By Scott, Eugenie C.
Insight on the News , Vol. 10, No. 8
Who is Dean Kenyon and why are we mindful of him? Txventy-five years ago he cowrote a pretty good book on the biochemistry of the origin of life, but hasn't published much in mainline science journals since. He teaches at a good state university with a graduate program, but has no graduate students of his own and hasn't had a research grant since the mid-1970s. He recently cowrote supplemental text for high school biology, Of Pandas and People, that was criticized by a number of scientists for inaccuracy and by teachers for bad pedagogy.
Such is the resume of the man whom Stephen Meyer, coauthor of a section of that text, calls a world-class scientist. More accurately, Ke scientist of modest accomplishments who apparently has let his religious views cloud his scientific judgment.
Kenyon is embroiled in a debate at San Francisco State University, which, depending on your view, centers on the right to advocate scientifically defendable if unorthodox views, or the right of a department to protect less-knowledgeable students from faulty scholarship. Kenyon was not fired, was not given a pay cut and was not forbidden from teaching his ideas to advanced students. He was removed from teaching ideas outside of science in an introductory biology class.
Can a college professor teach anything he wants? Obviously, if I offer a class in physics, I should not teach students French literature; no one argues whether class content should match the course description. Now, suppose the physics course description directs me to teach mechanics. I might want, for historical purposes, to discuss both Aristotelian and Newtonian mechanics and that would be appropriate. But what if I taught that the two views are equally viable explanations? Do I have the academic freedom to teach students erroneous science? Maybe, but my colleagues would certainly not want me indoctrinating freshman non-majors in such irregular physics.
This directly parallels Kenyon's situation. Kenyon is teaching inexperienced students that evolution did not occur. (He describes his position thus: "Microevolution is well-documented, but macroevolution is far less documented and may not have occurred.") While the general public understands that advocating Aristotelian mechanics is "wrong" physics, it does not realize that teaching that evolution did not occur is equally "wrong" biology. Kenyon is teaching that the organizing principle of biology - evolution - just did not occur. This is like a chemist contending that he has academic freedom to teach students that the periodic table of elements is irrelevant to chemistry.
Let's define some terms. The creation/evolution conflict reflects two views of the history of the universe. Creationists argue that the galaxies, the solar system, the planet Earth and the plants and animals on it were produced all at once, in their present form. Evolutionists say that the universe did not appear all at one time but gradually over billions of years. Elements were formed in stars, space dust coalesced into planets and the Earth gradually took form. Simple life appeared and later gave rise to a great of living things. Rather than being created separately as kinds"' living forms are descended, with modification, from common ancestors.
"Simple life appeared" is a major issue for creationists. Was it through natural or supernatural causation?
The study of how life originated is an active area in science today. The primordial soup theory, the formation of replicating molecules on crystalline clay substrates, the seeding of amino acids and other components of life from comets and meteors (in which these molecules form spontaneously in space) and other ideas are all under consideration.
Meyer's contention that life is too complex to form naturally ignores research exploring the possibility that life is actually self-organizing. Combining the tools of mathematics, physical properties of matter and information theory, this field has its roots in the work of chemistry Nobel Laureate Manfred Eigen and has been expanded by Peter Schuster and Bernd-Olaf Kuppers. …