Richard Sternberg Evolutionary Biologist
Smithsonian Controversy

Letter to The Chronicle of Higher Education

Letter to the editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education

Dear Editor,

In your September 10 story, my colleague Roy McDiarmid expressed his disagreement with my judgment to publish Stephen C. Meyer’s article on evolution in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. Dr. McDiarmid has told me this himself so I’m sure your quotation is accurate.

Dr. McDiarmid made several other perhaps more important points, viz., the paper was peer-reviewed by three scientists, the reviewers recommended publication after revision, and the Society statement was in response to political pressure. Furthermore, an important distinction can be drawn between my scientific judgment as per the merit of the Meyer paper, and my political judgment as to how much unwelcome controversy the paper might generate. In his conversations with me Dr. McDiarmid has expressed concern about my political—not my scientific—judgment.

Either way, I want to make clear that I stand by my judgment about the scientific merit of the Meyer article. As an evolutionary biologist with two Ph.D.s (focusing on molecular evolutionary and theoretical biology) and over 30 peer-reviewed publications including many in evolutionary biology, I know the relevant scientific evidence and literature extremely well. Meyer’s critique of neo-Darwinism and other evolutionary models was based on a relevant and current literature survey. His paper—by addressing the problem of novel organismal morphologies from an information standpoint—provided insight into why this fundamental problem has not yet been solved. While Meyer presented a controversial alternative hypothesis, he did so in a scientific manner and in a way that advances understanding of why his view has reemerged as an option for some scientists. Overall, his discussion is certainly relevant to current fundamental issues in systematics and paleontology.

I perfectly well understand that some of my colleagues might have judged the Meyer article differently, had they been in my position as managing editor. Judgment about the merits of a scientific work cannot be entirely divorced from theoretical perspectives. A neo-Darwinian will have a perspective on an evolutionary topic that is different from (and sometimes in opposition to) that of a self-organization theorist or a structuralist such as myself. Nevertheless, such differences of opinion and the judgments based upon them are part of the healthy interchange of ideas we call science. What should not be part of science is the attempt to impugn the peer-review process after the fact because it led to a controversial or unwanted result.


Richard v. Sternberg
Former Managing Editor
Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington