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A Nobelist Misrepresented in Texas

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
A Nobelist Misrepresented in Texas
Author(s): 
Joshua Rosenau
Volume: 
29
Issue: 
5
Year: 
2009
Date: 
September–October
Page(s): 
4–6
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

Creationists on the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) went to great lengths to defend outdated and inaccurate requirements that students learn the "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories. In 2003, that language was central to an attempt to force creationism into textbooks. In the course of defending that language in 2008 (see RNCSE 2009 May/Jun; 29 [3]: 4–6), opponents of evolution simultaneously flaunted their ties to young-earth creationism and misrepresented the views of many scientists, including Werner Arber, who won the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on restriction enzymes.

The board held the first of three public hearings about new science standards in November 2008. Testimony lasted over six hours, ending near 11:00 pm, and almost all of it focused on "strengths and weaknesses", with many people supporting a replacement drafted by scientists and teachers appointed by the board to revise the standards. Tempers in Austin were flaring as dinner time came and went.

Witnesses opposed to the "strengths and weaknesses" language constantly asked what the supposed "weaknesses" were, but got no satisfaction. Finally, conservative board member Cynthia Dunbar gave her explanation. Replying to teacher Anita Gordon's observation that the community of scientists regards evolution as fundamentally strong, Dunbar replied, "science is not something that's determined by majority vote, there is a scientific method. I would like to have someone of the magnitude of Dr Werner Abner [sic] here. I don't know if you know who he is. Are you familiar with him?"

Gordon was not, so Dunbar continued:

He is a Nobel laureate. He spent his life doing studies in evolution and genetics. I don't think we could get him here, I think he's in Switzerland. But his, his years and years and years and years of research in genetics and evolution are very, very credible, and his end result recently, I think it was in September, was that the genetic code, and genetic mutations are actually built in to a limitation that they can only go so far, which is contrary to the ultimate result of natural selection and all of that. But that would not be someone outside of the scientific community.

Dunbar again referred to Arber when college student Garrett Mize challenged her on the issue of "weaknesses" of evolution. "Where's the data for that?" he asked. "It's my understanding that the entire scientific community doesn't believe that they exist."

Dunbar's reply followed a familiar course: "First of all," she repeated, "science is not based on majority rule, and there's lots of data. Do you know who Werner Arber is? He's a PhD and a Nobel laureate." The student was not familiar with Arber, and Dunbar urged:

Go Google him. Because he spent his life on evolution and genetics. So there is data out there [on the weaknesses of evolution], we don't want that squelched. We want to be able to discuss it. ... His documentation, if you go read it, I mean it's very clear as to the geneticists and the documentation of the mutations and all that. I mean it's not anything that fails, it's testable, it's observable, it's right there. But those are the types of the things that we want the students to be able to discuss.

Working in the quote mine

I took to heart Dunbar's wish to hear Arber's views. Taking her advice, I searched the internet for his writings. Looking for the paper in which he supposedly published "his end result recently, I think it was in September," I came up short. He did not publish anything in September 2008, but that same month, an article by Jerry Bergman — "Werner Arber: Nobel laureate, Darwin skeptic" (Acts & Facts 2008 Sep; 37 [9]: 10) — was published about him in that month's newsletter from the young-earth creationist Institute for Creation Research.

I was disturbed, but not shocked, to see Dunbar citing a young-earth creationist newsletter as scientific evidence in support of her preferred public policy. Dunbar made headlines before the November election when she declared that a terrorist attack in the first months of an Obama administration "will be a planned effort by those with whom Obama truly sympathizes to take down ... America." In her book One Nation under God (Oviedo [FL]: HigherLife Development Services, 2008), Dunbar called public education "tyrannical".

Nor was she alone in drawing on creationist sources. In January 2009, chair Don McLeroy, a dentist himself, stated that "the latest article" on the evolution of teeth was titled "Tooth evolution theory lacks bite". A quick web search traced that article to a young-earth creationist website (http://www.creationsafaris.com).

Jerry Bergman's claim that Arber was skeptical of evolution and supported "intelligent design" creationism was based largely on an interview from the early 1990s, published in a collection Cosmos, Bios, Theos, edited by Henry Morgenthau and Roy Abraham Varghese (Peru [IL]: Open Court, 1992). Varghese was recently in the news over charges that, as co-author of philosopher Antony Flew's apologia for switching from atheism to deism (There is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind [New York: Harper One, 2007]), he overstated Flew's opinion of Christianity (see, for example, Mark Oppenheimer's "The turning of an atheist," The New York Times Magazine 2007 Nov 4).

