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Letters

  • Evangelical Minds
  • Saving Salmon
  • Advice & Consent

    Evangelical Minds

    Alan Wolfe's article "The Opening of the Evangelical Mind" (October Atlantic) makes a case for the academic excellence of a handful of "evangelical" universities -- principally Wheaton, Baylor, and Fuller. But the story that follows the title does not establish the true opening of the evangelical mind -- or even, in my view, the current excellence of those few colleges.

    To begin with, the "evangelical mind" is not fairly represented by the carefully selected handful of colleges and theologians that form Wolfe's database. An article so titled should also have examined Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, and other TV and TV-wannabe evangelists, whose minds are anything but open and whose message is the opposite of reflective. It should have sampled the scores of other evangelical colleges, which also substitute charismatic dogma for reflection, and the nationwide home-schooling movement, much (though not all) of which is devoted to propagating creation science while insulating youths from insidious Darwinism and "secular humanism." Not much opening there.

    Second, Wolfe seems to draw rosier conclusions about intellectual life at Wheaton and Fuller and so forth than his own (admirably balanced) reporting would warrant. For example, after noting the high test scores of the students these institutions attract, Wolfe observes that these schools strictly police the external boundaries of allowable belief -- requiring oaths of faith in biblical inerrancy -- while graciously indulging all manner of woolliness within those boundaries. This, if true, is the opposite of what higher education is about. As a university professor, I feel it is my job to force (politely) my students to question assumptions and to reason rigorously and logically, and then to encourage them to follow the logic of the argument where it leads. If the first of these essential pedagogical activities doesn't happen at Fuller and the second one can't, I can only wonder in what sense the school can be said to have achieved academic excellence. Surely test scores are not the only criterion.

    Herein lies the problem that Wolfe fails to appraise fully: Evangelicalism essentially defines itself against open-mindedness in matters spiritual. It was formed in reaction to the ecumenical trend in traditional Protestant denominations toward more-inclusive interpretations of the Scriptures. It also was established in reaction to Catholicism, which is why evangelical churches regularly send missionaries to Latin America, where their mission is to "convert" Catholics. To anyone who has grown up immersed in evangelical doctrine (as I have), one fact is clear: the mainstream of the evangelical movement is extremely unlikely ever to accept even the possible validity of Catholicism or Darwinism, or metaphorical interpretations of the Scriptures, or the spirit of skepticism that underlies modern science, postmodern philosophy, and secular academia. To do so would undermine the raison d'etre of the movement.

    Evangelicals can be quite open-minded on matters outside their faith and on hairsplitting differences within their faith -- say, pre- versus post-millennialism, or varying techniques of baptism. But on significant matters touching their creed -- drinking, dancing, creation, abortion, ecumenicalism, Catholicism, human sexuality -- the "opening of the evangelical mind" is basically an oxymoron. What Wolfe reports having witnessed at Wheaton (to his surprise, though not to mine) was students expressing a spirit of tolerance for unbelievers in secular affairs. He does not report having witnessed any rigorous, open-ended grappling with the merits of any of the key issues listed above -- even though the Bible is silent or at best ambiguous on every one of them save, perhaps, creation. Evangelicals consider these issues beyond discussion among believers, not because the Bible is clear but because on such matters their minds remain -- proudly and officially -- closed.

    Richard W. Parker
    Visiting Professor
    Georgetown University Law Center
    Washington, D.C.

    In his mostly kind essay "The Opening of the Evangelical Mind," Alan Wolfe makes the astonishingly inaccurate claim that when, in the 1980s, Jaroslav Pelikan left Valparaiso University and four of us left Calvin College, what we "left behind were a disproportionate number of mediocre faculty members ... and students not generally known for their intellectual depth." In fact Pelikan left Valparaiso in the 1940s, and that school had by the 1980s built its admirable academic reputation without him. As for Calvin, Wolfe's characterization is the opposite of the truth. Even after four of us were gone, Calvin had scores of faculty members who could hold their own with anyone in their fields, and many students known for their intellectual depth. Those few of us who left were the products of a much larger and unusually vibrant intellectual community.

    George Marsden
    Granger, Ind.

    I was disappointed by Alan Wolfe's distorted analysis of academic freedom in today's religious colleges and universities. Wolfe is troubled that professors have to sign doctrinal statements to be faculty members at religious colleges. He forgets that the schools are private institutions created to represent a unique set of beliefs and practices. If the school administrators fail to keep their professors accountable for their beliefs, then the school will eventually lose any unifying religious philosophy.

    The true test of contemporary evangelical scholarship will be its ability to examine social issues without losing a distinctive religious perspective. Evangelicals need to cultivate a dynamic civic responsibility in their literature and to develop a public language that demonstrates a real concern for the common good of all Americans.

    Brent Muirhead
    Alpharetta, Ga.

