First, the basics. In early February the editorial staff of Bilim ve Teknik decided to mark the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth with a 15-page cover story on evolution. The issue went to the printer on Saturday 28 February. The following Monday, editor Çiğdem Atakuman received a phone call from TÜBITAK vice-president Ömer Cebeci. The presses were stopped. The issue finally came out a week late with the Darwin article gone and the cover featuring a story on global warming. So what happened?
It depends on who you ask. Cebeci maintains that he did not order Atakuman to remove the piece. He insists there was no censorship, only that the dropped article had been "prepared hastily without regard to institutional procedures". TÜBITAK says the magazine will carry a Darwin special later this year.
Atakuman sees it differently. She issued a public statement saying that the pages were planned as normal and that Cebeci had ordered her to cancel the piece as it was deemed inappropriate for the "sensitive environment" of Turkey.
Whether the cancellation was an administrative glitch, censorship, or just an attempt to sidestep controversy, the row is highly revealing. Evolution is a lightning-rod issue in Turkey. Every leading newspaper reported the story. The Turkish Academy of Sciences called for an investigation and for Cebeci to resign (neither seems likely, although another senior TÜBITAK official resigned in protest).
But she also takes some of this as a positive sign for a country adjusting to a scientific world view. I think she is correct for the case of Turkey - but scientists still should be careful in not using evolution in the battles over secularism.
Seen in context, the incident could be a good sign, as the inevitable growing pains of a country adapting to a scientific world view. The key question is which way the process goes now. What happens in Turkey is important because its battles could be the first of many.And sure enough, things may be heating up:
Pressure on scientists is increasing and Bilgin fears more incidents like the one at Bilim ve Teknik. He is not alone. "I believe the situation is getting worse for science and science education than many people in Turkey are aware of," says Aykut Kence, another biologist at METU and a veteran campaigner for evolution.
Turkish scientists are fighting back. They are pursuing a lawsuit to have creationism removed from textbooks. A group of activist students called Hard Workers of Evolution has translated the University of California's Understanding Evolution website. In February, Turkish scientists launched the Darwin 2009 Assembly and will hold conferences on evolution across Turkey this year.
If nothing else, the Bilim ve Teknik incident has focused minds. "Censoring Darwin caused outrage among students and academics," says Kence. "It may actually make our job easier," adds Bilgin. Even Cebeci agrees: "The positive side was that it revealed the sensitivity of our scientific community to the autonomy of science." Let's hope they will be able to continue using that autonomy to stand up for what matters.