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Happy Darwin Day! German Natural History Museum Is Our 2017 Censor of the Year

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The often-heard assertion that a scientific “consensus” exists in favor of orthodox Darwinian theory is true on the surface, but otherwise deceptive. Yes, a large majority of scientists if pressed, especially in public, would hastily affirm that neo-Darwinism explains the development of complex biological forms.

We know, however, that this apparent agreement conceals a great deal of intellectual and personal turmoil, just behind the facade. The unanimity is maintained by a tight discipline that includes outright censorship. That’s why every year Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture recognizes a Censor of the Year, an outstanding example of a person or institution that contributed to this pro-Darwin “consensus” through intimidation, agitation, or professional retaliation.

Now, with the debate about intelligent design (ID) taking place on an increasingly international stage, we reach across the Atlantic to name Germany’s Natural History Museum in Stuttgart as our 2017 Censor of the Year.

If you follow us at Evolution News, you’ll already have an inkling of the story that lies behind this choice. On Friday we announced a new Senior Fellow with the CSC, the distinguished German paleo-entomologist Günter Bechly, formerly curator of amber and fossil insects at the Natural History Museum. In welcoming Dr. Bechly, a specialist in dragonflies, we left out one thing. After coming out as an ID sympathizer in 2015, following his private exploration of the evidence for design in nature, Bechly was the victim of retaliation and censorship by his institution. Though the addition of Dr. Bechly to our scientific community is a wonderful boon to us, the ensuing parting of the ways with his museum came with heavy personal, professional, and health costs.

As told in the documentary Revolutionary (see an excerpt below), his doubts on evolution were first stirred in 2009 when he organized an exhibition to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Origin of Species and the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth. The exhibit included a display of a “scale” weighing the Origin against a collection of ID books by Michael Behe, Stephen Meyer, William Dembski, and others. Bechly’s “mistake” was to actually read those books.

This commenced a journey for him, motivated by scientific curiosity, not religion. As he recalls in the film, he had no religion to begin with, but only a love of and fascination with nature and animals.

He kept his interest in and support of ID private until October 2015, when he broached the subject on Facebook and a personal web page. Even then, Günter kept his ID writing strictly separate from his work for the museum. But word got out. He has shared it all with us, though some must be kept back, including names and positions, to protect innocent parties.

It began with strange smiles from colleagues, icy faces, and backstabbing gossip, moving on finally to open hostility. Without warning, his applications to acquire new fossil material — say, a collection of mid-Cretaceous Burmese amber — were blocked by unprecedented bureaucratic obstacles. He learned that a position he relied on, his amber preparator (handler), was proposed to go unfilled after its previous occupant retired.

Emails among his fellow scientists asked, “Have you already heard that Bechly has become a creationist? How shall we react and what can we do about it?” Conspiratorial meetings took place behind his back, as a colleague wondered, “How can we help Günter?” as if he were unwell. Co-workers placed phone calls to scientists outside the museum to ask if they knew about Bechly’s turn to “creationism.”

He was told that the large amber collection he was responsible for as curator would be moved away from his office. He was directed to resign from a position as ombudsman for the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation), a research-funding group.

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A colleague sought to draw out evidence of his heresy in a seemingly friendly email exchange, after which Günter was summoned for a discussion of his future at the institution. Says Dr. Bechly, he was told that “as a big threat to the credibility and reputation of the museum,” he was “no longer welcome, and that it would be appreciated if I would decide to quit.” The museum also informed him that colleagues no longer want to collaborate with him.

To reinforce the impression that Bechly would no longer enjoy a comfortable, supportive, and productive professional life there, the museum deleted his webpages (which made no mention of ID) and erased him from its own website. It dismissed him as scientific head of a major exhibition he had conceived and designed, “Life in the Amber Forest.” Dr. Bechly was now forced to report as an underling to a colleague with no expertise in his area. He asked if he was being accused of any misconduct, and received the answer that, no, that certainly wasn’t the case. On the contrary, his 17 years of work at the museum had been exemplary.

Seventeen years of fine work! And he was being gradually forced out over privately held views. “After a few days of soul searching and long discussions with my wife,” says Bechly, “I decided that it did not make sense anymore to continue working in a hostile environment that makes productive research and collaboration with colleagues impossible.” He resigned this past December, and now joins us.

“It was offensive, humiliating, and unfair,” Bechly concludes in an apt summary. A few weeks after his resignation he received a troubling medical diagnosis of severe heart problems. He faces heart surgery later this month.

His story reminds us of many other cases, some involving past Censors of the Year. It recalls in particular evolutionary biologist Richard Sternberg’s experience at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. That was after Dr. Sternberg published a peer-reviewed article by ID proponent Dr. Stephen Meyer in a journal that Sternberg edited, Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. (I wrote about that in the Wall Street Journal and at National Review Online.) For his offense — editing an article! — Sternberg suffered retaliation including being denied access to specimen collections, having his master key taken away from him, and an internal investigation of his religious and political belief. As with Bechly, colleagues refused to work him, and he was eventually forced out of his position.

This is how the “consensus” for Darwinian evolution is maintained. Oh, not only or primarily through outright censorship. Vanity is the single most effective tool that ensures uniformity of opinion. Men are monsters of vanity — males especially, but women too. The pressure to be on the prestige side of any significant disagreement is intense, a fact often unacknowledged unless you are pretty honest with yourself. This holds across science, the media, education, politics, religion, and other fields.

Dr. Bechly was among the contingent of ID-friendly scientists present at the Royal Society meeting (“New Trends in Evolutionary Biology“) in London last November. Another scientist on hand, we noted, a senior figure with views on Darwin overlapping with ours but allergic to ID itself, was visibly skittish about even being seen talking with us. So it goes.

Doubts about Darwin are also held in check by fear of what will happen to you if the suspicion gets around that you’re in league with the “creationists.” That word alone — a masterpiece agitprop tool in the hands of Darwin enforcers, applied to everyone from Biblical literalists to the most sophisticated scientists examining objective evidence of design in nature — does all the work of intimidation needed to keep most people in line.

But fear of punishment is a major factor too. When a scientist really does cross the line, as Günter Bechly did, the hammer almost always comes down, ruthlessly. So it proved at Stuttgart’s Natural History Museum.

Günter’s case, like others, is revealing. We know of many science professionals whose career or research would be endangered if we said a word here about their ID sympathies. Instances like that come to our attention all the time, and prudence keeps us from saying more.

Someday, a tipping point will come. Numerous closets will open in a swell of confessions: “I’ve doubted the straight Darwin story for years.” “I’ve long suspected that design or teleology of some kind must have played a role in evolution, but I would never admit it till now.” And at that time we’ll stop giving out Censor of the Year awards. But that day has not yet arrived.

I’m on Twitter. Follow me @d_klinghoffer.