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For Lack of Self-Awareness, This Evolutionist Deserves (Another) Prize

David Klinghoffer


This should win Jerry Coyne a prize — not our Censor of the Year award, because Professor Coyne has already won that — but some type of recognition for sheer lack of self-awareness. Writing at Why Evolution Is True, Coyne fulminates in favor of…free speech.

Free speech? Jerry Coyne?

There’s hardly anything to disagree with in what he says, but surely the hero who succeeded in suppressing free speech at Ball State University can find other topics to comment on.

The outspoken evolutionary biologist doesn’t write much about evolution anymore, but instead seems increasingly to want to fashion himself into more of an all-purpose pundit on current events, with the predictable views on gun control, Brexit, etc. I suppose he must see the free speech question as part of that…but give me a break.

Coyne begins:

Professors hounded by their university for encouraging debate

We all know that some universities, when they espouse an allegiance to free speech and open debate, really mean they want only speech that doesn’t offend anyone, and only want debate about issues that aren’t controversial (but then why have a debate?). Fortunately, that’s not true of all universities — my own is a welcome exception. But the lip service to free speech combined with hand service slapping down offensive free speech is going on in an invidious way at one school, the University of Northern Colorado (UNC) in Greeley.

Reports at Heat Street, as well as at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), detail how two UNC professors were investigated–simply for asking students to discuss and debate controversial topics. In both cases, student complaints triggered (sorry for the pun) inquires by the school’s “bias response team,” a group devoted to sniffing out and punishing incidents of offensive speech. Heat Street obtained the records of these investigations simply by using the Colorado version of the Freedom of Information Act.

How can Coyne — Coyne of all people — protest professors being “hounded…simply for asking students to discuss and debate controversial topics“? He writes:

I really feel sorry for that professor, who has Big Brother looking over his shoulder and is apparently expected to grovel.

“Groveling” is exactly what Coyne and his friends at the Freedom From Religion Foundation sought to make a Ball State University physicist do. For background, in case you need it, Sarah Chaffee offered an update here last month.

Has Coyne, perhaps, reconsidered his own recent campaign against academic freedom? There’s no indication of it.

This I didn’t know about his teaching work outside of the University of Chicago. Dr. Coyne writes:

I’ll take the professor’s word, as reported by FIRE, that he was simply inciting debate (I did that all the time when lecturing as a creationist in my “Creation vs. Evolution” course at the University of Maryland)…

When I taught my course in Maryland, the last assignment was such a debate, but I put all the evolution-accepting students on the pro-creationist side, and the creationists on the pro-evolution side.

There’s no telling what he means there by “creation” or “creationist.” At issue at Ball State, it should be noted, was information about intelligent design, not creationism. Maybe Coyne’s view is that, on college campuses, you can teach about alternatives to Darwinism only with a view to mocking them.

Perhaps in the evolutionary context free speech means the freedom to instruct students as to the correctness of politically correct biology, using clever means to do so, but otherwise strictly prohibiting the serious exploration of alternative scientific understandings.

Image of Jerry Coyne adapted from photo by Emma Rodewald/Wikipedia user Fuzheado under Creative Commons license CC-BY-SA-3.0. Usage not intended to imply endorsement.