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 In a new but still unpublished report, the office said that "retaliation came in many forms ...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
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
News
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'