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 In a new but still unpublished report, the office said that "retaliation came in many forms ...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."

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