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Do Non-Scientists Have Freedom to Question Darwinism?

John G. West
Photo: Benjamin Franklin quote, 1722, by k_donovan11, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from a chapter in the newly released book The Comprehensive Guide to Science and Faith: Exploring the Ultimate Questions About Life and the Cosmos. See also Dr. West’s article from last week, “Do Scientists Have Freedom to Question Darwinism?

Even nonscientists can face problems for suggesting that there might be a serious intellectual debate over Darwinism. At Baylor University, philosopher and legal scholar Francis Beckwith was initially denied tenure despite an outstanding record of academic research and publications.1 Although Professor Beckwith was well known for his prolife views, he was most controversial for his law review articles and an academic book defending the constitutionality of teaching about intelligent design as an alternative to Darwinism.2 It is important to note that Beckwith did not advocate that intelligent design should be taught in public schools — only that it was constitutional to teach it in an appropriate manner. But that nuanced position was too much for some of his colleagues, who were defenders of Darwin’s theory. Fortunately for Beckwith, after a public outcry, the president of Baylor later granted him tenure.3

A Dissertation in Limbo

College professors are not the only targets in academia who face discrimination because of their skepticism of Darwinism. Students can be even more vulnerable. Ohio State University doctoral candidate Bryan Leonard had his dissertation defense put in limbo after three pro-Darwin professors filed a spurious complaint attacking Leonard’s dissertation research as “unethical human subject experimentation.” Leonard’s dissertation project looked at how student beliefs changed after students were taught scientific evidence for and against modern evolutionary theory. The complaining professors admitted that they had not actually read Leonard’s dissertation. But they were sure it must be unethical. Why? According to them, there is no valid evidence against evolutionary theory. Thus — by definition — Leonard’s research must be tantamount to child abuse.4

Outside of academia, there have been similar cases of discrimination in government-funded science organizations. David Coppedge was a senior computer systems administrator for the Cassini Mission to Saturn at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in California. He faced demotion and discharge after he offended his supervisor by occasionally offering to loan colleagues DVDs about intelligent design.5 No one had ever complained to Coppedge about his offers of DVDs, but when the supervisor found out, Coppedge faced a punitive investigation. His employment evaluations, which had been outstanding, suddenly became negative, and ultimately he lost his job. Coppedge’s dismissal was justified as a budgetary reduction unrelated to his views on intelligent design, but that explanation was questionable given the facts of the case.

The Sternberg Case

Evolutionary biologist Richard Sternberg faced similar retaliation by officials at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) after accepting for publication a peer-reviewed article supportive of intelligent design in a biology journal he edited. A research associate at the museum, Sternberg said that after the article was published, he was told to vacate his office space and was shunned and vilified by colleagues. Efforts were also made by administrators to discover Sternberg’s personal religious and political beliefs.6 Investigators for the U.S. Office of Special Counsel concluded that “it is…clear that a hostile work environment was created with the ultimate goal of forcing [Dr. Sternberg]…out of the [Smithsonian].”7

Smithsonian officials denied any wrongdoing, but Sternberg was demoted from a research associate to a research collaborator without explanation.8 A 17-month investigation by subcommittee staff of the House Committee on Government Reform subsequently confirmed and elaborated on the previous findings of the US Office of Special Counsel. In a detailed report released to the public, subcommittee investigators concluded that they had uncovered “substantial, credible evidence of efforts to abuse and harass Dr. Sternberg, including punitively targeting him for investigation in order to supply a pretext for dismissing him, and applying to him regulations and restrictions not imposed on other researchers.”9

Congressional investigators further accused NMNH officials of conspiring “on government time and using government emails…with the pro-evolution National Center for Science Education (NCSE)…to publicly smear and discredit Dr. Sternberg with false and defamatory information.”10 The NCSE even provided a set of “‘talking points’ to…NMNH officials on how to discredit both Sternberg and the Meyer article.” In addition, the NCSE was asked by senior museum administrator Dr. Hans Sues “to monitor Sternberg’s outside activities…The clear purpose of having the NCSE monitor Dr. Sternberg’s outside activities was to find a way to dismiss him.”11 Congressional investigators concluded that “the extent to which NMNH officials colluded on government time and with government resources with the NCSE to publicly discredit Dr. Sternberg’s scientific and professional integrity and investigate opportunities to dismiss him is alarming.”12

When asked about Sternberg’s plight by the Washington Post, Eugenie Scott of the NCSE seemed to suggest that Sternberg was lucky more was not done to get rid of him: “If this was a corporation, and an employee did something that really embarrassed the administration, really blew it, how long do you think that person would be employed?”13

Teachers at Risk

Science teachers in K-12 schools also face challenges if they criticize Darwinian theory. In Minnesota, high school teacher Rodney LeVake was removed from teaching biology after expressing doubts about Darwin’s theory. LeVake, who holds a master’s degree in biology, agreed to teach evolution as required in the district’s curriculum, but said he wanted to “accompany that treatment of evolution with an honest look at the difficulties and inconsistencies of the theory.”14

