Bringing in the Steves

Select group of scientists sign-up to support teaching evolution.

Steve Mirsky(
Feb 16, 2003

Charles Darwin has been dead for more than 120 years, but the battle over teaching the theory of evolution is very much alive. Its most recent salvo was fired in Denver on Sunday, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

The National Center for Science Education (NCSE), an Oakland, California-based nonprofit organization affiliated with AAAS, issued a 90-word statement firmly supporting evolution education and asserting that "there is no serious scientific doubt that evolution occurred" within the scientific community. The mini-manifesto was signed by 220 scientists. And in a clear case of intelligent design, every one of them is named Steve.

The list, which includes Steves, Stevens, Stephens, Stefans and Stephanies, is in part homage to the late Stephen Jay Gould. And as Steves make up about one percent of the US population according to the Census Bureau, the assumption is that the 220 signatories represent about one percent of the 22,000 scientists who would endorse the new statement.

"Creationists are fond of circulating statements denouncing evolution, signed by as many scientists as they can muster," said Eugenie Scott, executive director of the NCSE, devoted to promoting evolution education in public schools. "We did it as a joke, but the antievolutionists are serious."

The NCSE's "Project Steve" grew out of a statement signed by 52 intelligent-design proponents that appeared last year in Ohio, during a heated review of the state's science education standards. In December, the Ohio State Board of Education nevertheless adopted standards that mandate the teaching and testing of evolution, but not of creationism or intelligent design, a victory for the NCSE.

Steve Rissing, director of the introductory biology program at Ohio State University, told The Scientist, "This effort is trying to point out that getting some list of supposed experts — including this list — doesn't represent a scientific discovery that we in the biology education world need to pay attention to."

Nevertheless, Project Steve does illustrate the scientific community's near universal subscription to evolutionary theory. "I think it's part of our responsibility to try to educate nonscientists about what the scientific opinion is," said biophysicist Stephanie Tristram-Nagle of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "Actually, I've always hated nicknames," she admitted. "But I thought it was neat to be included in this group of scientific Steves."

Signatory Steven Chu, 1997 physics Nobel Laureate, now devotes about two-thirds of his research at Stanford University to biological problems. "There has to be a voice that counters the other suggestion that evolution is just speculation that can be put alongside other ideas that are equally valid," he said. "I don't think you need to be a biologist to feel that, no, there is a real difference."

Steve Weinberg, 1979 Nobel physicist also lent his name. "You realize that we have 100% of the Nobel Laureates in science named Steve," noted Scott. "Both of them."

Rissing is contemplating another foray into majority-vote science. "I've actually challenged creationists on the board of education to put the second law of thermodynamics up for a popular referendum in Ohio," he said. "I'd gladly vote against it. I hate the second law. It messes up my life — my office is disorganized."