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.
The Dover trial was a dream condition, Eugenie Scott says--it challenged both intelligent design and doubts about evolution.
Recognizing that the creationism movement would continue, a group of scientists and educators established the NCSE in 1981. "This was to be an organization that would focus on opposing creationism at the grassroots," explains Scott, who was on the periphery then, "because that's where the problem is. Education is decentralized, so the fight has to be local."
In 1986 she became the NCSE's executive director. Her current career bears strong similarities to an academic one. "I'm still teaching. I'm just teaching on a radio show, or I'm teaching a reporter the details. A lot of the same skills I had as a college professor are involved--taking complicated ideas and bringing them to the level so that whoever you're talking to can understand."
Along with intellectual rigor and stamina, Scott is known for her congeniality. Thomas Huxley was called Darwin's bulldog, leading to other canine analogies for evolution's defenders. Richard Dawkins, elegant and aggressive, has been called Darwin's greyhound. Scott thinks that the fast and focused Brown University biologist Ken Miller, a devout Catholic who was the first witness in the Dover case, is Darwin's border collie. "And I am Darwin's golden retriever," she says. "In my personal relationships with creationists, I have tried very hard to always keep things civil and never personal."
Being a happy warrior is both natural to Scott and probably the best way for her and her side to harness support. "To me, her most impressive accomplishments are the coalitions of very diverse people and organizations she has knit together in support of science education--especially the clergy," says Sean Carroll, a molecular biologist and geneticist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Because when seriously religious people speak up in favor of evolution, people listen."
Total victory could be long in coming, with thousands of local school boards making curriculum decisions. In fact, the threat to public science education may be growing: astronomy and cosmology can also offend religious fundamentalists. Of her first American Astronomical Society meeting in 2005, she says: "I couldn't get five yards without somebody coming up to me and saying, 'Let me tell you about the problems I'm having teaching big bang, let me tell you about the problems I'm having teaching formation of the solar system, etc.'"
On December 20, 2005, Judge John Jones issued a blistering 139-page decision in favor of the plaintiffs, in which he referred to the "breathtaking inanity" of the school board's decision to require the antievolution disclaimer. He also forcefully noted that intelligent design is not science, "in the hope that it may prevent the obvious waste of judicial and other resources which would be occasioned by a subsequent trial." Scott declares Jones's finding a victory for science and education but also predicts the judge's hope will be dashed. "It's like a water bed," she says of antievolutionism. "You push it down in one place, and it bounces up in another." Indeed, the Kansas State Board of Education recently voted, 6-4, to allow intelligent design to be taught in public schools. Scott, it seems clear, won't be out of a job anytime soon.