
"It was certainly inappropriate of the school to do that," commented Brian Fahling, senior trial attorney and senior policy adviser for the American Family Association Center for Law & Policy, who advised Chen following his ordeal. "If they did it again, it would transgress, in our estimation, constitutional grounds bec-ause then we would see a pattern developing. A one-time abhorrent event may escape the clutches of a federal court lawsuit, but if you do it again after being notified, then you've established a custom and practice." Though given the opportunity, the school offered no comment on the incident.
The fact that Emmaus's Science Department got so hot under the collar over an after-school speaker who advocated intelligent design makes you wonder what exactly they're so defensive about. Could it be, as Bruce Thornton, professor of Classics at Cal State Fresno, observed, "Scientists should behave as scientists and be willing to question their own assumptions and meet criticism with reasoned debate rather than with insult, caricature, and appeals to authority. Skepticism is science's most valuable tool; its absence among too many advocates of Darwinian evolution suggests that something other than science is driving their beliefs."6
As Thornton goes on to explain, those beliefs, oddly enough, are religious. "For many defenders of evolution, Darwinism indeed is part of a religious system whose tenets are as much a consequence of faith as of reason. This religion is atheism, a belief that arises not from evidence but from faith, as any sophomore philosophy major can tell you. The first principle of atheism is materialism: the belief, equally unproven by science, that all reality is material and so everything must be explained by material causes and forces blindly following the laws of physics."7
Samuel Chen says his experience with Darwin's dictatorship hasn't deterred him. "I think that evolution is totalitarianism, it's dictatorship, it's tyranny. And I feel there are no First Amendment rights for students anymore in schools. I don't want to see any other student go through what I had to go through. I really want this wall to fall."