Dini is Served

Chris Mooney

These days there are news stories, and then there are blogger news stories: events that dramatize some core moral or philosophical debate, and therefore get discussed heatedly on a wide range of prominent Weblogs. Last week, a classic blogger story emerged with the case of Texas Tech biology professor Michael Dini, who refuses to write letters of recommendation for students unless they first affirm a “scientific answer” to the following question: “How do you think the human species originated?” After a Creationist student and medical school aspirant named Micah Spradling complained about Dini’s policy, the professor was targeted by the conservative Liberty Legal Institute, which cried discrimination and filed a complaint with John Ashcroft’s Justice Department. The department has now opened an investigation of Texas Tech.

The online furor began with a post by the UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, who confessed that he wasn’t sure what he thought of Dini’s recommendations policy. The outpouring continued with posts from bloggers CalPundit (pro-Dini), Clayton Cramer (anti-Dini), and Mark Kleiman (anti-Dini), among others, not to mention a slew of reader comments on the website of Patrick Nielsen Hayden. The Dini case, it seems, has rekindled the simmering evolution debate by focusing on a new wrinkle: Whether or not one needs to understand Darwin’s theory in order to be a good medical doctor.

Yet some bloggers have missed what’s actually at stake in the Texas Tech dispute. There seem to be three core issues:

  1. The right of college educators to provoke and challenge the core beliefs of their students, rather than lamely skirting controversy;
  2. The viability of a new anti-evolution strategy that focuses on painting Darwinists as dogmatic and those willing to consider critiques of evolution as open-minded; and
  3. The validity of a Consilience-style approach to the application of scientific knowledge (after E.O. Wilson’s book of the same title), according to which Darwinism’s scope is hardly limited to biology but encompasses a range of other related disciplines, including medicine.

Because I think higher education should challenge deeply held beliefs, have myself grappled with anti-evolutionists’ appeal to open-mindedness and found it wanting, and believe that the ramifications of evolutionary biology do stretch into the field of medicine, I come down on Dini’s side. Granted, I’m no legal expert and don’t know how vulnerable he and Texas Tech may be in court. But let me explain my thinking on the three points above.

Although the Dini bloggers have honed in on the professor’s letters of recommendation’s policy (which, it should be noted, does not focus solely evolution), they have not highlighted his philosophy of education, also outlined on his web page. When it comes to attending college classes, Dini writes,

Nor is one guaranteed that his/her most cherished beliefs will go unchallenged. Indeed, many students find it difficult to communicate with friends and family after completing a college education because they no longer share the same beliefs and values. College has introduced them to new knowledge and new ways of thinking. For many, especially those raised by parents who were not college-educated, college is a time of “de-acculturation,” wherein one gives up the culture in which one was raised, and subsequent “re-acculturation” wherein one takes on a new culture. My hope for all of my students is that they will become acculturated in “the life of the mind.” This means that they will take responsibility for the quality of their education and for the quality of their thinking. They will base their actions on what they know to be true, rather than on what they wish to be true.

From a certain perspective, the real victim in the Dini case may not be Micah Spradling, but rather this provocative educational approach. After all, there’s nothing like legal challenges to destroy good teachers (for a classic example see this heartbreaking essay by my college classmate Joshua Kaplowitz, entitled “How I Joined Teach for America—and Got Sued for $20 Million"). As Dini’s teaching philosophy makes clear, he wants his courses to challenge students’ basic views. What Dini is basically saying is, “A Creationist student can take my class, memorize a bunch of facts but ignore their significance, and maybe even get an A. But there’s no way I’m going to write him a letter of recommendation for doing so.” You would think that such a policy would fall well within the range of behaviors protected in order to preserve academic freedom, especially since writing letters of recommendation is a voluntary activity.

Certainly it’s nonsense to assert that Dini is discriminating on the basis of religion. According to former Texas Tech president David Schmidly, Dini is himself a devout Christian and has written recommendation letters for religious students who grasped evolution. What’s really at issue is Dini’s right to operate as a provocative teacher at the college level—not the high school level, remember—through his recommendations policy. And that’s precisely what’s being challenged by the campaign against him, which began with a highly slanted news story last October in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, was quickly followed by an anti-Dini editorial in the same paper, and culminated in action by the Liberty Legal Institute, a group of “religious freedom” lawyers who have also been involved in defending prayer at public high school football games.

