Catholic Scientist Hounded to Leave the Smithsonian?

WASHINGTON — Catholics are increasingly prominent among the dissenting minority of scientists claiming evolutionary theory has gaping holes.

Some say the theory is more of a “secular religion,” and are advancing their own alternative to Darwin, called Intelligent Design.

One such Catholic scientist is Richard Sternberg, a biologist and recent convert, who claims he was harassed from his position as a research associate at the iconic Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, not for his religious beliefs but for his daring to challenge the reigning biological paradigm, Darwinian evolution (See Commentary & Opinion, page 9).

“I was denied access to research materials,” Sternberg told the Register. “I was told if anything went wrong, material went missing, I was going to be blamed for it. It was brought to my attention that they were looking for ways to show me the door disgracefully. It was just too risky to stay.”

This spring, Sternberg stopped using his office at the Smithsonian and the access it once afforded to the museum's huge collection of specimens, while continuing at his paying research job at the National Institutes of Health.

Smithsonian spokesman Randall Kramer says as far the organization is concerned, Sternberg is still an associate.

“He still has access. He still has keys but we haven't seen him for months.”

He would add nothing to earlier Smithsonian denials of Sternberg's complaints.

But Sternberg has support: The U.S. Office of Special Counsel investigated his claim of job harassment and found it justified, while at the same time ruling that his job classification at the Smithsonian (as an unpaid associate) put him outside the Office of Special Council's jurisdiction.

Sternberg's harassment began last year, the Office of Special Council found, after he published an article on Intelligent Design in his role as editor of the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington.

Intelligent Design is the theory that holds that life and living things show signs of having been designed by one or more intelligent agents. Life is too complex to have simply “happened,” believers in Intelligent Design contend.

Darwinian evolution proposes that all life evolved from a single organism through random genetic variations in offspring coupled with natural selection of those variations most conducive to survival.

The article was written by Stephen Meyer, a historian of science and a paid staffer at the Discovery Institute, a Seattle think tank that is a leading promoter of Intelligent Design.

“It was a case of shooting the messenger,” said Sternberg, who denies adherence to either evolutionism or ID, identifying himself instead as a “structuralist.” Structuralists study patterns in living things but stay clear of the origins issue, Sternberg insisted, which allows them to converse politely with advocates of either camp.

Until now. The article's appearance set off a flurry of emails at the Smithsonian speculating on Sternberg's motives and how to oust him. Sternberg's supervisor was asked by the chairman of the zoology department whether Sternberg was a fundamentalist and what was his political affiliation. He was alleged to be a creationist —one who interprest the figurative language of the Scriptural accounts of creation as if they were historical.

Young Minds

Heavily involved in the assault on Sternberg's reputation was the National Center for Science Education in California, an organization devoted to defending evolution's primacy in public schools. Center staffers wrote a detailed critique of Meyer's article on a blog called “Panda's Thumb,” arguing that it fell so far short of the standards expected of scholarly journals that Sternberg's own bona fides needed investigating.

Nick Matzke, spokesman for the National Center of Science Education, said the Meyer article was “poor science,” a mere review of other articles, many by Meyer himself, all in Intelligent Design journals and none in peer-reviewed secular publications.

The center made a big deal of Meyer's article because it fears the Intelligent Design promoters will use its appearance in a legitimate journal to strengthen their case that their belief is scientifically respectable when they appear before school boards and legislators to urge inclusion of Intelligent Design in the public school curriculum.

As to Sternberg's claim that he is not an Intelligent Design advocate, the National Center for Science Education noted that he sits on the editorial board of a Young Earth journal, a Christian publication for scientists who date the creation of the world to only a few millennia ago.

Matzke also insisted there has been no witch hunt: “He still has his job at the Smithsonian. All that has happened is that there has been legitimate criticism of a paper he allowed to be published.”

But Sternberg says that his friends at the Smithsonian now have to deny their friendship with him to keep their jobs, while the three scientists who reviewed the Meyer article have insisted he keep their identities secret for fear they will be punished as well.

Such sanctions are routine, says Discovery Institute President Bruce Chapman, also a Catholic. “Darwinism is a kind of religion for some in the scientific establishment. Certainly it is the ruling paradigm. A lot of grants, careers and reputations are wrapped up in it,” he added, so that threats to it must be stamped out.

Among recent victims: Dean Kenyon, a professor at San Francisco State University and author of a popular college text on evolution, about which he began to have doubts. In 1993, his department head ordered him to stop sharing these doubts with his students after several complained. Kenyon's doubts about evolution led him eventually to Catholicism.

And in late September, a trial was held over whether the Dover, Pa., school district could require biology teachers to mention Intelligent Design in class and to refer students to a book in the library on the subject. Eleven parents are challenging a 2004 school board vote requiring the presentation of the theory.

One prominent Catholic critic of evolution, Michael Behe, still has his teaching job at Lehigh University.

“I have tenure,” he explained simply. “But I get a lot of calls and e-mails from students interested in Intelligent Design. I advise them to say nothing, keep their heads down and wait till they have tenure before saying anything publicly. What happened to Richard Sternberg shows the wisdom of that advice.”

Steve Weatherbe is based in Victoria, British Columbia.