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The Branding of a Heretic

The Branding of a Heretic

Are religious scientists unwelcome at the Smithsonian?


The question of whether Intelligent Design (ID) may be presented to public-school students alongside neo-Darwinian evolution has roiled parents and teachers in various communities lately. Whether ID may be presented to adult scientific professionals is another question altogether but also controversial. It is now roiling the government-supported Smithsonian Institution, where one scientist has had his career all but ruined over it.

The scientist is Richard Sternberg, a research associate at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington. The holder of two Ph.D.s in biology, Mr. Sternberg was until recently the managing editor of a nominally independent journal published at the museum, Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, where he exercised final editorial authority. The August issue included typical articles on taxonomical topics -- e.g., on a new species of hermit crab. It also included an atypical article, "The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories." Here was trouble.

The piece happened to be the first peer-reviewed article to appear in a technical biology journal laying out the evidential case for Intelligent Design. According to ID theory, certain features of living organisms -- such as the miniature machines and complex circuits within cells -- are better explained by an unspecified designing intelligence than by an undirected natural process like random mutation and natural selection.

Mr. Sternberg has been penalized by the museum's Department of Zoology, his religious and political beliefs questioned.

Mr. Sternberg's editorship has since expired, as it was scheduled to anyway, but his future as a researcher is in jeopardy -- and that he had not planned on at all. He has been penalized by the museum's Department of Zoology, his religious and political beliefs questioned. He now rests his hope for vindication on his complaint filed with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) that he was subjected to discrimination on the basis of perceived religious beliefs. A museum spokesman confirms that the OSC is investigating. Says Mr. Sternberg: "I'm spending my time trying to figure out how to salvage a scientific career."

The offending review-essay was written by Stephen Meyer, who holds a Cambridge University doctorate in the philosophy of biology. In the article, he cites biologists and paleontologists critical of certain aspects of Darwinism -- mainstream scientists at places like the University of Chicago, Yale, Cambridge and Oxford. Mr. Meyer gathers the threads of their comments to make his own case. He points, for example, to the Cambrian explosion 530 million years ago, when between 19 and 34 animal phyla (body plans) sprang into existence. He argues that, relying on only the Darwinian mechanism, there was not enough time for the necessary genetic "information" to be generated. ID, he believes, offers a better explanation.

Whatever the article's ultimate merits -- beyond the judgment of a layman -- it was indeed subject to peer review, the gold standard of academic science. Not that such review saved Mr. Sternberg from infamy. Soon after the article appeared, Hans Sues -- the museum's No. 2 senior scientist -- denounced it to colleagues and then sent a widely forwarded e-mail calling it "unscientific garbage."

Meanwhile, the chairman of the Zoology Department, Jonathan Coddington, called Mr. Sternberg's supervisor. According to Mr. Sternberg's OSC complaint: "First, he asked whether Sternberg was a religious fundamentalist. She told him no. Coddington then asked if Sternberg was affiliated with or belonged to any religious organization… He then asked where Sternberg stood politically;… he asked, 'Is he a right-winger? What is his political affiliation?' " The supervisor (who did not return my phone messages) recounted the conversation to Mr. Sternberg, who also quotes her observing: "There are Christians here, but they keep their heads down."

Worries about being perceived as "religious" spread at the museum. One curator, who generally confirmed the conversation when I spoke to him, told Mr. Sternberg about a gathering where he offered a Jewish prayer for a colleague about to retire. The curator fretted: "So now they're going to think that I'm a religious person, and that's not a good thing at the museum."

Critics of ID have long argued that the theory was unscientific because it had not been put forward in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Now that it has, they argue that it shouldn't have been because it's unscientific.

In October, as the OSC complaint recounts, Mr. Coddington told Mr. Sternberg to give up his office and turn in his keys to the departmental floor, thus denying him access to the specimen collections he needs. Mr. Sternberg was also assigned to the close oversight of a curator with whom he had professional disagreements unrelated to evolution. "I'm going to be straightforward with you," said Mr. Coddington, according to the complaint. "Yes, you are being singled out." Neither Mr. Coddington nor Mr. Sues returned repeated phone messages asking for their version of events.

Mr. Sternberg begged a friendly curator for alternative research space, and he still works at the museum. But many colleagues now ignore him when he greets them in the hall, and his office sits empty as "unclaimed space." Old colleagues at other institutions now refuse to work with him on publication projects, citing the Meyer episode. The Biological Society of Washington released a vaguely ecclesiastical statement regretting its association with the article. It did not address its arguments but denied its orthodoxy, citing a resolution of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that defined ID as, by its very nature, unscientific.

It may or may not be, but surely the matter can be debated on scientific grounds, responded to with argument instead of invective and stigma. Note the circularity: Critics of ID have long argued that the theory was unscientific because it had not been put forward in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Now that it has, they argue that it shouldn't have been because it's unscientific. They banish certain ideas from certain venues as if by holy writ, and brand heretics too. In any case, the heretic here is Mr. Meyer, a fellow at Seattle's Discovery Institute, not Mr. Sternberg, who isn't himself an advocate of Intelligent Design.

