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Eugenie C. Scott

The National Center for Science Education (NCSE), a clearinghouse for information about evolution and the anti-evolutionist initiatives, reported more than one state or local difficulty per week in 1999 and 2000 related to the teaching of evolution. One of the prominent figures in the ongoing evolutionist vs. creationist debate is NCSE executive director Eugenie C. Scott, a physical anthropologist by training. Scott didn't intend to become embroiled in this issue; one of her graduate school prof

By | May 27, 2002

The National Center for Science Education (NCSE), a clearinghouse for information about evolution and the anti-evolutionist initiatives, reported more than one state or local difficulty per week in 1999 and 2000 related to the teaching of evolution. One of the prominent figures in the ongoing evolutionist vs. creationist debate is NCSE executive director Eugenie C. Scott, a physical anthropologist by training. Scott didn't intend to become embroiled in this issue; one of her graduate school professors gave her some creation science literature, and then, during her first teaching position at University of Kentucky in Lexington, a creationist group asked the board of education to include creation science in the curriculum. Scott ended up leading the fight against it.

"Because I was the one on campus with a box of creationist literature, I was responsible for organizing the responses," she recalls. She forged an alliance between scientists and mainstream clergy who did not want biblical literalist theory presented as science. The victory was sweet. "The combination of preachers and professors stopped the creationist effort in Lexington," says Scott.

That controversy led Scott to seek out other people around the country who were dealing with similar issues. Scott contacted Wayne Moyer, then head of the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT), and Stanley Weinberg, a former NABT president and author of a high school biology textbook, who had experienced firsthand the ire of creationists. That was in 1980, when the Institute for Creation Science promoted sample legislation, known as Ellwanger bills, in at least 26 state legislatures, and biology teachers were discussing ways to oppose it.

By the time Weinberg had raised the funds to establish the Oakland, Calif.-based NCSE (www.ncseweb.org) that would coordinate the opposition to creation science, Scott was between jobs and living on the West Coast. In 1987, she took the reins of the new organization. Scott has a nonconfrontational and understanding approach to supporters of creation science. "My first rule is never debate creationists," she tutors. "People who have this strong rejection of evolution ... do it for emotional reasons."

She explains the interrelationship between emotion and religious belief: "The majority of the people I encounter really don't know what evolution is. They fear it because they believe if evolution is true, they're losing something that's important to them." But Scott notes that religious belief and acceptance of evolution are not mutually exclusive. She refers so-called young-earth evolutionists--people who believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible--to conservative Christian groups that accept evolution.

During her lectures, Scott approaches the audiences with "the creation-evolution continuum, as an effort to overcome a major misconception that audience members [have]." Students, she says, may believe that there is a dichotomy between what she calls good-guy creationists and atheist evolutionists. "That dichotomy is toxic," says Scott. According to her, the audiences find "that there are intermediate possibilities." Scott's goal is to "get the listeners' fingers out of the ears" so they will hear what she says.

To biology teachers struggling with students, parents, administrators, or community groups who support creationism, Scott explains the ruses and buzzwords of the creationist arguments. Balance and fairness, she says, are words used by creationists in pleading their cases. They claim, for example, that court decisions require the teaching of "alternative scientific theories" to evolution. "There aren't any alternative scientific theories to evolution," Scott commented to biologists attending the annual meeting of the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) in March. The abrupt-appearance theory-- that life abruptly appeared on Earth--avoids use of the word creator as the source of this event. Associate Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a dissent in the 1987 decision on Edwards v Aquillard, which invalidated Louisiana's Creationism Act that forbade schools from teaching evolution without also teaching creationism. In the dissent, he wrote that scientific evidence against evolution could be presented in schools. "There isn't any," says Scott, and contends that creationists misuse words such as evidences and Darwinian evolution. Evidences comes from Christian apologetics and is not the same as scientific evidence. Few biologists "would say that Darwinism is the be-all and end-all of evolution," notes Scott. The list of such misinterpretations goes on. In a deliberately mixed metaphor, Scott characterizes her talks to scientists, "giving ammo to the choir."

The choir hears her. And, Scott has received numerous awards. Last year these included the AIBS Outstanding Service Award and the National Science Board Public Service Award for increasing public understanding of science and engineering.

Her fellow scientists laud her work. "Eugenie Scott's dedication to the cause, understanding of the issues, and sensitivity ... are contributing enormously toward ameliorating the conflict surrounding the teaching of evolution in the schools," says geneticist Francisco J. Ayala, the Donald Bren professor of biological sciences and professor of philosophy at the University of California, Irvine. Writes Joel Cracraft, curator-in-charge of the department of ornithology of the American Museum of Natural History, "She is the key person in the United States working to keep creationist thinking out of the public school science curriculum. In so doing, she has built the National Center for Science Education into a national force for maintaining the values and ideals codified in the [US] Constitution."

Scott urges scientists to join NCSE: "It's cheap and you get a really depressing newsletter."

Myrna E. Watanabe is a freelance science writer in Patterson, N.Y.

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