    It is commendable that Wheaton College has students with high SAT scores and a large number of National Merit Scholars, and exciting to hear that lively discussion is taking place in its classrooms. Alan Wolfe's comparison of Wheaton to the University of Chicago must be tempered by a look at the college's mission statement: "Wheaton College exists to help build the church and improve society worldwide by promoting the development of whole and effective Christians through excellence in programs of Christian higher education." To obtain tenure, a faculty member must write a thirty-page paper demonstrating his or her Christian perspective, and conversion to another religion means that one would "be asked if [one] would not be more comfortable working elsewhere." Considering Wheaton's policies, the best that can be said is that it's more open-minded and intellectually stimulating than most Bible schools.

    Bynum Henson
    Brookville, Ind.

    Saving Salmon

    In "Saving Salmon, or Seattle?" (October Atlantic), James Fallows concludes that advocates of bypassing four large federal dams on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington are driven not by a desire to save salmon but by a disdain for dams and a desire to restore natural landscapes. He argues that we should reveal our true motive, instead of using the pretext of salmon recovery. The argument is unconvincing, for several reasons.

    Recovering Snake River salmon and restoring a free-flowing lower Snake River are inextricably linked. True, many dam-bypass proponents, myself included, would prefer a dam-free lower Snake River, because we value the natural rivers and their landscapes, but that does not mean we are not primarily or equally motivated by a desire to recover Snake River salmon. Indeed, healthy salmon runs were once part of our natural landscape. They sustained thousands of jobs, and the salmon's bodies provided vital nutrients to young salmon and other flora and fauna. The absence of healthy runs costs jobs, impoverishes the river's ecology, and is inconsistent with the desire of many northwesterners to have healthy, productive rivers and the benefits they provide. Fallows's attempt to separate these interwoven motivations and ascribe only one to advocates of dam bypass reveals a lack of understanding about their fundamental interrelationship.

    Rob Masonis
    American Rivers
    Seattle, Wash.

    James Fallows badly mistakes the motivation of salmon advocates in the Northwest and is confused about important facts. He mistakenly calls the growing campaign to remove four large dams on the lower Snake River part of an "anti-dam movement." Salmon advocates have called for the removal of ten to fifteen of more than 200 large dams in the Northwest. Where dams are the primary or dominant threat to salmon, removal is a valid -- and often the least expensive -- salmon-recovery measure. In other cases, such as on Washington's Skagit River, changes in dam operations can ensure both healthy salmon and hydropower. In still other cases dams are not part of the problem.

    Northwest fishers and conservationists support removing four dams on the lower Snake because of overwhelming scientific evidence that Snake River salmon will go extinct with these four dams in place. The Oregon and Idaho chapters of the American Fisheries Society, along with the state fishery agencies of Alaska, Oregon, and Idaho, have called for removing these dams. Fallows implies that we chose these four rather than others by a calculation that we could succeed in removing them. No -- we chose them because Snake River salmon are doomed with them in place.

    We agree that factors other than dams deserve case-by-case attention. The salmon harvest must be well regulated to minimize the impact on wild salmon, and salmon-hatchery practices need significant changes whose specifics vary widely. If all the hours devoted by salmon advocates were totted up, the majority would probably be found to have gone to harvest and hatchery issues. Those hours are less visible than the campaign against the Snake River dams, because they are spent on many small cases: specific hatcheries, fisheries, and regulations.

    For Snake River salmon, our focus on the dams is well placed. According to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, fishing is responsible for about eight percent of human-caused mortality on wild Snake River fall chinook salmon, whereas dams are responsible for more than 80 percent. General fishing for Snake River wild spring and summer chinook salmon was closed in 1977 and 1964, respectively, yet these populations may be extinct by 2017.

    Pat Ford
    Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition
    Boise, Idaho

    Although his article was insightful in many ways, James Fallows unfortunately accepts the tired conventional wisdom that "the surest route to 'paving the river with salmon,' in a favored regional phrase, would be to maximize hatchery operations." This was the operational policy of regional fisheries agencies for many years, and it has failed miserably. Our rivers are not paved with salmon, yet we have built more than 300 salmon hatcheries in the Pacific Northwest. Exactly how many hatcheries does Fallows think we need to pave the river with salmon? If hatcheries were the solution, we would not have a problem!

    Ray Hilborn
    Seattle, Wash.

    James Fallows's article includes a factual error. He refers to "Grand Coulee, on the upper Columbia, which totally blocks upstream salmon passage" -- implying that salmon can get to the Grand Coulee dam. In fact the dam directly downstream from Grand Coulee is the first one the salmon cannot pass. Chief Joseph Dam does not have a fish ladder, so no salmon can get past it into Rufus Woods Lake, which is downstream from Grand Coulee.

    Fred Frost
    Columbia Falls, Mont.

