Sternberg and the "smear" of Creationism

One of the items in the list of offenses Richard Sternberg claims to have suffered at the hands of his Smithsonian colleagues and the “Darwinian orthodoxy” after the publication of the Meyer paper is the accusation of being a “Young Earth Creationist”. However, the record shows that, at the time, the accusation was hardly a purposeful smear aimed at unfairly tarnishing Sternberg’s reputation, but a reasonable conclusion based on the available information. More below.

The claim that Sternberg was a Young Earth Creationist stemmed in large part from the discovery that Sternberg has been, for several years, on the Editorial Board of a Young-Earth Creationist newsletter, the “Occasional Papers of the Baraminology Study Group” (OPBSG). Baraminology is a Creationist pseudoscientific version of taxonomy, which focuses on the supposedly unabridgeable differences between organisms to identify the Biblical “created kinds”. The Baraminology Study Group (BSG) has seat at the Young-Earth Creationist William Jennings Bryan College in Dayton, TN, and as far as I can tell it includes, besides Sternberg, only Young-Earth Creationists. A requirement for BSG Society membership is that one must be “a Christian accepting the auhority of the Bible … in all areas” (Sternberg is not a Society member).

Since the Meyer-Sternberg affaire broke out, Sternberg has defended himself from the accusation by claiming that his role on the OPBSG Editorial Board was that of a “friendly but critical outsider”. The BSG’s Todd Wood has issued a letter supporting Dr. Sternberg’s assertion to the extent that he (Sternberg) is “not a young-earth creationist” and “does not accept the young earth position” (no comment was made on other forms of Creationism).

While Sternberg could have acted as an outside critical reviewer for the BSG under various roles, he was officially on the Editorial Board of OPBSG, and also actively contributed to the BSG proceedings. For instance, in 2001, Sternberg participated in the “Discontinuity: Understanding Biology in the Light of Creation” conference at Cedarville University. In his presentation there, he argued that process structuralism (a theory, which Sternberg adheres to, about the origin of biological types that aims at understanding “laws of form” underlying morphology, independent of the historical process of evolution) “provides a ready-made, although as yet incomplete, theoretical foundation for baraminological thinking”, and that “Some structuralists are striving to establish a “rational systematics”… that would reflect the ‘Plan of Creation’.” His talk drew an unreservedly enthusiastic review by an attending Young-Earth Creationist, writing for the “Creation Science Dialogue”. [Incidentally, Sternberg’s take on structuralism sounds a little peculiar to me, as I have always known most major structuralists to definitely accept evolution by common descent, although they disagree with mainstream evolutionary theory that evolution’s historical process, via contingent mutation and adaptation, can reveal how morphology originates. I would have a hard time fitting baraminological theory, which argues for independent supernatural de novo creation of organisms, within the framework of structuralism as it is generally intended. But I am not an expert on structuralism, anyway. Perhaps someone can add to this in the comments.]

Also, right before the Meyer paper was published, Sternberg was the sole author of another paper in OPBSG, presented at the Third BSG Conference “Discovering the Creator”, held at Bryan College. In the abstract, Sternberg argues for a fundamental discontinuity in the fossil transitional forms of cetaceans:

Second, whereas the basal cetaceans are arranged in a complex map-like way to each other, they are only weakly connected to the basilosaurids-dorudontids [extinct primitive cetaceans - AB], and strictly discontinuous with Mysticetes and Odontocetes [moderns cetaceans - AB]. Serious logical problems with the interpretation of “Pseudocetes” as transitional forms are briefly presented.

The lingo and conclusions of the paper are indistibuishable from those of bona fide baraminologist material.

It is therefore hardly a surprise that, when Sternberg was involved in overseeing the publication of the anti-evolution paper by Meyer, people simply assumed that his connection with baraminology was more than that of a “friendly but critical outsider”. (Meyer is himself a Creationist who rejects the evidence for common descent and, as a faculty of Palm Beach Atlantic University, affirms “that man was directly created by God”.)

One may legitimately argue whether the best form of “friendly outside criticism” a scientist can provide to baraminologists is to help them hone their pseudo-scientific methods and arguments about the impossibility of evolution, and thus reinforce their cranky beliefs, as opposed to unequivocally taking the scientific position of arguing for the evidence that the Earth is 4.6 billion years old, that a world-wide flood never occurred and that the fossil and molecular records are definitive evidence that biological species changed across time. Perhaps Sternberg did that as well, and the record of such criticisms was expunged from publication of the various BSG conference reports (in which case, Sternberg should have realized his “friendly criticism” was not as welcome as his apparent endorsement).

The issue remains that as the Meyer paper scandal broke, Sternberg’s participation in the BSG proceedings in the relevant public record appeared, for all intents and purposes, genuinely and unconditionally supportive.

Based on the information emerged later, one can accept Sternberg’s and Wood’s word, and agree Sternberg is in fact not a Young-Earth Creationist - I for one am willing to do that. However, in asking for fairness from his colleagues in this respect, Sternberg should reciprocate in kind, and cease making false accusations that the claim he was a closet Young-Earth Creationist was an “outrageous rumor” and a willful attempt to smear him, as opposed to a straightforward and reasonable inference from the overwhelming available evidence in the summer of 2004.

In his dealings with the baraminologists, just like in his mishandling of the Meyer paper review, Sternberg can trade the accusation of being an outright pseudoscientist with that of simply being a scientist with exceptionally bad professional judgement. He can’t however just blame his colleagues for taking his own words and actions at face value.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Gary Hurd for pointing out material and sources, and Nick and Wes for suggestions.