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The Life Science Prize
In February 1870, Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-founder with Charles Darwin of the concept of natural selection, responded to an advertisement in a journal entitled Scientific Opinion placed by members of the Flat Earth Society. The event, most recently told by Ross Slotten in his biography of Wallace (The Heretic in Darwin’s Court: The Life of Alfred Russel Wallace, New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), was described by Wallace as “the most regrettable” incident in his life. The ad enticed Wallace because, short on funds, he saw an easy way to make some money. The Flat Earthers “offered a prize of £500 to anyone who could prove that the earth was a sphere.” The society said it was ready to put up £500 if the contestant would match. An impartial judge would review the evidence and award the money to the winner. As Slotten says, “The offer was perhaps too good to be true, but because of his knowledge of the techniques of land surveying Wallace knew that he could easily win the bet.” Indeed, he did — but the Flat Earthers began years of lawsuits and harassment of Wallace.
On February 14, 2004, a slow Saturday, I received an e-mail from a Teno Groppi inviting me to contend for the “Life Science Prize”. Like the Flat Earthers over a century earlier, Groppi and his friends outlined a contest in which both parties would put money in escrow and a “judge” would decide on the winner. Groppi said the “Life Science Prize” required a $10 000 deposit from me and from my presumptive opponent, one Joseph Mastropaolo. Groppi went on to add, “If the evolutionist proves evolution is science and creation is religion, he wins the $20 000. If the creation scientist proves that creation is science and evolution is religion, then the creationist collects the $20 000. The standards of evidence will be those of science: objectivity, validity, reliability and calibration. The preponderance of the evidence prevails.” Groppi concluded his note with the following challenge: “If the task is too threatening for individual evolutionists, Dr Mastropaolo will entertain suggestions for terms that will bolster the courage of Darwinian dogmatists.”
Coming to TermsHaving decided years before that it is futile to debate creationists, and knowing full well that the “Life Science Prize” was a scam designed to lure the unsuspecting into just such a debate, I decided to have some fun. I immediately wrote back saying how pleased and proud I was to be invited to contend for the prize. I also outlined my terms: “We would agree, at the outset, on our definitions. ... For a definition of evolution, we would use that which is in virtually every biology textbook for the past half century: Evolution is a change in allele frequencies in a population over time. For creation we would use that promoted by the Creation Research Society.
“Members of the society,” I continued, “had to sign the following oath attesting to the fact that they believe in the following:
1) The Bible is the written Word of God, and because we believe it to be inspired thruout [sic], all of its assertions are historically and scientifically true in all of the original autographs. To the student of nature, this means that the account of origins in Genesis is a factual presentation of simple historical truths.
Alternatively, if you prefer a simpler definition of creation, I would be happy to go with that offered by the now defunct Bible-Science Association. Their statement of faith reads: ‘Belief in Special Creation; Literal Bible Interpretation; Divine Design and purpose in Nature; a Young Earth; a Universal Noachian Flood; Christ as God and Man—Our Savior; Christ-Centered Scientific Research.’”
I went on to address two additional points. “You talk about some debate. That confuses me. I’m not sure what the contest you propose has to do with a debate. Certainly you are not implying that a collection of individuals who are not necessarily educated in science, religion, or philosophy somehow serve as the judge for this contest.
“You also talk about handing the money to ‘the judge,’ which leads me to believe that you do not really mean that there will be a debate of the sort alluded to above, but you fail to mention who the judge might be. I propose that we select an individual with impeccable credentials in both science and religion. Perhaps someone like Dr Francisco Ayala. He is a past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a member of the National Academy of Science, as well as an ordained [priest]. Of course I would be open to someone else, as long as his or her credentials were appropriate. At a bare minimum, I would require that the judge be a member of the National Academy of Science. I would then propose that both Dr Mastropaolo and I submit a text of, say, no more than 2000 words to the judge outlining our case. The judge will then determine the winner.”