According to the OSC complaint, one museum specialist chided him by saying: "I think you are a religiously motivated person and you have dragged down the Proceedings because of your religiously motivated agenda." Definitely not, says Mr. Sternberg. He is a Catholic who attends Mass but notes: "I would call myself a believer with a lot of questions, about everything. I'm in the postmodern predicament."

Intelligent Design, in any event, is hardly a made-to-order prop for any particular religion. When the British atheist philosopher Antony Flew made news this winter by declaring that he had become a deist -- a believer in an unbiblical "god of the philosophers" who takes no notice of our lives -- he pointed to the plausibility of ID theory.

Darwinism, by contrast, is an essential ingredient in secularism, that aggressive, quasi-religious faith without a deity. The Sternberg case seems, in many ways, an instance of one religion persecuting a rival, demanding loyalty from anyone who enters one of its churches--like the National Museum of Natural History.

This article originally appeared at of the Wall Street Journal.

February 5, 2005

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The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 13

(13) Jerusalem, June 2, 2015 4:36 AM

Elegant universe

Has anyone ever wondered why string theory is called string theory?

I always tell people that if you are searching for answers then you may have to go some things alone. Loneliness is horrific but it is sometimes required to see things in a different light.

Humans cannot comprehend some things. Humans are not built to understand some things. God puts blocks on some people...
In the book of Job, God says you cannot go any further. It is for one's own good. Many have went insane in search of some things. It is best sometimes to use much caution and to go real slow. Things get really confusing and scary once the veil between the two worlds is taken away. One day your sure some people are humans and the next day your thinking maybe they are not...

The Bible says with much knowledge comes sorrow. They forgot to mention confusion.

(12) Merlock, February 26, 2005 12:00 AM

If I were this guy, I'd sue. I don't know what exactly he could sue for, but it seems outrageous that he's being ostracized just because he allowed a semi-religious article in a magazine. Un-be-lievable.

(11) Jeff Sciba, February 12, 2005 12:00 AM

It's all about money

Great article Sirs,
However, the article fails to expose the root cause of the Nazi like attitude towards ID. Federal funding cannot go towards research that concludes any reference to G-d. Financially, it is a kiss of death from receiveing federal funding. The "wall of separation between Church and state" is also a wall against truth, whether religious or scientific. So the scientists who claim the ID conclusion as unscientific, are merely feeding their bellies with food, produced from publications which are generating scientific fiction.

(10) paul, February 11, 2005 12:00 AM

Not one useful "mutation" came from outside the gene structure

In other words the reason a bacteria "mutates" or develops resistant is that within the gene structure of the bacteria it the ability to do such adaptation.

In other words if the atmosphere of the earth were sucked away in one second all human life would be exterminated unless there were certain humans who in their genetic structure had the ability to live without atmosphere. ALL helpful "adaptations" are preexistant in the genetic structure because the genes were designed to allow the aroganism to adapt to the new environment!

(9) Howard, February 10, 2005 12:00 AM

Intelligent Design Is a Scientific Theory that drives creative testable research

I agree with Mr. Langer's description of the richness of evolutionary theory in its ability to give insight into the structures of life and the interrelationships between species, but I don't agree with his immediate dismissal of ID as a non scientific approach in the classical sense.

It is clear that there is an interrelation amongst species and widespread reuse of similar forms across many different creatures and even Phylla. (eg. lots of different creatures use similarly built legs, eyes, circulatory systems etc). One of the fundamental questions though is what is the driving force shaping these structures.

Darwinian evolutionary theory posits that competition for resources and environmental niches amongst individuals (natural selection)combined with the mutability during reproduction is sufficient to have driven the process forward rapidly enough and broadly enough to have created the variation of life forms present in the world over time.

ID as a theory notes that 1. The breadth of species, 2. The complexity of specific biological systems and 3. The rapid rise of immense numbers of species in certain epochs 4. The apparent sudden jumps from predecessor to successor forms and 5. the difficulty in sustaining interemediate forms (eg. the transition from a tidal pool full of fatty lipids and amino acids into 1 cell animals had to happen before the next wave washed in) all argue against natural selection as the driving mechanism. One logical alternative approach is that an outside force or cause drives the system forward.

Rather than shut off discussion or research, this approach opens up vast new areas of inquiry. It is parallel to Mendel and his famous early genetics research. Mendel experimented with pea plants which have a set of clearly measurable, heritable traits (color, leaf shape etc.) and came to the conclusion that an unknown, systematic, "intelligent" force was driving the distribution of these traits into the next generation.

Rather than denouncing him as a religous fanatic (he was a monk after all) he inspired generations of research that has in fact discovered the source of this outside control, the genetic system driven by DNA.

Similarly in this case the position that there is more to evolution than we understand yet, can only be held as unscientific by sitting closed mindedly, more loyal to your initial position than to truth.

ID holds that there is an external motive factor driving the process. It might be right, it might be wrong, but its proponents rightly point out flaws in relying upon natural selection/mutations as the sole mechanism driving evolution forward. Embrace the questions and learn.

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