It's biology, not bigotry

February 10, 2003|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - Michael Dini doesn't exactly fit the profile of an anti-religious bigot. For one thing, the Texas Tech biology professor spent 14 years in a Roman Catholic order of teaching brothers.

If he's bigoted against anything, it's probably against the current wave of grade inflation or perhaps "recommendation inflation." In any case, Mr. Dini's Web page lays out strict criteria for any student who wants his recommendation to graduate school in science.

First, he says, you have to earn an A in his class. Second, "I should know you fairly well." And third, you need to "truthfully and forthrightly affirm a scientific answer" to the question: "How do you think the human species originated?"

It was the need to affirm evolution that startled Micah Spradling out of his seat. The young student wasn't in Mr. Dini's class long enough to (1) get an A or (2) get to know the professor. But Mr. Spradling dropped out anyway. He did some time at Lubbock Christian University, got a medical school recommendation there and returned to Texas Tech with some lawyers added to his curriculum vitae.

With the aid, comfort, legal advice and bankroll of the Liberty Legal Institute of Texas, Mr. Spradling is accusing Mr. Dini of discriminating against him on the basis of religion. And John Ashcroft's Department of Justice has begun an investigation.

This is the sort of frivolous lawsuit you thought conservatives opposed, but never mind. It's turning the argument over creation and evolution upside-down and inside-out.

Remember when the fight against Darwin in the classroom reappeared in the 1980s? Creationists insisted they weren't trying to get their religion into the curriculum. Creationism wasn't faith, they said, it was fact. Now they're arguing that creationism is part of Mr. Spradling's religion. I guess even creationists can evolve.

As for lawyers, watching the Liberty Legal Institute ostensibly fight prejudice is enough to make anyone dizzy. This is the group that, among many other things, fought to uphold anti-sodomy laws that make homosexuality illegal in Texas.

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but conservative lawyers are now agile and nervy enough to hijack liberal arguments for their own causes. Kelly Shackleford, the chief counsel, actually compared Mr. Dini's attitude toward a creationist with that of a racist.

What if Mr. Dini refused to write letters of recommendation to African-Americans? Mr. Shackleford asked. "I can't imagine the university would say, well, that's a personal decision of one of our professors and we're not going to interfere. Discrimination on the basis of race, sex or religion is prohibited."

Needless to say, Mr. Dini's refusal to recommend a creationist for a graduate degree in medicine or science is not like refusing to recommend an African-American. It's like refusing to recognize someone who doesn't believe in gravity for a Ph.D. program in physics. But creationists who believe the origin of the species is an open-and-shut book - and the book is the Bible - now accuse evolutionists of being narrow-minded.

A headline in the local paper described Mr. Dini as "Rigid on Evolution." One of Mr. Spradling's supporters said that a professor who dines out on academic freedom ought to grant that freedom to his students.

Lest you think this is an arcane argument in one Texas university, it's parallel to what's going on in public high schools. After losing their bid to rid the classroom of Darwin, creationists went back to court coyly suggesting equal time for "equal" points of view. Now they are pressing for laws like those in Mississippi, Alabama and Oklahoma that require a printed disclaimer in the textbooks that teach evolution.

As Mr. Dini asks rhetorically on his now infamous Web page, "How can someone who does not accept the most important theory in biology expect to properly practice in a field that is so heavily based on biology?" Is a scientist expected to entertain all points of view on whether, say, the Earth travels around the sun, or risk being called a bigot?

Mr. Dini may have been brave or naive to put his principles down on pixels. Writing recommendations is the most arbitrary and individualistic of extracurricular activities performed by a professor.

If he is convicted of "discriminating" against religion, surely every student can demand that a professor equate beliefs and facts. Next stop, astrology for astronomers? Feng Shui for physicists? Anyone want a recommendation? How about a lawyer instead?

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. She can be reached via e-mail at ellengoodman@globe.com.

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