APS News

Evolution Stirs Tempest in Turkish Teapot

Turkish academics from a range of disciplines united in early March to oppose the apparent government censorship of Darwin’s theory of evolution. The science community was quick to mount a concerted defense of Turkey’s reputation as a secular and progressive Islamic nation.

The news broke on March 11th that the government-run Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK) had tried to quietly remove a story about Charles Darwin from the upcoming issue of its popular science magazine. The magazine Bilim ve Teknik (Science and Technology) was due to publish a 17-page cover story celebrating the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Just before going to press, the magazine was unexpectedly delayed for a week while the Darwin story was removed and replaced by one about global warming. Top officials at TÜBİTAK then relieved Bilim ve Teknik’s editor-in-chief Çiğdem Atakuman of her post.

The controversy quickly erupted onto the front pages of the major Turkish newspapers. TÜBİTAK officials issued a press release charging that Atakuman had exceeded her authority by inserting the Darwin article at the last minute. Atakuman shot back in a press release of her own. In it she said that the deputy head of TÜBİTAK, Professor Ömar Cebeci told her the subject of evolution was too controversial for the popular magazine, and had pulled it to align with the conservative government’s outlook.

Writing in the third person, Atakuman said that “Cebeci stated that ‘she [Atakuman] acted irresponsibly in the sensitive environment of Turkey by placing a controversial topic as Darwin and Evolution on the cover of TÜBİTAK’s well known magazine’ and that ‘it would be impossible for him to work closely with someone who is capable of such a major mistake’.”

Around the globe, scientists and academics were quick to condemn TÜBİTAK’s apparent censorship. In an open letter, APS President Cherry Murray asked the director of TÜBİTAK Nuket Yetis to reverse the decision to censor Darwin and to reinstate Atakuman to her former post.

“This kind of interference with the communication of scientifically valid information for political and ideological reasons poses a severe threat to the scientific enterprise in Turkey. It is especially pernicious because Turkey, like other democracies, needs a scientifically well-educated population in order to prosper in the modern world,” Murray wrote.

Public outrage in Turkey against the perceived censorship was also strong. Despite polls in the country that show as little as a quarter of the general population accepts evolution, there was near universal condemnation of the incident by the Turkish press and academic communities. In one public demonstration, high school students presented a book about evolution published by TÜBİTAK to the headquarters of the agency in Ankara.

Scientists have long depended on TÜBİTAK and Bilim ve Teknik for reliable scientific information and criticized the firing of its editor and apparent censorship of the Darwin article.

“It’s an unfortunate event that happened in Turkey which was established in 1923 as a secular democratic republic,” said Dinçer Ülkü, a retired physics professor from Hacettepe University, a member of the Turkish Academy of Sciences and former president of TÜBİTAK from 1997 through 1999, “I am also very saddened that it has definitely hurt Turkey’s reputation abroad.”

However many do see a silver lining in the controversy. The strong reaction against the censorship has prompted TÜBİTAK to announce that the next issue of Bilim ve Teknik will be entirely devoted to Darwin and evolution. Shortly after her removal, Atakuman was also reinstated to her former post.

“This shows clearly that TÜBİTAK realized they weren’t right,” Ülkü said adding the he was worried that some of the international press was implying a widespread political suppression of the Turkish science community that didn’t exist, “Nobody is scared in Turkey because you defend evolution. You don’t have to hide.”

TÜBİTAK was originally founded in 1963. It is the most prestigious scientific institution and the main promoter of science and technological advancement in the country.

“I would like to remain optimistic about science-based research in Turkey,” said Ercan Alp, a senior scientist at Argonne National Laboratory, “With big science projects on the horizon, like the Turkish Accelerator Center, several nano-science centers, and centralized scientific infrastructure developments at many Anatolian Universities, I have every reason to remain hopeful. This controversy, in particular, may have galvanized the students, biology teachers, and university professors to be more aware of their mission, and they may take their responsibilities more seriously.”

Alp, who received a grant from TÜBİTAK to teach at Ankara’s Bilkent University for two months in 2008, went on to say that the controversy came as a surprise considering the Academy’s long and respected track record of promoting science.

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Editor: Alan Chodos