Sunday, February 13, 2005

A former editor of a scientific journal has filed a complaint against the Smithsonian Institution, charging that he was discriminated against on the basis of perceived religious and political beliefs because of an article he published that challenged the Darwinian theory of evolution.

“I was singled out for harassment and threats on the basis that they think I’m a creationist,” said Richard Sternberg, who filed the complaint with the federal Office of Special Counsel.

Smithsonian officials deny the accusations.

“We at the Smithsonian consider religion a matter of personal faith. The evolutionary theory is a matter of science. The two are not incompatible,” said Randall Kremer, a spokesman for the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History.

Mr. Sternberg, who holds two doctorates in evolutionary biology, says he’s been told by the Office of Special Counsel that “they take my complaint seriously and are investigating.” The special counsel’s office said it cannot discuss the case.

Mr. Sternberg, 41, is employed at the National Center for Biotechnology Information, a part of the National Institutes of Health. But as part of his duties there, he spends half of his time at the Smithsonian as a research associate.

From December 2001 until last fall, he also served as managing editor of an independent journal published at the Smithsonian called the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington.

Mr. Sternberg said his troubles started after the appearance of the August 2004 issue of the journal, which included a peer-reviewed article by Stephen C. Meyer. The article, titled, “The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories,” made the case for a theory known as intelligent design, or ID.

ID contends that the origins of some biological forms are better explained by an unspecified intelligent agent than by natural processes, such as natural selection and genetic mutation, which are hallmarks of Darwinism.

In his report, Mr. Meyer, a fellow at the Discovery Institute in Seattle, argues that ID is a more likely explanation than evolution for the biodiversity in the Cambrian period about 530 million years ago. He points to the “explosion” of phyla, which “suddenly appeared within a narrow 5- to 10-million-year window of geological time” during that period.

“To say that the fauna of the Cambrian period appeared in a geologically sudden manner … implies the absence of clear transitional intermediate forms connecting Cambrian animals with simpler pre-Cambrian forms,” Mr. Meyer wrote in his defense of ID.

The report was “peer-reviewed” by three outside scientists, Mr. Sternberg said, “but employees at the Smithsonian, who had a sharply negative reaction to the report, insinuated that editorial malfeasance occurred on my end. I protested vigorously.”

He says he gave up his post as managing editor of Proceedings in September but continued to be harassed by Smithsonian officials. Mr. Sternberg says he was penalized by the museum’s Department of Zoology, which limited his access to research collections and told him his associateship at the museum would not be renewed because no one could be found to sponsor him for another three-year term.

Because of his shortened tenure, Mr. Sternberg says he will not have time to complete his research on crustaceans.

He also said one zoology official told him the museum “is not comfortable with religious fundamentalism and with creationism, so you are being treated differently.”

Mr. Sternberg also says he was “called on the carpet” by his bosses at NIH after they were besieged by phone calls and e-mails from Smithsonian staffers, seeking his ouster. He said one Smithsonian official even wanted to know if he is a “right-winger.”

“My lawyer called some people on Capitol Hill,” who intervened and saved his job at NIH, Mr. Sternberg said.

Mr. Kremer, the Smithsonian spokesman, denied that Mr. Sternberg’s supervisor at the museum or any other museum officials called NIH to get him fired. He also insists Mr. Sternberg still has access to the collections he needs for research.

“Research associates are here at our pleasure … but every effort was made to ensure there was no discrimination, even though he (Mr. Sternberg) published something a lot of people didn’t agree with,” Mr. Kremer said.

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