Richard Sternberg Evolutionary Biologist
Smithsonian Controversy

Response to Science

Responses to questions from Science

From: Richard M. Sternberg
Sent: Fri 9/10/2004 12:38 PM
To: Constance Holden
Subject: Response to questions

Q: “…the Discovery Institute people seem to think it is quite a coup for Stephen Meyer to have gotten a paper into the journal you were editing…I wonder if you could comment on this.”

A: It seems to me that everyone is making far too much out of this publication. As to the Discovery Institute, you should ask them what they think.

Q: “What does it mean to be a “structuralist” as you told The Scientist you are?”

A: I subscribe to a school of biological thought often termed “process structuralism.” Process or biological structuralism is concerned with understanding the formal, generative rules underlying organic forms, and focuses on the system architectures of organisms and their interrelationships. Structuralist analysis is generally ahistorical, systems-oriented, and non-evolutionary (not anti-evolutionary). Both creationism and neo-Darwinism are, in contrast, emphatically historicist with one positing extreme polyphyly (de novo creation of species) and the other radical monophyly (common descent). Since the structuralist perspective runs somewhat perpendicular to the origins debate, creationists and evolutionists tend to see it as inimical to their positions. The truth is structuralism has little at stake in the origins issue, leaving a person like myself free to dialogue with all parties. For this reason, I frequently discourse with ultra-Darwinians, macromutationists, self-organization theorists, complexity theorists, intelligent design advocates, theistic evolutionists, and “creationists” without necessarily agreeing with any of their views.

Q: “In retrospect do you think it was inappropriate for the journal to publish the paper, as all the associate editors apparently think?”

A: I’m taking inappropriate to mean one of two things, either a faux pas such as wearing brown shoes with a blue suit, or something politically incorrect. The paper was not outside the journal’s scope (so no white socks and leisure suit in this instance). Furthermore, Meyer set forth a reasoned view about an issue of fundamental importance to systematics: the basis of taxa. Now, his ideas are considered politically incorrect or “anti-scientific” by some. But since I don’t do politically correct science and since I think that human reason (i.e., science) is capable of at least considering questions about ultimate causes, no, I don’t think his paper was inappropriate in any meaningful sense.

The editorial process of the Proceedings is not democratic. The associate editors of the Proceedings are assigned incoming papers by the managing editor and they make recommendations to the managing editor, who finally accepts or rejects a paper. In the case of book reviews and other review articles, the Editor has the discretion to choose editors (ad hoc or otherwise) and reviewers to insure a fair and critical review process. In the case of the Meyer paper, because I thought it might be controversial, I discussed publication of the paper with a member of the Council the BSW several times—something I normally never did—and that person (who is also one of my supervisors at the Museum) encouraged me to proceed. The present reaction of the associate editors and the Council (of which the managing editor is an important part) is being driven (in my opinion) solely by the politics of science.

I’ve received four kinds of responses regarding the Meyer article. The first is one of extreme hostility and anger that the peer-review process was not barred to a “creationist” author—no questions asked (a minority view). The second is what I’d term the herd instinct: this response arises when some key people (often members of the first group) are upset. Some people, once they begin to feel the heat from individuals with strong opinions, feign being upset too or actually become upset, for fear that they’ll seem to be a “supporter” of an unpopular or despised position. Many of these individuals initially displayed no concern or qualms about the paper until some loud voices displayed their discontent. Those in the third category don’t really care about the issue one way or the other, because it doesn’t impact their research. In terms of population size, groups two and three are by far the largest. The fourth group consists of those who found the paper “informative,” “stimulating,” “thought-provoking,” (real quotes I’ve heard from colleagues about the paper), including some who are in agreement with some of Meyer’s ideas. Many members of the third and fourth groups have told me that (in their opinion) sooner or later the design issue will have to be debated in a reasoned manner.

Finally, so you have a more complete context, I’ve pasted below my responses to related questions from reporters at The Scientist and Nature.

Rick Sternberg