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Biologist fired for beliefs, suit says

Woods Hole states creationist stance at odds with work

Email|Print| Text size + By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / December 7, 2007

The battle between science and creationism has reached the prestigious Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where a former researcher is claiming he was fired because he doesn't believe in evolution.

Nathaniel Abraham filed a lawsuit earlier this week in US District Court in Boston saying that the Cape Cod research center dismissed him in 2004 because of his Christian belief that the Bible presents a true account of human creation.

Abraham, who is seeking $500,000 in compensation for a violation of his civil rights, says in the suit that he lost his job as a postdoctoral researcher in a biology lab shortly after he told his superior that he did not accept evolution as scientific fact.

"Woods Hole believes they have the right to insist on a belief in evolution," said David C. Gibbs III, one of Abraham's two attorneys and general counsel of the Christian Law Association in Seminole, Fla.

Evolution is a fundamental tenet of biology that species emerge because of genetic changes to organisms that, over time, favor their survival. Creationists reject the notion that humans evolved from apes and that life on Earth began billions of years ago, but Gibbs said Abraham "truly believes there was no conflict between religion and his job."

Woods Hole officials released a statement saying, "The Institution firmly believes that its actions and those of its employees concerning Dr. Abraham were entirely lawful," and that the center does not discriminate on the basis of religion.

In a 2004 letter to Abraham, his boss, Woods Hole senior scien tist Mark E. Hahn, wrote that Abraham said he did not want to work on "evolutionary aspects" of the National Institutes of Health grant for which he was hired, even though the project clearly required scientists to use the principles of evolution in their analyses and writing.

The lawsuit is the latest in a series of cases pitting creationists against scientists in academic settings. Last year, a University of Rhode Island student was awarded a doctorate in geosciences despite opposition after it became known that he was a creationist. Earlier this year, an Iowa State University astronomer claimed he was denied tenure because he did not believe in evolution.

Like these cases, the Abraham lawsuit pointedly raises the question: Can people work in a scientific field if they don't believe in its basic tenets?

"I have a cleaning woman who is a Seventh-day Adventist and neither of us feel any tension," said Michael Ruse, a philosopher of science at Florida State University who has written extensively on creationism and evolutionary biology. "Yet, what is a person doing in an evolutionary lab when they don't believe in evolution . . . and didn't tell anybody they didn't believe in evolution?"

Abraham did not return a telephone call seeking comment. An Indian citizen, he now works at Liberty University, a Christian university in Lynchburg, Va., founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

He has a master's degree in biology and a philosophy doctorate, both from St. John's University in New York, a university spokeswoman said. He was hired by Hahn's marine biology lab in March 2004 because of his expertise working with zebra fish and in toxicology and developmental biology, according to court documents. He did not tell anyone his creationist views before being hired. Hahn's lab, according to its website, studies how aquatic animals respond to chemical contaminants by examining ". . . mechanisms from a comparative/evolutionary perspective."

In October 2004, both agree, Abraham made a passing comment to Hahn saying he did not believe in evolution.

"My supervisor appeared angry and asked me what I meant," Abraham wrote in a 2005 complaint he filed with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. "My supervisor and I had a follow up meeting during which my supervisor informed me that if I do not believe in evolution, then he was paying me for only 7 to 10 percent of the work I was doing under the grant."

Abraham said he told Hahn he would do extra work to compensate and "was willing to discuss evolution as a theory."

But on Nov. 17, Hahn asked him to resign, pointing out in the letter that Abraham should have known of evolution's centrality to the project because it was evident from the job advertisement and grant proposal.

". . . You have indicated that you do not recognize the concept of biological evolution and you would not agree to include a full discussion of the evolutionary implications and interpretations of our research in any co-authored publications resulting from this work," Hahn wrote in the letter, which the commission provided to the Globe. "This position is incompatible with the work as proposed to NIH and with my own vision of how it should be carried out and interpreted."

Abraham's last day at the lab was Dec. 14, 2004.

The commission dismissed his complaint earlier this year. The commission said Abraham was terminated because his request not to work on evolutionary aspects of the project would be challenging for Woods Hole because the research was based on evolutionary theories.

But Gibbs said that Abraham, after disclosing his religious beliefs to Hahn, was subjected to a hostile work environment. "There was a systematic attempt for him to change his beliefs or resign," Gibbs said. "His life has been turned upside down by this."

Eugenie C. Scott, executive director for the National Center for Science Education, which defends the teaching of evolution in public schools, said Abraham was clearly being disingenuous when he applied for the job because he was hired to work in the field of developmental biology.

"It is inconceivable that someone working in developmental biology at a major research institution would not be expected to deal intimately with evolution," she said. "A flight school hiring instructors wouldn't ask whether they accepted that the earth was spherical; they would assume it. Similarly, Woods Hole would have assumed that someone hired to work in developmental biology would accept that evolution occurred. It's part and parcel of the science these days."

Todd Wallack of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Beth Daley can be reached at bdaley@globe.com.

(Correction: Because of a reporting error, a Page One story Friday about a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution scientist incorrectly described human evolution. According to evolutionary science, humans and apes have a common ancestor.)

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