“Negotiations”Groppi wrote back telling me that “change in allele frequency is about as meaningless a definition of evolution as can be offered.” And then the fun really began. I had been copying Mastropaolo on my e-mails, and he too railed against my proffered definition of evolution and provided his own “rules” for the debate, including his own definitions. He asserted, for example, that “evolution is the development of an organism from its chemicals to its primitive state to its present state.” And he said that the “judge” would be “a superior court judge” since, after all, “there is no science outside the intellectual jurisdiction of the superior court judge.” He also began a series of ad hominem remarks by stating that I “may not be competent to contend for the Life Science Prize.”
I responded by indicating that I might be able to make arrangements for a federal district judge from the 9th circuit in California (assumed to be the most liberal circuit in the country) to serve. Alternatively, I said that I could get a local judge in Wisconsin to participate if he preferred. I also said that, through my connections as a consultant a number of years back to NBC, I might be able to attract the interest of either Dateline or Jay Leno. And, I added, that because of my past work as a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist, I should be able to generate some fairly hefty media attention — but he would have to firm up the rules and the definitions, as well as set a firm date for our contest. Mastropaolo repeatedly told me that I had the rules and continued with various ad hominem attacks. He wrote, for example, “Evolutionist hallucinators so out of touch with reality are psychotic by medical dictionary definition, and therefore not mentally competent to contend for the Life Science Prize.”
When I repeatedly said that the “rules” I had been given made no sense, Mastropaolo composed an e-mail to me in the name of Teno Groppi. He chastised me for not “paying attention,” and then, under Groppi’s e-mail header pasted in rules from his own web page saying that I had been given those rules days before.
Knowing the oppositionAfter completing a web search to try to figure out who Mastropaolo was, I sent messages to some of the organizations with which he claimed to be affiliated. I wrote, for example, to the Institute for Creation Research where Mastropaolo claimed to hold adjunct faculty status. The response I got back was fascinating: “Dr Mastropaolo is not on ICR’s staff.” When I wrote back numerous times pointing out that Mastropaolo regularly claimed affiliation with ICR, I was told that while, in fact, he did hold adjunct status, it did not mean anything and that they did not want to correspond with me any longer!
Mastropaolo was also listed on the advisory council of the Kolbe Center for the Study of Creation so I wrote to the director, Hugh Owen, explaining about the e-mail fabrication undertaken by Mastropaolo. We engaged in quite an extended exchange while Owen claimed to be “investigating” the matter. Somewhat surprisingly, he asserted what I can only call a belief in situational ethics when he claimed that “in our Catholic Christian tradition, the morality of an action depends on the object chosen, the circumstances of the action, and the end in view,” and asserted that Mastropaolo did not really do anything wrong because my motives were not pure enough! He then demanded that I apologize to Mastropaolo for my attempts to destroy his reputation or he would contact my “superior”.
After I told Owen how to file a formal grievance against me at the University, he wrote a letter to my Vice Chancellor demanding that he do something about my unfair attacks on Mastropaolo. Needless to say, nothing came of his letter. (Indeed over the past two decades, at two different institutions, my supervisors have received many such letters complaining about me because of the very public stances I’ve taken in support of evolution and sound environmental practices.) Owen also said that he would no longer correspond with me, adding, “I will continue to hope and pray that we will meet in Heaven one day.”
Are they really serious?My experience with the Life Science Prize extended over two months, involved detailed correspondence with numerous people, all of whom made it clear that they would refuse to discuss the matter any further, and each resulted in a letter of complaint to my supervisor. Since the level of frustration evidenced by my correspondents continued to rise with every e-mail, and since the ad hominem attacks on me increased over time, I consider the experience to have been a great success. And none of this even considers the fun I was having responding to each e-mail pointing out the lack of substance in the responses I was receiving while begging for an opportunity to work out an agreeable arrangement to permit me to contend for the Life Science Prize. Because all of this was done in a semi-private setting, with copies of the e-mail exchanges being distributed to a select group of people, the circus-like atmosphere usually associated with “debates” never took place.
One last point! Although the rules associated with the Life Science Prize were similar to the challenge to which Alfred Russel Wallace responded, apparently anti-evolutionary forces took their challenges more seriously a century ago; the “winner” of the Life Science Prize would walk away with $20 000 while the “winner” of the flat earth challenge would have earned approximately $91 980 in today’s dollars.