The editorial in the Avalanche-Journal, entitled “Forced Thinking,” takes us deep into the heart of Texas anti-evolutionism, and epitomizes the clever but ultimately unconvincing “teach the controversy” approach to Darwin’s theory. As the paper puts it, “Both creationists and evolutionists feel strongly about their beliefs, but the truth is that neither can absolutely prove how life on Earth came to be.” In other words, because the divide over evolution is essentially a scientific battle of the bands, it’s unjust for Dini to enshrine evolutionary theory in his recommendations policy. To do so would be dogmatic, coercive, and would effectively discourage students from looking at the full range of evidence for and against evolution. (For more on how Intelligent Design theorists, now evolution’s most effective battlers, cast Darwinists as dogmatic and themselves as open-minded, see here.)

The problem is that this crudely relativistic position would basically erode all the achievements of modern biological science. Evolution and its rivals aren’t on the same intellectual footing; as the American Association for the Advancement of Science has made clear, Intelligent Design theory is not science at all, however much its proponents may claim otherwise (and claim persecution from the scientific establishment). Creationism is, if anything, less credible than Intelligent Design. Furthermore, if we allow some to demand that evolution be presented from “both sides,” the door is open for similar campaigns against teaching standards in other politically charged areas, such as environmental science.

And not only do the complaints against Dini fail to hold water. The professor actually makes a powerful case that grasping evolution in its fullness is central to being a good medical doctor — which gives him every justification to deny recommendations to the likes of Spradling. On his website, Dini provides a long series of citations to back up his claim that “physicians who ignore or neglect the Darwinian aspects of medicine or the evolutionary origins of humans can make bad clinical decisions.” The citations aren’t hyperlinked, so bloggers generally didn’t grapple with them, but they’re quite impressive. For example, one 1997 paper published in BioScience, entitled “Evolutionary biology in the medical curriculum—what every physician should know,” notes that

Physicians who understand the evolutionary origins of the human vulnerabilities would be more respectful of our evolved defenses, more attuned to novel environmental factors that cause disease, more respectful of the power of pathogens to evolve to evade or to disable defenses, more thoughtful about what it does and does not mean when genetic variation is found to influence disease vulnerability, and more understanding of senescence.

For another example, on Eugene Volokh’s blog, reader Paul Orwin has pointed out the centrality of evolutionary theory to understanding the epidemology of HIV/AIDS.

The paper in BioScience also notes that current medical school curricula fail to instruct students adequately in evolutionary biology, a deficiency Dini probably aims to help remedy. After all, the notion that medicine, with its firm groundings in human biology, could be fully understood without attention to how humans evolved is absurd. Dini’s case thus demonstrates the need to think about the interconnectedness of disciplines such as evolutionary biology and biology-based professions like medicine in a more sophisticated way. Granted, not every doctor has to think in a fully Darwinian vein at all times. You don’t need to know much about evolution to set a cast or diagnose food poisoning. But medical education as a whole could use more emphasis on evolution.

So could other areas of human endeavor, as is only fitting since we humans are the product of evolution. This, of course, is a central upshot of E.O. Wilson’s Consilience. Similarly, Richard Dawkins has written that the Darwinian revolution still remains essentially half-baked. What’s disappointing is that a professor like Dini now finds himself in legal trouble for trying to echo Wilson and Dawkins through something as modest as his letter of recommendations policy. Finally, the Dini controversy suggests just how far we remain in this country from accepting the full ramifications of evolutionary biology, not just for science education but for the practice of modern medicine.

Chris Mooney

Chris Mooney is a science and political journalist, blogger, podcaster, and experienced trainer of scientists in the art of communication. He is the author of four books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science and The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality. He blogs for Science Progress, a website of the Center for American Progress and Center for American Progress Action Fund.