Arber's interview with Varghese does not support the claim that he favors "intelligent design" creationism. Arber responds to a question about human evolution by stating: "I do not have problems understanding the origin of Homo sapiens. Biologically, man is just a living organism as any other. ... [T]here is no good scientific evidence to assume that H sapiens is an independent creation" (p 142). Asked about the origin of life, Arber confesses it is "a mystery to me," and finds "[t]he possibility of the existence of a Creator, of God ... a satisfactory solution to this problem" (p 142). Nothing distinguishes this from a view like theistic evolution, which contrasts strongly with "intelligent design" creationism's rejection of natural explanations for the origin of life.

While Arber did not publish in September 2008, he had been busy. Shortly before the Texas state board of education hearings in November 2008, Arber had been the co-organizer of a conference on evolution for the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (see box, p 6). In his paper, "From microbial genetics to molecular Darwinism and beyond," he firmly stated his support for evolution as science and discussed "consistencies between the acquired scientific knowledge and traditional wisdom such as that reflected in the Old Testament." In this regard, his views align with Pope John Paul II's and with NCSE Supporter Ken Miller's take in Finding Darwin's God (San Francisco: Cliff Street Books, 1999).

Nor does his research show signs of doubts about evolution. He has published with such luminaries of evolutionary biology as Richard Lenski and Peter Raven, and his Nobel-prize-winning work on restriction enzymes has been powerfully useful to evolutionary biology.

In his own words

Certain that ICR had misrepresented Arber, and happy to fulfill Dunbar's desire to hear Arber's own views, I got in touch with some of his professional colleagues for help alerting him to ICR's erroneous article and Dunbar's mangled repetition of it. One colleague replied, "That certainly seems to me to be a misrepresentation of Professor Arber's views on the matter, and quite amazing."

I also wrote to Arber himself. He wrote back, with thanks for alerting him to the problem. He included a statement he had sent to ICR refuting the article and Dunbar's interpretation of it, adding that I was "welcome to make use of this statement in relevant situations." He also pointed out a common problem in dealing with creationists: "I slowly learn to write my papers by taking care to reduce the chance of misinterpretation, but this is not easy." Given creationists' propensity for quoting inaccurately or without adequate context, it is indeed difficult to prevent such misinterpretation.

Arber's response to the ICR is unequivocal. Had he been at the hearings, as Dunbar wished, he would surely have denied that evolution is riddled with weaknesses. Indeed, in his statement he affirms, "I am neither a 'Darwin skeptic' nor an 'intelligent design supporter' as it is claimed in Bergman's article. I stand fully behind the neo-Darwinian theory of biological evolution and I contributed to confirm and expand this theory at the molecular level so that it can now be called molecular Darwinism."

NCSE executive director Eugenie C Scott presented Arber's letter to the board at its hearing in January 2009, noting "this is only one of many examples of false and misleading information that emanates from creationist sources." Taken aback, Dunbar seized on Arber's uncertainty about the origin of life. Scott replied, "That is irrelevant to the conversation today that we're having, because the conversation that we're having today is whether we should teach students, without qualification, the point of view of the scientific community, which is that living things have common ancestors. That's what evolution is." Scott concluded her comments by observing: "The high school classroom is no place to fight the culture wars, and this unfortunately is what is happening in Texas, and in Louisiana and in many other states, where this issue has disproportionately affected education." Arber was not mentioned again.

Dunbar relied on a single erroneous creationist source to contradict the testimony and guidance not only of her own committee of experts, but also of Texan Nobel Prize winners and of scores of scientific societies that urged the board to drop the language about "strengths and weaknesses" (see RNCSE 2009 May/Jun; 29 [3]: 13). This rejection of expertise was a theme throughout the hearings. As Jeremy Mohn showed in RNCSE (2009 May/Jun; 29 [3]: 7–9), McLeroy quote-mined many scientists to garner support for creationist amendments in January. In March 2009, McLeroy rejected outright any scientific testimony he disagreed with, declaring, "Someone's got to stand up to experts!" He later explained his support for an amendment questioning the existence of climate change, telling the Austin American-Statesman (2009 Mar 28), "Conservatives like me think the evidence (for human contributions to global warming) is a bunch of hooey."

Educational policy should never be based on any source that relies solely on political or religious ideology. This is doubly so for sources which make demonstrably false statements, as Acts & Facts did about Werner Arber. NCSE is working hard to prevent the erroneous standards passed in Texas from weakening textbooks used across the country. In the longer term, we must all work to ensure that public policy is built on solid foundations, not on creationist falsehoods.

About the Author(s): 

Joshua Rosenau
NCSE
PO Box 9477
Berkeley CA 94709-0477
rosenau@ncseweb.org

Joshua Rosenau is Public Information Project Director at NCSE.