    James Fallows replies:

    The letter from Rob Masonis illustrates the outlook my article was trying to describe. The main theme of the article was that while claiming to pursue one paramount objective, "saving salmon," many groups in the Northwest are pursuing several objectives at once, with inevitable conflicts among the goals. If preserving salmon really were paramount, then getting rid of dams would not pass any triage test as the first, most urgent step to take. It's slow, it's expensive, it's essentially irreversible, it has its own environmental side effects. The fastest, least expensive (in terms of damages to pay), most completely reversible step would be to reduce the most destructive forms of "harvest," from ocean fishing to gill-netting. If the fish really were paramount, there would be talk about shooing away the new colonies of terns near the mouth of the Columbia; questions would be asked about the possibility of conflict between the steady growth in population of sea lions, which feed heavily on salmon, and survival of the fish stocks; and note would be taken that this year's salmon runs, with no change in the dams, have been the strongest in many years, and careful study would be undertaken to determine what circumstances made this so. Mr. Masonis suggests not maximizing salmon protection but optimizing the outcome with respect to a number of objectives. That's fine, but it's different from "saving the fish."

    Pat Ford's letter expresses a balanced, multi-factor outlook that is different from the general "dams are all that matter" tone of discussions usual in the Northwest. His assertion of "overwhelming scientific evidence" against the four Snake River dams is, however, a familiar part of the discourse. My experience is that the evidence is far shakier and more ambiguous than he suggests. (The Atlantic's Web site has extensive links to salmon studies.) To me this indicates the value of taking the fastest, cheapest, most easily reversible steps first, while intensively studying dams and other factors that affect the salmon's survival.

    I mentioned hatcheries not to suggest that they are a panacea but to illustrate the sometimes contradictory objectives pursued in the name of "saving salmon." If salmon were considered the way catfish are, as an aquatic meat for harvest, then to maximize meat output one would collect as many eggs as possible and send them to hatcheries, where many more will hatch than will in the wild. Salmon hatcheries were opened on the West Coast more than a century ago as a way of offsetting fishing pressure, and they have been successful at the narrow goal of producing more fish to be caught. If we wanted to "pave the river with salmon," as Ray Hilborn mentions, all it would take is to stop catching them. What hatcheries have not done is protect wild-breeding salmon. Indeed, they have done the reverse -- mainly because the higher harvest levels they justify lead to catches of wild and hatchery fish alike.

    Fred Frost is correct that Chief Joseph Dam is downstream of Grand Coulee, and would stop the salmon whether or not Grand Coulee existed. The reason I stressed Grand Coulee is that it was built first. Since it had no fish ladders or other passage facilities, it made the crucial difference in keeping salmon out of the vast upstream reaches of the Columbia. The construction of Chief Joseph affected only the fifty miles between it and Grand Coulee.

    Advice & Consent

    Jon Cohen's article "The Hunt for the Origin of AIDS" (October Atlantic) provided background concerning the accusation by the British journalist Edward Hooper that an oral polio vaccine (OPV) used in Africa in the late 1950s was contaminated with HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) and was the original source of HIV in human beings. The Royal Society held a meeting on this topic just as The Atlantic went to press, and many of the outstanding issues have now been resolved.

    Chimpanzees carry a virus related to HIV, and Hooper has argued that chimpanzee kidneys were used in the preparation of the OPV in question. However, documentary and testimonial evidence from those directly involved in OPV production forty years ago shows that the vaccine was made in standard macaque kidney cells, not in chimpanzee cells. Actual tests of retained polio vaccine have confirmed that macaque, not chimpanzee, cells were used for the OPV. Furthermore, OPV samples revealed no traces of AIDS-related viruses. Hooper has also suggested that there was a correspondence between early AIDS cases and polio-vaccination sites, but this was shown to be illusory and epidemiologically unsound.

    By calculating the rate of evolution of the virus, three laboratories consistently estimated the time of origin of the ancestral virus of the global epidemic to be in the first half of the twentieth century, with the best estimates near 1930 -- several decades before the OPV trials. The only way these estimates could be reconciled with the OPV hypothesis would be if the ancestral virus resided and evolved in a chimpanzee host, and multiple variants were passed from chimpanzees to human beings through the OPV. Analysis presented in London, however, indicated that the epidemic strains of HIV-1 were descendants of a founder virus in a human host. Additional modeling suggested that HIV-1 may have spread very slowly during the first phase of its expansion, which could explain how it apparently went undetected for some decades.

    A general picture is emerging, through modeling HIV evolution, that doesn't fit the OPV hypothesis, although the precise events leading to the epidemic remain unknown. The full discussion at the Royal Society meeting in London made it clear that the polio-vaccine theory of the origin of HIV is highly implausible, owing to lack of supporting data and abundant contradictory evidence.

    Stanley A. Plotkin, M.D.
    Doylestown, Pa.

    Editors' Note

    The contents page for the December Atlantic should have designated that issue Volume 286, No. 6. We regret the error.


    Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; January 2001; Letters - 01.01; Volume 287, No. 1; page 8-12.