The gold-star creationist?

The Life Sciences building at the University of Idaho. Photo by jby.

Academic freedom is a bedrock principle of higher education—part of the point of having classes taught by working scholars is that, at the university level, students should be exposed to the interplay of ideas at the cutting edge of each field of study, and so professors should have latitude to explore controversial topics and defend their own perspectives. 

But there are limits to that principle. Common sense, and the need to organize prerequisites across a multi-year curriculum, dictates that even a tenured professor would get into trouble if she devoted her entire introductory chemistry course to a critical reading of The Lord of the Rings. In a (maybe) less extreme example, a professor who spent an astronomy class arguing that there is a scientific basis to the Zodiac would, at the very least, get a talking-to from his department chair. In order to meaningfully teach a given class, there are topics that need to be covered—and there is material that has no legitimate place in the syllabus.

This is why I was so surprised to learn, a few weeks ago, that the University of Idaho—the institution where I earned my Ph.D., where Noah earned his Master’s degree and Sarah earned both her B.S. and Master’s—has hired someone who believes that the Earth was created over the course of six days about six thousand years ago, to teach an introductory microbiology course.

The course in question is MMBB 154, “Introductory Microbiology,” and the young-Earth creationist in question is Gordon Wilson. Wilson is notorious, among biologists at the U of I, as the “senior fellow of natural history” at New Saint Andrews College, a small, extremely conservative Christian institution located in downtown Moscow, Idaho, just a few blocks from the University campus. 

Wilson is very much on the record in believing that life on Earth was created by direct divine intervention, according to a take-the-text-at-face-value reading of English translations of the first chapter of Genesis. For a sample of the mental gymnastics involved in creationist “science,” look no further than Wilson’s contribution [PDF] to a 2004 conference, in which he posits that God created every living thing with extra “gene sets” for carnivory, venom, pathogenicity, and other “natural evils,” which were, metaphorically, stored under glass to be activated by the Deity in the event of human malfeasance. Maybe more worryingly, Wilson has described [PDF] the conflict between his theology and empirical fact in terms of religious persecution:

God-fearing or Darwin-questioning scientists employed by the state are now in danger of persecution if they allow their religious views or doubts about Darwin to affect their scientific research and/or classroom discussion.

Can someone with those views teach a basic biology course at a public university? 

The National Academy of Sciences describes evolution as the “central unifying theme of biology,” and the American Society of Microbiologists has formally stated that “It is important that society and future generations recognize the legitimacy of testable, verified, fact-based learning about the origins and diversity of life.” You simply can’t have a comprehensive introductory biology (or microbiology) course without covering evolution, and describing it as the extensively verified empirical fact that it is.

Then, of course, there’s the fact that young-Earth creationism is an unambiguously religious position, a doctrine held by a particular subset of Christians—Wilson himself criticizes the “Intelligent Design” movement for “Avoiding the word ‘God’ in their rhetoric.” And advocating for the views of particular religious sect in the capacity of an employee at a public university is a clear-cut violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

All together, that sounds like a pretty straightforward “no.”

But this isn’t the first time the U of I took a chance on Gordon Wilson. The colleague at Idaho who alerted me to Wilson’s new teaching job (whose identity I’ll choose not to disclose) noted that Wilson was hired once before, years ago, on a one-semester gig to teach the same course. I haven’t been able to confirm any description of how he taught the first time around. Then, as now, the task of finding a lecturer to cover the course was probably hampered by the fact that there aren’t a lot of microbiologists willing to move to a small town in northern Idaho for a one-semester “Temporary Lecturer” position—so that, even though the job description [Edit, 18 March 2014: Looks like this page is no longer up even as a Google cache. Fortunately I saved a copy.] calls for a graduate degree in microbiology that Gordon Wilson doesn’t have, the hiring committee may not have had any alternative candidates.

Can a creationist teaching biology at a public university keep his beliefs out of the classroom?

But so maybe Wilson did an acceptable job, that last time around. The ASM statement on the importance of evolution also says, “A fundamental aspect of the practice of science is to separate one’s personal beliefs from the pursuit of understanding of the natural world.” I can, at least in principle, imagine a creationist professor who taught the contents of a microbiology curriculum, complete with the common descent of life on Earth, and never breathed a word of his personal beliefs in the classroom. Could Gordon Wilson—of all people—be that “gold-star” creationist?

I decided the only way to answer that question was to ask Gordon Wilson.

I e-mailed Wilson last week, at his University of Idaho address. I gave him a sketch of my thinking for this article, and asked what he planned to teach about the origins and relationships among the diversity of life on Earth, and about his previous experience teaching Introductory Microbiology at U of I. Wilson wrote back promptly to say that he’d need a few days to respond to my questions in full (he is, after all, midway through teaching a big introductory biology course!) but he noted right away:

I made it clear 9 years ago and this semester that I wasn’t going to promote my views or disparage evolutionary views in class. That said, I have stated that I do not share the views of common descent held by the main stream scientific community. Which is well with in my rights to do. The only thing that I have presented (briefly) is a distinction between historical science and empirical science, and that conclusions drawn from the former don’t have the high level of certainty as conclusions drawn from the latter. This distinction is not a creationist invention. Ernst Mayr holds to this as well. The conclusions drawn from historical science are as good as the presuppositions on which they are based. This was simply a moment to encourage students to exercise some critical thinking skills in assessing truth claims of the scientific community.

In spite of Wilson’s assurance that he wouldn’t “disparage evolutionary views,” that’s not exactly an encouraging answer. The separation between “historical” science and “empirical” science he mentions here is a classic Creationist tactic—boiling down to “we weren’t there, so how can we know except via ancient texts?”—which doesn’t begin to accurately reflect how the overwhelming majority of scientists weigh different forms of evidence. (Readers may recall that this came up in Bill Nye’s recent debate with Ken Ham.)

I wrote back,

Thanks, Gordon. I do appreciate the time pressures of teaching a big mid-semester class, and I’m glad you’re willing to provide some answers. With regard to your response … that gets, I think, at exactly the tension I’m hoping to explore in the article. I certainly do think that you, personally, have the right to come to whatever conclusion you care to about the common descent of life on Earth—but it is one thing to hold a personal belief, and quite another to teach it with the authority of a university lecturer.

To which Wilson replied,

You’re very welcome, Jeremy. 

By the way, I’m not teaching my personal beliefs; I am simply going on record as not holding to the consensus viewpoint. I don’t teach why I don’t hold to the consensus view. Why is that not OK? Is it because the scientific academy doesn’t want undergraduates to know that there are scientists that have non-religious reasons for dissenting from Darwinism?

Taking a word of advice from a recent NiB contribution, I elected not to respond to this; several days later, on the date I’d set as a deadline for his answers, Wilson e-mailed to say that he simply didn’t have time to provide any further response.

The evidence I have, short of attending every “Introduction to Microbiology” lecture, is incomplete. But what I do know is not at all encouraging. Wilson’s public record pretty clearly shows that he considers it his sacred duty to oppose sound scientific reasoning in any venue possible. And in his brief correspondence with me, he admits to using a creationist rhetorical trick in class—and indicates that he can’t (or won’t) “separate [his] personal beliefs from the pursuit of understanding of the natural world.” 

No gold star for Gordon Wilson, then—and here’s hoping this semester will be the last one he spends teaching anybiology course at my alma mater.

Considering the subject matter of this post, we’re going to keep a particularly tight rein on the comments. Keep it polite, and on-topic, if you please.