ANKARA - A last-minute decision to pull Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, off the cover of a top Turkish scientific journal and the chief editor off the job has fueled criticism that Turkey's national research council is too politicized.
It has been 200 years since Darwin, author of the "Origin of Species," was born and 83 years since U.S. civil libertarians challenged a ban on teaching the theory of evolution in the pivotal Scopes Monkey Trial, but ideas about evolution continue to ruffle feathers.
In commemoration of Darwin’s birth, 2009 was declared International Darwin Year and the world’s leading science institutions have been marking the event in various ways, with many science magazines placing Darwin- or evolution-themed articles on their covers.
The Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey, or TÜBİTAK, likewise planned to cover Darwin and his theories in the March issue of its science magazine. The magazine’s chief editor, Dr. Çiğdem Atakuman, highlighted Darwin in a 16-page cover story, but TÜBİTAK Vice President Professor Ömer Cebeci, a member of the magazine’s editorial board, removed the story from the journal and put an article about climate change on the cover instead. The March issue thus arrived a week late, with 16 pages missing. Cebeci reportedly removed Atakuman from her job for putting Darwin on the magazine’s cover.
Turkey’s main opposition party has filed a parliamentary motion against one of the country’s reputable science institutions for censoring a story on Charles Darwin, the father of the theory of evolution, in the March issue of its science journal.
"What is the reason for removing the Darwin story and photo from the journal?" the opposition party’s parliamentary motion asked. "Isn’t it a kind of censorship to intervene in the journal’s content and cover page during the publication process? Is this an acceptable situation for a science institution to allow such an implementation? How was the decision made? As many science institutions mark the event with international activities, will TÜBİTAK ignore the Darwin Year?"
Islamists and believers of other faiths often take issue with Darwin’s theory of evolution, which says life on Earth is based on natural laws rather than religious ones. Through a process he called natural selection, Darwin said all species have evolved over time from common ancestors, with humans descending from monkeys.
The "Scopes Trial," often called the "Scopes Monkey Trial," was a U.S. legal case in Tennessee that tested anti-evolution legislation. On May 5, 1925, high school teacher John Scopes was charged for teaching the theory of evolution and the case went to the state’s supreme court. In the end, the ruling was in favor of Scopes, but on a technicality and not on constitutional grounds as the lawyers had hoped. The Scopes trial by no means ended the debate over the teaching of evolution, but it did represent a significant setback for the anti-evolution forces. The case was a critical turning point in the United States' creation-evolution debate.
TÜBİTAK President Nüket Yetiş left the media’s questions largely unanswered yesterday, but the council’s move has been considered an indication of growing political influence over the science institution, as were the August 2008 amendments to TUBİTAK’s charter that gave the government a certain degree of control over the institution.
TÜBİTAK, which is supposed to have financial and administrative autonomy, has recently been criticized for partisan appointments. Yetiş was appointed to the post by President Abdullah Gül after being vetoed by former President Ahmet Necdet Sezer.
Speaking to private channel NTV yesterday, Raşit Gürdilek, former chief editor of the science magazine, said he published many articles about Darwin during his eight-year tenure and never experienced such pressure.
"I told the newly appointed TÜBİTAK directors that science requires an integrated approach and it was impossible to allow some while ignoring other parts of it," Gürdilek said. "I told them denial of the evolution theory would mean denial of science. Our duty is to achieve the popularization of science."
Former TÜBİTAK President Namık Kemal Pak said the institution worked for scientific freedom during his presidency and never interfered with the journal.
However, "the law issued in August may lead to the politicization of the institution," Pak said. "Time will tell whether the Darwin issue is a sign of this politicization."