Emory Commencement Speaker Sparks Evolution Controversy

A letter signed by about 500 Emory University faculty, students and alumni seeks to bring attention to the anti-evolution views of Dr. Ben Carson. The world-renowned Johns Hopkins University neurosurgeon will be the Atlanta university's May 14 commencement speaker.

The letter does not ask that Carson be dis-invited. Rather, it seeks to bring attention to the issue. It notes Carson's accomplishments as a neurosurgeon and philanthropist, then adds, "But, as those students, their families, and the Emory Community listen to his speech, we ask you to also consider the enormous positive impact of science on our lives and how that science rests squarely on the shoulders of evolution."

What is most concerning about Carson's beliefs, according to the letter's authors – Emory Professors Jacobus de Roode, Arri Eisen, Nicole Gerardo and Ilya Nemenman – is that Carson "equates acceptance of evolution with a lack of ethics and morality."

The letter describes Carson's objections to the theory of evolution and states that his claims are incorrect because the evidence for evolution is "overwhelming." It also accuses Carson of disregarding the "importance of science" and "critical thinking."

Robert George, McCormick professor of jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, argued in a "Mirror of Justice" blog post Sunday that the letter's signers are behaving like illiberal liberals.

"I do wish that more contemporary liberals would be a bit more, well, liberal when it comes to tolerating dissent from the orthodoxies of their faith. Or else I wish they would abandon the pretense of being liberals in the old-fashioned sense and declare their faith to be the equivalent of a religion from which various forms of dissent are simply not to be tolerated. Although I would prefer the former course of action, either course would have the virtue of bringing liberal practice and liberal theory better into line with each other," wrote George, who describes himself as a personal friend of Carson.

George also wrote that Carson does not believe that supporters of the theory of evolution are necessarily unethical. Rather, George explained, Carson believes that Darwinism is necessarily materialistic, a view shared by many Darwinists themselves.

While Carson could be wrong, George argued, "it's certainly not a mean or crazy thing to believe or say. It's scarcely a cause for 'concern' about having him as a commencement speaker."

Carson has delivered 73 commencement speeches since 1989 and received a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2008, according to Inside Higher Ed. Cuba Gooding, Jr. played Carson in "Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story" on TNT in 2009.

In a January 2008 interview on PBS' "Religion & Ethics Newsweekly," Carson describes how his devout Seventh-Day Adventist faith helped him overcome a difficult childhood and guides his medical practice today.

"We are more than just flesh and bones," Carson said. "There's a certain spiritual nature and something of the mind that we can't measure. We can't find it. With all our sophisticated equipment, we cannot monitor or define it, and yet it's there."