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Sunday, September 11, 2005

Richard Sternberg, vindicated, publishes paper on "junk DNA"

Well, as you've probably heard, Richard Sternberg wasn't wrong when he figured his bosses at the Smithsonian were out to get him, after he permitted the publication of a peer-reviewed ID-friendly paper in a Smithsonian journal. As David Klinghoffer recounts in National Review, Office of Special Counsel attorney James McVay has found that (August 5, 2005):

Our preliminary investigation indicates that retaliation [against Sternberg by his colleagues] came in many forms. It came in the form of attempts to change your working conditions...During the process you were personally investigated and your professional competence was attacked. Misinformation was disseminated throughout the SI [Smithsonian Institution] and to outside sources. The allegations against you were later determined to be false. It is also clear that a hostile work environment was created with the ultimate goal of forcing you out of the SI.
Klinghoffer's piece is a well-written summary of a persecution campaign that should embarrass the scientists involved.

Interestingly, Sternberg has never claimed to be an ID supporter, but he enjoys considering new ideas. As he told Michael Powell of the Washington Post, ""I loathe careerism and the herd mentality," he said. "I really think that objective truth can be discovered and that popular opinion and consensus thinking does more to obscure than to reveal." Powell's excellent piece on Sternberg reveals the shameful role that National Center for Science Education, a seriously mission-challenged organization, played in promoting the persecution. NCSE's alleged purpose is to promote Darwinism in the public school system, not hound a productive scientist at a research institution. (Note: For an interview with Sternberg, go here.)

But the most encouraging news is, Sternberg has just co-authored a paper. (Note: If you click this link, you may not be able to get back using the back browser button. ) So they didn't ruin his career after all. Here's the abstract:

Why repetitive DNA is essential to genome function
Biol. Rev. (2005), 80, pp. 227–250. f 2005 Cambridge Philosophical Society 227 doi:10.1017/S1464793104006657

James A. Shapiro 1,* and Richard von Sternberg 2,3

There are clear theoretical reasons and many well-documented examples which show that repetitive DNA is essential for genome function. Generic repeated signals in the DNA are necessary to format expression of unique coding sequence files and to organise additional functions essential for genome replication and accurate transmission to progeny cells. Repetitive DNA sequence elements are also fundamental to the cooperative molecular interactions forming nucleoprotein complexes. Here, we review the surprising abundance of repetitive DNA in many genomes, describe its structural diversity, and discuss dozens of cases where the functional importance of repetitive elements has been studied in molecular detail. In particular, the fact that repeat elements serve either as initiators or boundaries for heterochromatin domains and provide a significant fraction of scaffolding/matrix attachment regions (S/MARs) suggests that the repetitive component of the genome plays a major architectonic role in higher order physical structuring. Employing an information science model, the ‘functionalist ’ perspective on repetitive DNA leads to new ways of thinking about the systemic organisation of cellular genomes and provides several novel possibilities involving repeat elements in evolutionarily significant genome reorganisation. These ideas may facilitate the interpretation of comparisons between sequenced genomes, where the repetitive DNA component is often greater than the coding sequence component.

While we are at it, what about the ID-friendly paper that NCSE and the Smithsonian boffins tried to ruin his career over?

Apparently, it has received way more publicity than it ever would have otherwise.

Good thing, too. Now that the bullies are (we hope) leaving town by a slow train, maybe we can start to have reasonable discussions about the way in which the Cambrian explosion fails to support the predictions of classical Darwinism.

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Teaching atheism at public expense?

A commenter has asked me to provide evidence for the use of Darwinism to teach atheism in the school system at public expense. For that, I need only point to a curious episode in the mid-Nineties involving the
National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT).

for more than two years, from April 1995 to October 1997, the U.S.'s National Associaton of Biology Teachers (NABT) declared that "natural" does mean "without God" in their position statement on evolution, which stated that evolution is an "unsupervised, impersonal" process.

And they fought any change. But finally, as Craig Rusbult reports,

After first refusing to do so, the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) has dropped the words "unsupervised" and "impersonal" from its official description of evolution. The group's eight-person board of directors voted unanimously on October 11 to alter the wording of its two-year-old statement in support of teaching evolution — and the board did so just three days after it had voted unanimously not to make the change. Religion scholar Huston Smith and philosopher Alvin Plantinga had urged NABT to make the change, arguing that inclusion of the two words constituted a theological judgment about the nonexistence of God that went beyond the boundaries of empirical science.

Not only Christian scholars such as Smith and Plantinga but the Darwin lobby itself had to get involved to make the biology teachers' organization back down.

So accustomed were they to teaching atheism, one must infer, that it had never occurred to them that they might be challenged on the point. NABTs current statement has dropped all that language and merely insists that intelligent design theory and various types of creationisms are "are outside the realm of science and not part of a valid science curriculum."

So we are back in familiar territory now: The biology teachers know, presumably by faith, that life forms do not show evidence of intelligent design. Hence evidence to the contrary is not really evidence. Therefore, they are justified in refusing to discuss it, even if it's the hottest question of the day ...

I should stress that I think the current statement is a vast improvement. At least we can now focus on whether the NABT attitude to intelligent design is justified, not on trying to explain to them why they MUST NOT teach atheism at public expense.

If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.
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