In Washington State, longtime high school biology teacher Roger DeHart faced continuing harassment from pro-Darwin activists, who succeeded in getting his school district to prohibit him from discussing scientific criticisms of modern Darwinian theory with his students. DeHart was even banned from sharing mainstream science publications with students that corrected textbook errors about evolution. Although DeHart complied with his district’s gag order, ultimately, he was removed from teaching biology. When he took a job in an adjoining school district so that he could continue to teach biology, the harassment continued. He was eventually reassigned from teaching biology in that district as well, even though there were no allegations by his new district that he was not following the prescribed curriculum. DeHart finally was driven from public education altogether.15


  1. John West, “Scandal Brewing At Baylor University? Denial of Tenure to Francis Beckwith Raises Serious Questions About Fairness and Academic Freedom,” Evolution News and Views (March 28, 2006), (accessed November 24, 2020).
  2. See, for example, Francis J. Beckwith, Law, Darwinism, and Public Education: The Establishment Clause and the Challenge of Intelligent Design(Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003); Francis J. Beckwith, “Science and Religion Twenty Years After McLean v. Arkansas: Evolution, Public Education, and the New Challenge of Intelligent Design,” Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy 26 (Spring 2003), 455-499; Francis J. Beckwith, “Public Education, Religious Establishment, and the Challenge of Intelligent Design,” Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics, & Public Policy 17 (2003), 461-519; Francis J. Beckwith, “A Liberty Not Fully Evolved?: The Case of Rodney LeVake and the Right of Public School Teachers to Criticize Darwinism,” San Diego Law Review 39 (November/December 2002), 1311-1325.
  3. Robert Crowther, “Welcome News as Scholar Francis Beckwith Is Granted Tenure At Baylor,” Evolution News & Views (September 27, 2006), (accessed November 24, 2020).
  4. For information about the Bryan Leonard case, see Catherine Candinsky, “Evolution debate re-emerges: Doctoral student’s work was possibly unethical, OSU professors argue,” The Columbus Dispatch (June 9, 2005); “Attack on OSU Graduate Student Endangers Academic Freedom,” Discovery Institute (April 18, 2005), (accessed November 24, 2020); “Professors Defend Ohio Grad Student Under Attack by Darwinists,” Discovery Institute (July 11, 2005), (accessed November 24, 2020).
  5. For information and documentation about the Coppedge case, see Robert Crowther, “Trial to Begin in Intelligent Design Discrimination Lawsuit against NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab,” Evolution News and Views (March 5, 2012), (accessed November 24, 2020); “Facts of the Coppedge Lawsuit Contradict the Spin from Jet Propulsion Lab and National Center for Science Education,” Evolution News and Views, March 12, 2012, (accessed November 24, 2020); Joshua Youngkin, “Why Did NASA’s JPL Discriminate Against David Coppedge and Why Does It Matter?” Evolution News and Views (November 22, 2011), (accessed November 24, 2020).
  6. See David Klinghoffer, “The Branding of a Heretic,” The Wall Street Journal, January 28, 2005, (accessed November 24, 2020). For more information about the controversy surrounding the publication of the journal article supportive of intelligent design, see “Sternberg, Smithsonian, Meyer, and the Paper That Started It All,” (accessed November 24, 2020); Richard Sternberg, “Smithsonian Controversy,” (accessed November 24, 2020).
  7. Letter to Richard Sternberg from the US Office of Special Counsel, August 5, 2005, available at (accessed November 24, 2020). Also see Klinghoffer, “The Branding of a Heretic.”
  8. Intolerance and the Politicization of Science at the Smithsonian: Smithsonian’s Top Officials Permit the Demotion and Harassment of Scientist Skeptical of Darwinian Evolution, Staff Report Prepared for the Hon. Mark Souder, Chairman, Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources (Washington, DC: US House of Representatives, Committee on Government Reform, December 11, 2006), 3, 20-21, (accessed November 26, 2020).
  9. Intolerance and the Politicization of Science At the Smithsonian, 4.
  10. Intolerance and the Politicization of Science At the Smithsonian, 5-6.
  11. Intolerance and the Politicization of Science At the Smithsonian, 22, emphasis in original. The congressional report further explained, “Dr. Sues hoped that the NCSE could unearth evidence that Dr. Sternberg had misrepresented himself as a Smithsonian employee, which would have been grounds for his dismissal as a Research Associate: ‘As a Research Associate, Sternberg is not allowed to represent himself as an employee of the Smithsonian Institution, and, if he were to do so, he would forfeit his appointment.’”
  12. Intolerance and the Politicization of Science at the Smithsonian, 23, emphasis in original.
  13. Quoted in Michael Powell, “Editor Explains Reasons for ‘Intelligent Design’ Article,” The Washington Post (August 19, 2005), A19.
  14. Quoted in Rodney LeVake vs. Independent School District #656, State of Minnesota Court of Appeals, C8-00-1613 (May 8, 2001); (accessed November 24, 2020). Additional information on the LeVake case can be found in James Kilpatrick, “Case of Scientific Heresy is Doomed,” Augusta Chronicle (December 23, 2001), A4. The Minnesota Court of Appeals found that the school district’s interest in maintaining its curriculum overrode LeVake’s First Amendment interest in teaching material critical of Darwinian evolution.
  15. John G. West, Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007), 231-232, 234-238.