Chronicle of Higher Ed-- Friday, September 10, 2004

Biology Journal Says It Mistakenly Published Paper That Attacks Darwinian Evolution

A small scientific society has publicly distanced itself from a paper, published last month by its journal, that challenges Darwinian evolution. The Biological Society of Washington issued a statement on Wednesday saying that the paper, which supports so-called intelligent-design theory, should not have appeared in the journal.

The controversial article is by Stephen C. Meyer, who directs the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute, in Seattle, and is a professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University, which describes itself as a Christian institution. The paper appeared in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington.

According to the society's governing council, the paper "was published without the prior knowledge of the council, which includes officers, elected councilors, and past presidents, or associate editors."

"We have met," the statement said, "and determined that all of us would have deemed this paper inappropriate for the pages of the Proceedings." The statement said nothing about retracting the article.

The paper was accepted for publication by the journal's previous editor, Richard Sternberg, a fellow at the National Center for Biotechnology Information, part of the National Institutes of Health. Mr. Sternberg is also a fellow of the International Society for Complexity, Information, and Design, which promotes the idea that nature has a purpose. He did not respond to repeated telephone calls from The Chronicle.

The Proceedings, a quarterly journal, normally publishes papers describing species of plants and animals. The other papers in the current issue describe four new species of crustaceans and three new species of sponges.

Mr. Meyer's paper -- on the much broader issue of the origin of animal phyla -- represents a significant departure, said the society's president, Roy W. McDiarmid, a scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey. He received several complaints from society members, prompting the council to issue its statement.

The paper had been reviewed by three scientists and had been recommended for publication pending revisions, said Mr. McDiarmid. He did not learn about the paper until after its publication. "My conclusion on this," he said, "was that it was a really bad judgment call on the editor's part."

Mr. Meyer's paper contends that current evolutionary theory cannot explain how new animal forms developed in the distant past. It goes on to advocate the theory of intelligent design, which holds that biological systems are so complex that they could have arisen only through the action of an intelligent force and not through purely random evolutionary processes.

Critics of intelligent design have described it as a more sophisticated version of creationism -- one that doesn't necessarily stick to biblical explanations of nature but still invokes an unspecified creator.

The Discovery Institute supports many leaders in the intelligent-design movement and has been working to promote the teaching of the theory in secondary schools and colleges.

According to Mr. Meyer, this is the first time that proponents of intelligent design have published an argument for the theory in a peer-reviewed scientific publication. He said he had chosen the journal because Mr. Sternberg attended a conference where Mr. Meyer gave an oral presentation advancing the same arguments. The two discussed the possibility of publishing the work, he said.

But opponents of intelligent design and creationism say that Mr. Meyer should have submitted his paper to one of the several journals that normally deal with the origin of animal forms.

"People who would be appropriate to review the paper would be evolutionary biologists, and I doubt that any evolutionary biologists reviewed the paper," said Eugenie C. Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education.


Copyright © 2004 by The Chronicle of Higher Education