Teach the Science

Wherever evolution education is under attack by creationist thinking, Eugenie Scott will be there to defend science--with rationality and resolve

Federal court had just been dismissed in Harrisburg, Pa., on September 26, 2005, the first day of the Dover intelligent design trial. Commentators dubbed it Scopes II or III, depending on how many previous evolution education cases they knew of. The defendants, members of the Dover, Pa., school board, had required that a statement denigrating evolutionary theory be read to ninth-grade biology students and recommended so-called intelligent design be considered a viable and intellectually adequate alternative. Plaintiffs were parents in the school district who alleged that intelligent design, or ID, was in fact a religious construct and that presenting it to their children in a public school science class thus violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

A steady rain forced plaintiffs, defendants, witnesses and media to huddle together under the overhang at the entrance to the Harrisburg Federal Building and Courthouse. Within a few feet of advocates who had minutes before put evolution itself on trial stood Eugenie Scott. As executive director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), she is the country's foremost defender of evolution education. She patiently explained to reporters why this trial was so important: "It's the first case that is considering the legality of the two current strategies of the antievolution movement."

The first strategy is advocacy for intelligent design--the notion that life or certain aspects of life are too complex to have arisen naturally and must therefore be the product of an intelligent designer. "Creation science was the original scientific alternative to evolution," says Scott, who turned 60 during the trial, "and ID is the scientific alternative to evolution du jour. And it's basically a subset of creation science. ID has never been on trial before."

The second strategy, casting doubt on evolutionary science, has roots in 1987, when the U.S. Supreme Court in Edwards v. Aguillard found by a 7-2 decision that creationism was religious and therefore ineligible for inclusion in public school biology curricula. In his majority opinion, Justice William J. Brennan wrote that teachers had the right to teach scientific alternatives to evolution, "which of course they do," Scott explains. "If there were any, they would have the right to teach them."

But Justice Antonin Scalia, joined in his dissent by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, wrote that "whatever scientific evidence there may be against evolution" could also be "presented in their schools." A tactic, then, is to portray the lack of certitude about every last detail of evolution--so-called gaps or honest disagreements between evolutionary biologists about mechanisms--as evidence against it.

The Dover trial involved arguments on both evidence against evolution and intelligent design. To Scott, "it's a dream condition because we can hopefully challenge both of these components." Scott's dream was apparently the defendant's nightmare. Fellows of the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based pro-intelligent design group, were to appear as defense witnesses but withdrew, citing their desire to be represented by their own attorneys during depositions. That "they yanked the A team I think suggests that they're cutting their losses," Scott says.

Dover was just the latest hot spot Scott has visited. The NCSE office in Oakland, Calif., includes a wall map of the U.S., with stickpins in the sites of challenges to evolution education. "There's a surprising amount in the midsection and in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Tennessee," she notes. "Then a cluster in California, in Texas and in Kansas, of course." Kansas, which remains a battleground over evolution education, is where Scott first got directly involved in the fight.

Shortly after joining the faculty of the University of Kentucky as a physical anthropologist in 1974, she attended a debate at the University of Missouri between her mentor, Jim Gavan, and Duane Gish, a leader in the then nascent scientific creationism movement. She began to collect creationist literature and to study adherents' methods. As a visiting professor at the University of Kansas in 1976, she was thus prepared to advise two biology professors who debated Gish and fellow creationist Henry Morris. Her "true baptism," as she calls it, came in 1980, when she advised the Lexington, Ky., Board of Education, which ultimately rejected a request to include the "balanced" teaching of origins.

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