DARWIN AT 200: Costly, questionable bias
LYNCHBURG, Va. (BP)--Biologist Nathaniel Abraham, who now is an associate professor at Liberty University in Virginia, was fired from his postdoctoral position at a prestigious research institute because he would not accept Darwinian evolution as scientific fact.
Abraham, an Indian immigrant who earned a master's degree and doctorate at St. John's University in New York, was hired by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts in 2004 to study zebra fish under a federal grant by the National Institutes of Health.
Following several months of receiving praise from his co-workers for his expertise, Abraham mentioned that he did not believe in the theory of evolution during a casual conversation with his boss, Mark Hahn.
"He was shocked and said, 'Why not?' and I said, 'I actually believe God made everything,'" Abraham recounted in an interview with Baptist Press. "That's the basis of my worldview, and that has been supported by what I've seen and what I've studied so far. There's nothing that I've studied that tells me anything contrary to that worldview that someone much, much more intelligent than anything we can conceive made the universe."
Hahn asked Abraham to resign if he didn't accept evolution as fact, but he refused and was fired in December 2004.
"I thought nobody could actually be fired for holding a belief. It didn't make sense to me," Abraham said. "I thought they were just trying to put the pressure on me so that I would resign voluntarily, which would have meant that they would have been off the hook and would have ensured that I did not have anything to hold against them.
"... I also believed that they needed me, and it didn't seem like it made sense for them to fire me when they knew that my contract was going to expire very soon," he said. "It didn't make sense to do that, especially since I helped with the design of the lab in choosing and purchasing equipment. I had been an essential part of what they were trying to do in that lab."
Within a month of his firing, Abraham and his wife, who were expecting their first child at the time, were forced to seek housing with various friends in New York. With no money and no health insurance, they soon determined it would be best for her to return to India and have their child while living with her parents. Meanwhile, Abraham frantically searched for a job as his visa threatened to expire.
Through his church, he learned about Liberty University in Lynchburg and applied for a teaching position. He was hired to start in the fall of 2005, and his wife and daughter later were able to return from India.
"My daughter was five months old when I first saw her after she was born," Abraham said. "The first time I saw her she did not recognize me because she had never seen me."
During the ordeal of searching for a job and being separated from his family, some church members urged Abraham to file a discrimination lawsuit against Woods Hole for violating his right to hold a religious belief. He first filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and waited to hear whether the case could proceed.
When his complaint was rejected based on what the commission called insufficient evidence, he sought help from the Christian Law Association. He was represented by David Gibbs, the attorney who represented the family of Terri Schiavo, but somehow the lawsuit was filed just shy of the three-year anniversary of his firing and the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts said the statute of limitations had expired and dismissed the $500,000 lawsuit.
More than the money, Abraham said he wanted to win a legal case in order to set a precedent for other Christian scientists who may deal with similar discrimination. He said his refusal to accept evolution as fact had nothing to do with the research he conducted in the toxicology lab, and if necessary he was willing to deal with the data according to evolutionary theory.
Before his firing, Abraham was not concerned with the evolution-creation debate, he told BP.
"To me, that wasn't what I was about or what my subject was. What I knew was if anyone tried to argue evolution as a fact, I knew I could always take it down because the facts are not enough to support a foolproof argument for either case anyway," Abraham said.
"If you're looking at the natural things that God made, you're still trying to look at a supernatural being who doesn't work according to natural laws....
"So it's like saying, 'I'm blind. There's that thing called sight that I'm aware of, but I'm trying to see the colors on a painting.' I can't do that because that faculty doesn't exist for me," he said. "... The tools that you have don't match up with something that's above natural when the only thing that you've been exposed to apart from your faith is the natural world."
On the other hand, when an evolutionist says something happened 4 billion years ago, that too cannot be proven in a science lab.
"We can't extend our time to 4 billion years. We can try to determine some aspects of change like microevolution. I'm fine with that, but when you start making these grand projections, you're already extending out of the reach of lab science," Abraham said. "To me, that is a dangerous situation because it's full of caveats and you can always end up having problems because you are now projecting beyond what can be supported by experiments."
When he did his doctoral work at St. John's, everyone on his doctoral committee knew he didn't believe in evolution, Abraham said. But they didn't have a problem with it.
"Science is what happens in the lab. It's not something that happens with someone sitting in an armchair and speculating," he said. "Most of science is repeatable science, and that was the only kind of science I was interested in.
"You do something in the lab and someone else can check if it's repeatable. You verify things and somebody else can either validate that or invalidate that, but that's what science is all about. That's how we've had the technological advances we've had -- people can experiment and determine the logic in a certain situation.
"Once that logic is established, someone else can try to extend that to some other situation and see if that same logic holds true or not," Abraham said. "That's how discovery goes -- you keep building on what has been discovered before."
One aspect of his studies that made him question evolution has been his work on programmed cell death, which he studied in zebra fish.
"Generally when an embryo is developing, you see a whole bunch of extra cells that act as scaffolds," he told BP. "They are not there for any other reason except for being scaffolds. They live for a very short period of time, but as soon as the role is over, they immediately die. They're programmed to die, and if they remain then you have serious problems such as blindness or other congenital defects.
"The point is you're talking about a process in which something is dying rather than living, and you're not trying to make something survive," Abraham said. "You have to achieve the death before something can survive. How do you explain that from any evolutionary perspective?
"What is the point of it? How can something like that evolve? If you're talking about something mutating, you can say, 'Well, it's adapting to something.' But if a cell is trying to die and somehow its genes have evolved for death, what is the basis of that? That's a huge challenge -- how a cell can be programmed to die and how is that purposeful in the evolutionary context?"
Despite the discrimination that led to his firing at Woods Hole and the trials that followed, Abraham said he would not go back and change his actions if he had the chance.
"I never regretted even just a little bit that I did not deny my Creator," he said.
Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.