US editor ignites evolution row at Smithsonian

At the heart of the storm is Richard Sternberg, picked by the Smithsonian to edit one of its scientific journals, the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. Normally, the journal arouses little non-specialist interest. But Dr Sternberg stepped straight into a controversy gripping America by publishing an article supporting the theory of intelligent design, the idea that an outside agent - God - must have at least lent a hand in creating our universe.

He has reignited a row that began when President Bush managed to appall the US scientific community during a meeting with reporters in Texas. Asked whether the notion of intelligent design should be taught in American schools alongside the theory of evolution he answered that, yes, it should. The appearance of the article, by an outside contributor named Stephen Meyer last August, has triggered an academic and political food-fight of astonishing proportions. Mr Sternberg's colleagues believe that the publication of the piece has all but brought a secular scientific institution into disrepute. "We do stand by evolution; we are a scientific organisation," said Linda St Thomas, a spokeswoman for the Smithsonian, which runs 16 of America's most important museums.

But a federal body, run by a hand-picked appointee of President Bush, has now accused the Smithsonian of waging a vindictive smear campaign against one of their own peers.

The allegation has been made by the Office of Special Counsel set up precisely to investigate cases of federal government employees who feel they have been unfairly treated or dismissed.

Most of the smears against Dr Sternberg, 42, came in the form of a flurry of e-mails. Some alleged that he was a closet priest or that he was an agent for radical conservative groups that peddle intelligent design or even creationism, which accepts almost literally the explanations in the Book of Genesis and views fossils not as scientific evidence but the residue from Noah's Flood.

"They were saying I accepted money under the table, that I was a crypto-priest, that I was a sleeper-cell operative for the creationists," Mr Sternberg told The Washington Post newspaper. "I was basically run out of there."

The Office of Special Counsel agrees. In a new but still unpublished report, the office said that "retaliation came in many forms ... misinformation was disseminated through the Smithsonian Institution and to outside sources. The allegations against you were later determined to be false".

James McVay, the principal lawyer and Bush appointee involved in studying the Sternberg case, stated in a letter to Dr Sternberg: "The rumour mill became so infected one of your colleagues had to circulate [your résumé] simply to dispel the rumour that you were not a scientist."

Mr McVay does not have the power to punish the Smithsonian. But he can try to embarrass it and some people believe he may have some political motivation in doing so.

Darwinism may be the basis of understanding for our existence in most of the developed world, but America still argues about it. In fact the debate seems only to get more and more passionate.

A recent Gallup poll showed that 45 per cent of Americans subscribe to the Book of Genesis theory of our origins. Only about one-third are ready to accept the evolutionary propositions of Darwin. Among the e-mails Mr Sternberg received after publishing the Meyer article was this one from an anonymous Smithsonian scientist: "We are evolutionary biologists and I am sorry to see us made into the laughing stock of the world, even if this kind of rubbish sells well in backwoods USA."

Dr Sternberg meanwhile insists that he himself is agnostic about intelligent design but defends his decision to publish the article that discussed it.

"I am not convinced by intelligent design but they have brought a lot of difficult questions to the fore," he said. "Science moves forward only on controversy."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future