An unusual controversy has erupted at Emory University over the choice of famed neurosurgeon Ben Carson to deliver this year’s commencement address because he does not believe in evolution.

Nearly 500 professors, student and alumni signed a letter (see full text below) expressing concern that Carson, as a 7th Day Adventist, believes in creationist theory that holds that all life on Earth was created by God about 6,000 years ago. It rejects Darwin’s theory of evolution, which is the central principle that animates modern biology, uniting all biological fields under one theoretical tent, and which virtually all modern scientists agree is true.

The letter’s authors are not seeking to have Carson disinvited. Instead, they say it was written to raise concerns about his anti-scientific views.

Carson has given dozens of commencement speeches and received some 50 honorary degreesm but this is apparently the first time that his views on evolution have become an issue at a graduation.

Carson is world renowned for his work with children, becoming in 1987 the first surgeon to successfully separate siamese twins conjoined at the back of the head. In 2000 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.

He is also known for his own life story — he was raised by a single mother in Detroit and struggled for a time in school but wound up at Yale University — and for his philanthropy: The Carson Scholars Fund recognizes exceptional young people.

Carson works at Johns Hopkins University, where he is director of the Division of Pediatric Neurosurgery, co-director of the Craniofacial Center and a professor of neurosurgery, oncology, plastic surgery and pediatrics.

Carson has spoken publicly about his views on evolution and creationism, once telling a convention of the National Science Teachers: “Evolution and creationism both require faith. It’s just a matter of where you choose to place that faith.”

The letter says that Carson has made comments that suggest people who believe in evolution do not have ethics. In an article in the Adventist Review, Carson was quoted as saying, “By believing we are the product of random acts, we eliminate morality and the basis of ethical behavior.”

“For if there is no such thing as moral authority, you can do anything you want,” Carson was quoted as saying in the Review. “You make everything relative, and there’s no reason for any of our higher values.”

But Carson told Inside Higher Ed that the Review article had not published his complete quote and that he does not think evolutionists are unethical. Here’s what he told Inside Higher Ed:

“It would have been extremely courteous if they had asked me whether it was true that I said people who are evolutionist are unethical, which I never did. Those of us who believe in God and derive our sense of right and wrong and ethics from God’s word really have no difficulty whatsoever defining where our ethics come from. People who believe in survival of the fittest might have more difficulty deriving where their ethics come from. A lot of evolutionists are very ethical people.”

Here’s the text of the letter, which was published in The Emory Wheel and signed by 494 signatories, including 90 faculty from the Emory College of Arts and Sciences and Oxford College, 72 faculty from the Emory Schools of Public Health, Medicine and Nursing, 55 staff and postdoctoral researchers from across the University, 154 graduate and medical school students, 121 undergraduate students, and two Emory alumni.

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 other 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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