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Evolution-denying Commencement speaker stirs controversy at Emory University

I am a PhD candidate in neuroscience at Emory University. Here at Emory we have been dealing with a wave of controversy regarding the university's selection for commencement speaker.

Emory has invited Dr. Ben Carson to speak at the commencement ceremony on Monday May 14th, 2012. He's an accomplished neurosurgeon and humanitarian, but he is also a creationist and evolution-denier who has made some pretty ignorant statements about those of us that understand that evolution is true and/or that do not believe in God.

He's said "Ultimately, if you accept the evolutionary theory, you dismiss ethics, you don't have to abide by a set of moral codes." Adding that if you accept evolutionary theory, "you have no reason for things such as selfless love". Source

Naturally, this didn't sit right with a lot of us here in the Emory Department of Biology... A group of faculty penned a letter to the editor of the campus newspaper, the Emory Wheel, and the letter was signed by ~500 students, faculty members, and alumni over the course of only a couple days. The letter and its subsequent comments can be found here with the full text of the letter copied below.

Letter to the Editor: Ben Carson’s Outright Rejection of Evolution Is Against Emory’s Ideals

To the Editor:

We are writing to call the attention of the Emory Community to this year's commencement speaker's denial of evolution. Dr. Ben Carson is a world-renowned neurosurgeon, who has advanced medicine and who has supported the education of countless children through his philanthropic organization. These accomplishments can provide a great inspiration to graduating Emory students. But, as those students, their families, and the Emory Community listen to his speech, we ask you to also consider the enormous positive impact of science on our lives and how that science rests squarely on the shoulders of evolution.

What is most deeply concerning about Dr. Carson's dismissal of evolution is that he equates the acceptance of evolution with a lack of ethics and morality. In an interview published on the Adventist Review website he states, "Ultimately, if you accept the evolutionary theory, you dismiss ethics, you don't have to abide by a set of moral codes, you determine your own conscience based on your own desires."

Dr. Carson insists on not seeing a difference between science, which is predictive and falsifiable, and religious belief systems, which by their very nature cannot be falsified. This is especially troubling since his great achievements in medicine allow him to be viewed as someone who "understands science."

Accepting evolution, and the scientific method in general, are not at odds with being moral or religious, as is well demonstrated by strongly religious scientists, and political and academic leaders, including Francis Collins (director of the National Institutes of Health), President Jimmy Carter, and many of the faculty and students who will be attending commencement on May 14th.

Dr. Carson argues that there is no evidence for evolution, that there are no transitional fossils that provide evidence for the evolution of humans from a common ancestor with others apes, that evolution is a wholly random process, and that life is too complex to have originated by the natural process of evolution. All of these claims are incorrect. The evidence for evolution is overwhelming: ape-human transitional fossils are discovered at an ever increasing rate, and the processes by which organisms evolve new and more complex body plans are now known to be caused by relatively simple alterations of the expression of small numbers of developmental genes. Our understanding of the evolutionary process has advanced our ability to develop animal models for disease, our ability to combat the spread of infectious disease and, in point of fact, the work of Dr. Carson himself is based on scientific advances fostered by an understanding of evolution. Finally, much of the research at this University is based on advances fostered by an understanding of evolution.

The theory of evolution is as strongly supported as the theory of gravity and the theory that infectious diseases are caused by micro-organisms. Dismissing evolution disregards the importance of science and critical thinking to society. Stating that those who accept the underlying principle of biology and medicine are unethical not only encourages the insertion of unnecessary and destructive wedges between Americans but stands against many of the ideals of this University.

Written by: J. de Roode (Department of Biology) A. Eisen (Department of Biology) N. Gerardo (Department of Biology) I. Nemenman (Departments of Biology and Physics)

A full list of signatories can be found online.


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