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  • None Dare Call it Reason: A Smithsonian Scientist Discovers the "Gentlemen's Agreement" Against Intelligent Design

    by Denyse O'Leary

    Science searches for the best explanations of natural phenomena. Or so we are told. But what happens if a scientist publishes a peer-reviewed paper in a journal suggesting that the best explanation for the sudden appearance of a huge variety of life forms at the very beginning of animal life is intelligent design?

    In early 2005 Richard Sternberg, editor of a science journal and holder of two PhDs in biology, was forced to flee for justice to the U.S. government's Office of Special Counsel (OSC) because he had permitted a scientist to publish in his journal a paper that suggested that intelligent design might be the best explanation for the origin of the basic forms of animal life.

    And thereby hangs a tale about what science is and isn't, today.

    Our story begins at a sleepy museum publication in the summer of 2004. A paper, "The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories," by geologist Steve Meyer, was duly published, after peer review, in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington on August 4, and routinely uploaded to the Internet August 28.

    The Biological Society of Washington, which sponsors Proceedings, has about 250 members, mostly museum curators and specialists in classifying animals. The journal is hardly one of science's heavyweights; it ranks 2,678 out of 3,110 scored journals in all science disciplines. Yet merely by publishing a paper sympathetic to intelligent design, Proceedings rocketed from comfortable obscurity to headline news in major science and popular media.

    Meyer's article was not-at first glance-the kind of writing that should touch off a media meltdown. Meyer merely rakes the cold coals of a venerable science mystery, the Cambrian explosion.

    About 530 million years ago (according to current dating procedures), a strange event disturbed the oceans of the Earth. A planet long ruled by creatures content to be just one cell exploded with a huge variety of animals, with complex organs such as eyes. These animals were examples of the basic types of creatures that we see today. Geologically speaking, the Cambrian explosion was the twinkling of an eye. It is sometimes called the "Big Bang of biology."

    This explosion of animal life worried Charles Darwin. A long, slow evolution of life forms better suits his theory of evolution than a short dramatic one. Supporters of Darwin's naturalistic evolution (evolution without any intelligence behind it) have fretted over the Cambrian ever since. Usually, they have argued, as Darwin did, that the explosion would appear much longer and slower if we had all the fossils. But now that we have so many more fossils, the explosion seems all the more remarkable.

    Two well-known excavation sites for the remarkable animals of the Cambrian are Canada's Burgess Shale and China's Chengjiang site.

    Author Steve Meyer is, among other things, a proponent of intelligent design, a theory according to which "the origin of information is best explained by an act of intelligence rather than a strictly materialistic process." (The Scientist, September 3, 2004) In his view, the Cambrian explosion most likely had help from a designing intelligence.

    Meyer, who is director of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, wrote, "An experience-based analysis of the causal powers of various explanatory hypotheses suggests purposive or intelligent design as a causally adequate-and perhaps the most causally adequate-explanation for the origin of the complex specified information required to build the Cambrian animals and the novel forms they represent."

    In other words, intelligent design is a reasonable idea. But according to Darwin lobby groups, a scientist is forbidden to utter such words. They quickly alerted the science media to the deplorable words. Major popular media soon chimed in as well.

    "A new front has opened up in the battle between scientists and advocates of intelligent design," huffed Jim Giles in the pre-eminent journal Nature (2004 09 09), as if it were self-evident that science and intelligent design must be in conflict. (More on that later.) "Creationists at the gate" shrieked the Boston Globe, in a piece distinguished for factual errors, such as locating the Smithsonian-based Society in Washington State instead of Washington, D.C.

    Editor Richard Sternberg, a staff scientist and research associate at the National Center for Biotechnology Information, soon found himself under a sustained assault. It was useless for Sternberg to point out, as he did to The Scientist, that the Meyer paper's three peer reviewers "all hold faculty positions in biological disciplines at prominent universities and research institutions, one at an Ivy League university, one at a major U.S. public university, and another at a major overseas research institute." Or that the peer reviewers didn't necessarily agree with Meyer about intelligent design but felt that the paper was "meritorious, warranting publication."

    Equally useless for Sternberg to point out that he is not himself an advocate of intelligent design. Sternberg is actually a process structuralist, which means that he thinks that the structure of life forms follows underlying natural laws, rather than Darwinian evolution, intelligent design, or creationism.

    Sternberg reacted strongly against those in the science community who quickly labeled him and Meyer, incorrectly, as creationists. "It's fascinating how the 'creationist' label is falsely applied to anyone who raises any questions about neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory," he told The Scientist "The reaction to the paper by some [anti-creationist] extremists suggests that the thought police are alive and well in the scientific community."

    Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, quickly identified the key issue at stake: "The theory of evolution is a tottering house of ideological cards that is more about cherished mythology than honest intellectual endeavor. Evolutionists treat their cherished theory like a fragile object of veneration and worship and so it is. Panic is a sure sign of intellectual insecurity, and evolutionists have every reason to be insecure, for their theory is falling apart."

    But alas, Sternberg's career was falling apart, too. The humble little journal for which he had worked backed away from the article quickly, announcing to the world that it had made a mistake (Chronicle of Higher Education, September 10, 2004).

    Worse, Sternberg's colleagues began to shun him. In the aftermath of the controversy, he told a Canadian journalist, "The situation at the moment is rather surreal. My Smithsonian colleagues and many outside the museum regard my editorial decision as tantamount to an unspeakable crime." One colleague felt "personally violated" by Steinberg's action and the Assistant Director in the museum resigned from the Society in protest. Letters, e-mails, and phone calls demanded that Steinberg be fired. When he attempted to defend himself against simple untruths, he was accused, in an Orwellian twist, of posturing or "making a big deal" out of the affair.

    But why were the science elite so hard on editor Sternberg rather than author Steve Meyer, when it was Meyer who proposed intelligent design and Sternberg had simply followed the written rules for his job?

    Ah well, you see, there is an unwritten rule in science media: No paper advocating intelligent design is to be published, whether it complies with the written rules or not. This is essentially a modern version of the infamous "gentlemen's agreement" that no persons of a certain type are to be permitted to buy a home in a given neighborhood, whether they have the money or not. Sternberg was an insider who broke that unwritten rule and let an outsider in.

    The Smithsonian continued to hound Sternberg. As David Klinghoffer explained in Wall Street Journal (January 28, 2005), Sternberg was asked to give up his office and the keys to the floor that holds the specimens of fossil life forms that he studies. A colleague was also assigned to watch him.

    Supervisors also began to pry into Sternberg's religious and political beliefs, wondering if he was a "fundamentalist." Sternberg told WSJ that he is a Catholic who attends Mass but then admitted, "I would call myself a believer with a lot of questions, about everything. I'm in the postmodern predicament." That's hardly most people's idea of a fundamentalist. Finally, abandoned by almost everyone and surveying the ruins of his career, Sternberg appealed to the OSC, citing discrimination for his perceived (but not necessarily actual) religious beliefs. He awaits the outcome of his case.

    But what if Sternberg in fact believed the unthinkable-that the Cambrian creatures are intelligently designed? Is the intelligence that designed them God, as revealed in the Bible?

    Actually, science can't say. Not, thankfully, because the topic is truly forbidden but because science can only study the design, not the designer. After all, the Cambrian fossils do not offer divine revelation; they reveal only their own exquisite nature, inviting the viewer to wonder: Little clam, who made thee?

    Ah, but this approach assumes a particular way of looking at science: It assumes that science follows the evidence. Either the evidence suggests that the Cambrian creatures can arise by chance or else it doesn't. If it doesn't, we must consider design.

    Design suggests that we do not live in a Godless universe, as philosopher Anthony Flew concluded. But if the evidence is against a Godless universe, science must accept that evidence. Surely, it is not the purpose of science to campaign for a Godless universe, against the evidence?

    Unfortunately, the meltdown in the science media that engulfed editor Rick Sternberg signals the dominance in the American science community of a very different way of looking at science-naturalism. According to naturalism, science can only consider life forms as chance events acted on by the laws of physics and chemistry. That is, the only legitimate way a scientist can understand the Cambrian creatures is as products of law and chance, and not of design. So it is the duty of a scientist to discount any evidence of design and continue to search for some means by which they could scuttle into existence purely by chance.

    Phillip E. Johnson, constitutional lawyer and intelligent design advocate, put it like this in his 1991 book, Darwin on Trial:

    There are two definitions of science at work in the scientific culture, and a concealed contradiction between them is beginning to come out into public view. On the one hand, science is dedicated to empirical evidence and to following that evidence wherever it leads. That is why science had to be free of the Bible, because the Bible was seen to constrain the possibilities scientists were allowed to consider. On the other hand, science also means "applied materialist philosophy." Scientists who are materialists always look for strictly materialist explanations of every phenomenon, and they want to believe that such explanations always exist.

    Applied materialist philosophy allies science with the idea of a Godless universe or possibly a universe in which God exists but is not evident. In that case, the controversy between intelligent design and naturalism is not a conflict between faith and reason, but between differing faiths.

    Sternberg, who now hopes that OSC can help him salvage his once-promising science career, demonstrates an alarming truth: Naturalism is a jealous god, all the more jealous when it is in danger of being toppled.


    Journalist Denyse O'Leary is the author of By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), an overview of the growing intelligent design controversy.