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Ethics, Evolution, and Ben Carson

This week, the story about Emory University faculty and students voicing concern about a statement by Ben Carson has moved from academic online news to Washington Post to conservative Christian blogosphere. The Discovery Institute, the main defender of intelligent design, has been driving the last part of this evolution as their petition to defend Ben Carson have been circulating widely. Redstate, a widely-read conservative blog posts, “At Emory University, Darwin’s Bullies Smear Commencement Speaker, Dr. Ben Carson of Johns Hopkins.” And Focus on the Family‘s online community got very busy posting the following articles:

  • Darwin and Ben Carson on Evolutionary Ethics vs. 500 Emory University Faculty and Students
  • Stand Up to the Bullies, Emory University: Reaffirm Dr. Ben Carson’s Welcome
  • The Controversy about Darwin Doubter Ben Carson and the Moral Argument

Even the conservative Christian Post echoed this hyperbolic language telling its readers to sign a petition to “send a clear message to academic bullies that we will not tolerate their tactics of intimidation.” These all have links back to the Discovery Institutes’s Evolution News site which is pushing this story hard. (It even looks like many of these conservative Christian bloggers are merely copying their words from it.) A few Adventists, understandably defensive over criticism of one of our denomination’s brightest stars have even joined the fray to avenge Dr. Carson against these “academic bullies and intimidators.” But it’s not that simple.

Are there evolutionist bullies out there? Yes. But these medical students and faculty at Emory University are not. They wrote a letter to the editor of the school’s newspaper. (What intimidation!) In this letter they did not call for protests or for the administration to rescind the invitation. They did not call for anything. They merely voiced their difference of opinion on ethics and evolution from Ben Carson. They praised his achievements while voicing their deep concern about what he thinks of the ethics of people who take evolution seriously. Here is how they closed their short letter.

The theory of evolution is as strongly supported as the theory of gravity and the theory that infectious diseases are caused by micro-organisms. Dismissing evolution disregards the importance of science and critical thinking to society. Stating that those who accept the underlying principle of biology and medicine are unethical not only encourages the insertion of unnecessary and destructive wedges between Americans but stands against many of the ideals of this University.

The roughly 500 scientists and doctors left it at that. They were concerned with wedges and protecting the ideals of their community. Just like everyone else. Anyone feeling intimidated by that probably has some deeper epistemological issues with which to deal.

No one doubts that Ben Carson’s hands are gifted. He is a world renowned neurosurgeon, a giving person and a famous Seventh-day Adventist. But his statements to the Adventist Review and what he’s said subsequently about ethics and evolution do show that he’s not very aware of the serious writing that have been done on ethics post-Darwin. When he says, “For if there is no such thing as moral authority, you can do anything you want,” he’s right to note a serious question, but he fails his audience in and out of the church by not recognizing that people have wrestled with that question for ages and have come up with some pretty good reasons to be moral without buying into Divine Command Theory. Carson should at least acknowledge, if not read, the work of serious Christians and non-believers on ethics in an age skeptical of the deontological.

I interviewed Ben Carson several years ago for a profile that was published in Spectrum’s journal. We had a pleasant chat about his celebrity status in Adventism, the subject of the article. He spoke about how he has to protect his time and that includes making space for reading. He spoke glowingly of his current immersion in the writings of Ellen White. I got the impression that he’s read more of her than moral theology and philosophy works that address his point, such as: 

  • Christian theologian Hans Küng’s many works on global ethics and human responsibilities.
  • The Elements of Ethics by Bertrand Russell
  • Harvard’s Humanist Chaplain Greg M. Epstein’s book Good without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe
  • Albert Camus’ novel The Plague.
  • Evolution and Ethics: Human Morality in Biological and Religious Perspective (good conversation by theologians, scientists, philosophers via Eerdmans)

Some people need a God who spoke each photon and bacterium into existence in exactly six days in order to be moral. Some folks try to be good just because it is the right thing to do. There are fine examples of both groups. Some, like me, believe in God and believe that acting out of conviction rather than fear of hellish punishment makes for good ethics. As Omar said: “a man got to have a code.” Unfortunately, too often some people mistake having a theology for it. 

From Socrates given the choice of death or banishment for asking too many questions about morality and the gods to the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution, new ideas do cause discomfort and social tension. Having learned the lessons of the Thirty Years War and many conflicts since, humans appear to be learning this basic point: questioning someone’s ethics based on their denominational or scientific persuasion is more about power and fear than true intellectual engagement. 

Given a chance, thanks to the publication of the letter, Ben Carson clarified his remarks: “A lot of evolutionists are very ethical people.” 

Those trying to turn this into a showdown between Creation and Evolution are the real bullies. They are manipulating the evidence for their own political ends. I like Ben Carson even though I disagree with his theory of origins, and I don’t think that it’s ethical for him to be treated this way. If we can’t be honest about the facts in a 541-word letter, how are we going to make sense of our world?

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