Feb 5, 2008

Biology professor battles evolution

by Stan Barringer
Liberty biology professor Dr. Nathaniel Abraham was fired by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) three years ago because he would not regard evolutionary theory as fact. Since his termination, evidence of discrimination and bias in the situation remains virtually unreported. Abraham filed a lawsuit in December of 2007 against WHOI, alleging unlawful discrimination resulting in his termination. Abraham was hired by WHOI in March 2004 as a specialist in zebrafish developmental biology and programmed cell death, a biological mechanism that eliminates developmental cells that have become damaged or are no longer needed. Abraham’s unique expertise was widely acknowledged in the lab where he worked at WHOI. “They just loved my work,” Abraham said. “My colleagues had no doubt as to my credibility as a scientist. I was the expert on zebrafish there. I even advised them on how to build the zebrafish lab, including what equipment to buy and what not to buy.” “There is no testimony that Dr. Abraham did anything but exemplary work in his expertise,” Christian Law Association general counsel David C. Gibbs III said, who is representing Abraham against WHOI. In spite of Abraham’s outstanding research, his supervisors eventually decided that his lack of commitment to evolution outweighed his expertise. However, Abraham said evolution was not a factor discussed in his hiring or planned work with the institution. “I went through the (employment) interviews with no problem,” Abraham said. “In about six months of communication and work with WHOI, evolution never came up.” Abraham’s relationship with his employers darkened when he made a casual comment on his lack of belief in evolutionary theory to his supervisor, senior biologist Dr. Mark Hahn, following an otherwise positive meeting about his research. “I said in a passing comment that I personally do not believe in evolutionary theory,” Abraham said. “(Hahn’s) face darkened, and he said that he hoped it would not affect any future co-authored writing about our research.” In a Nov. 17, 2004 letter to Abraham, Hahn claimed that Abraham refused to discuss “evolutionary implications and interpretations of our research in any co-authored publications resulting from this work.” However, Abraham had previously reassured Hahn in a letter on Nov. 10, 2004 that he was willing to discuss evolutionary implications and interpretations of his research, if there were any. “I said that I might never have to address evolution (in writing about the research), but that if it came up, I would discuss it as a theory,” Abraham said. This statment was sent to Hahn in writing, both as a paper copy and as an e-mail. Abraham said that several biologists, including Hahn, write about their research in terms of the conclusions that might be drawn based on evolutionary assumptions. This method does not require the researcher personally to endorse evolutionary theory but rather to discuss it as a possibility. That was not good enough for Hahn, Abraham said. “He wasn’t happy about it,” Abraham said. “We had a critical meeting, and Hahn said he wanted me to resign. He offered me a severance package of several months’ salary in exchange for an agreement that I would not sue them.” Abraham refused to sign the offer. At the time, he believed that the WHOI administration would side with him against Hahn’s ideological bias. However, members of the administration either passively or actively agreed with his termination. “The case is very different (from other discrimination cases involving creationist scientists) because many facts in this case are documented. Several personnel from WHOI’s senior administration have gone on record saying that they were agreeing with the decision to fire me based on the given cause,” Abraham said, referring to his lack of commitment to evolution. Following Abraham’s termination, WHOI re-advertised his former position with a modified description. The Boston Globe ran a piece on Dec. 7, 2007, called “Biologist fired for beliefs, suit says,” and Fox News published one entitled, “Biologist: I lost my job because I don’t believe in evolution” on Dec. 11, 2007. Both of these publications cited the newly modified job description, which requires evolutionary research assumptions, as a reason for Abraham’s firing. The Dec. 7 Boston Globe article also quoted Florida State University philosopher of science Michael Ruse harshly criticizing Abraham for working in “an evolutionary lab . . . when (he didn’t) believe in evolution.” Abraham said he worked in a toxicology lab, and that Hahn is a toxicologist, having earned his Ph. D. in Toxicology. Abraham lodged a formal complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, which ruled against him. After exhausting every other legal option, Abraham filed a lawsuit against WHOI in December 2007. The case is slated to go to trial in the U.S. District Court in 2009. Abraham said that he did not commit to taking action against WHOI until several months after his termination. He and his wife discovered that they were expecting their first child during the period of confrontation with Hahn and the WHOI administration. After the firing, they lived a roving life, frantically seeking work before their visas from India expired. “It was a horrible time for me and my wife,” Abraham said. “We literally became Hebrews (wanderers), wandering from house, staying with friends. We had suddenly lost our health care, and we feared for the life of the child.” Abraham said the time for his wife’s delivery coincided with the expiration of their visas. Not knowing what else to do, the couple agreed she should return to India to be with their parents. “She called me one day (from India) and said that she was having some complications with the pregnancy,” Abraham said. “It was then that I decided to fight (the WHOI termination).” Abraham missed his daughter’s birth, but their daughter’s name, Rishona Fay, means “first faith” and signifies the family’s realization that God would provide justice for them. Abraham accepted a faculty position at Liberty three years ago, and the school expedited his visa processing so that he would not have to return to India and re-apply for a work visa. “I like that I can talk freely about God and biological design without being fired,” Abraham said. Abraham currently teaches comparative anatomy. Contact Stan Barringer at spbarringer@liberty.edu.
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