Creationist message on the hood of a car.

Creationist message on the hood of a car.

Amy Watts/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Creationism conference at large U.S. research university stirs unease

A creationist conference set for a major research campus—Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing—is creating unease among some of the school’s students and faculty, which includes several prominent evolutionary biologists.

The 1 November event, called the Origin Summit, is sponsored by Creation Summit, an Oklahoma-based nonprofit Christian group that believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible and was founded to “challenge evolution and all such theories predicated on chance.” The 1-day conference will include eight workshops, according the event’s website, including discussion of how evolutionary theory influenced Adolf Hitler’s worldview, why “the big bang is fake,” and why “natural selection is NOT evolution.” Another talk targets the work of MSU biologist Richard Lenski, who has conducted an influential, decades-long study of evolution in bacterial populations.

News of the event caught MSU’s scientific community largely by surprise. Creation Summit secured a room at the university’s business school through a student religious group, but the student group did not learn about the details of the program—or the sometimes provocative talk titles—until later, says MSU zoologist Fred Dyer. The talk titles led Dyer to suspect that the student group was not involved in planning the conference, he says, prompting him to look into its origins.

Creation Summit sought to hold the event at MSU because “four of our Board members live there in Michigan,” wrote Mike Smith, the group’s executive director, in an e-mail to ScienceInsider. “We hope to have conferences on campuses throughout the country, but ya gotta start somewhere.”

Creation Summit is “not overtly evangelistic,” Smith wrote. But “we hope to pave the way for evangelism (for the other campus ministries) by presenting the scientific evidence for intelligent design. Once students realize they're created beings, and not the product of natural selection, they're much more open to the Gospel, to the message of God's love & forgiveness.”

MSU has a prominent community of evolutionary biologists. In addition to Lenski, it is the home campus of biologist Robert Pennock, who provided high-profile testimony in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, a 2005 federal court case that produced a ruling against the teaching of intelligent design in public schools. MSU is also the lead partner in the BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action, a multiuniversity effort funded by the National Science Foundation that pursues a wide range of evolution-related research and education efforts.

Some leaders of MSU’s evolutionary biology community are urging their colleagues to simply ignore the event, predicting that any engagement and debate will be fruitless. “In my opinion, this event will be just another forgettable blip in the long history of antiscience, antievolution screeds,” Lenski says. “I suppose the speakers chose to target our research … because their event is being held here, and maybe because they find it confusing to their worldview that evolution isn’t supposed to happen.” (Creation Summit invited both Lenski and Pennock to participate in a debate at the event; Lenski says he declined.)  

Emily Weigel, an MSU graduate student in evolution and a member of the BEACON center, says the event has made her feel like she’s under attack—in part because of her own religious faith. “As a religious BEACONite, I've never felt unwelcome” at MSU, she says. “But this conference on campus has made me uneasy about my identity on campus for the first time. It's antiacademic in the way it is being carried out, and honestly, it is shaming for fellow Christians to target individuals in an attack such as this one.” MSU plant biologist David Lowry says that he and some colleagues also worry that the event could harm MSU’s reputation within the scientific community.

University officials say they have no plans to interfere with the event. “Free speech is at the heart of academic freedom and is something we take very seriously,” said Kent Cassella, MSU’s associate vice president for communications, in a statement. “Any group, regardless of viewpoint, has the right to assemble in public areas of campus or petition for space to host an event so long as it does not engage in disorderly conduct or violate rules. While MSU is not a sponsor of the creation summit, MSU is a marketplace of free ideas.” 

Meanwhile, Creation Summit’s Smith says the group is trying to find a partner organization to help them organize a similar event at University of Texas, Arlington.

Update 10/27/2014, 4:35pm: The artcile has been updated to report that Lenski declined an invitation to participate in a debate at the event.

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