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In Praise of “Darwin’s Golden Retriever”

Eugenie Scott speaking at a lecturn SOURCE: flickr user ensceptico It's about time everyone is celebrating Eugenie C. Scott of the National Center for Science Education—she is, after all, perhaps the leading day-to-day defender of science in America.

Science, Cultured

Contributing editor Chris Mooney

Science Progress contributing editor Chris Mooney surveys the interactions between science, politics, and culture. He is the author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and the forthcoming Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.” (Photo:

Writing praise is a difficult task. It’s so much easier to criticize, to slice and dice political opponents, to show what’s wrong as opposed to what’s right. That’s especially so when it comes to culture war issues that deeply polarize America, like the teaching of evolution in public schools.

So in dedicating this column of praise to Eugenie C. Scott—who for over two decades has headed up the Oakland, CA-based National Center for Science Education, or NCSE, the chief defender of the teaching of evolution in the United States—I want to make clear just how much I think such a departure is necessary and deserved.

Scott has been receiving a great deal of recognition lately; I merely want to lend an additional push. First, she recently won the Stephen Jay Gould prize, awarded by the Society for the Study of Evolution, in recognition of how her “sustained and exemplary efforts have advanced public understanding of evolutionary science and its importance in biology, education, and everyday life.” Perhaps an even bigger accolade came from Scientific American, which listed her among the top 10 leaders who have “demonstrated outstanding commitment to assuring that the benefits of new technologies and knowledge will accrue to humanity.” (The list includes other names you might know, like Bill Gates and Barack Obama.)

The opening to the Scientific American commendation is both amusing, and also provides a hint as to why Scott succeeds:

Thomas Henry Huxley was the 19th-century biologist known as “Darwin’s bulldog” for his defense of the great scientist’s ideas. The 21st century has a counterpart in the woman who describes herself as “Darwin’s golden retriever.”

As this joke suggests, Eugenie Scott knows well what was obvious even in the Victorian era—there are already plenty of Darwinian bulldogs out there, fighting the creationist pitbulls daily, sounding off on blogs and attacking the religious beliefs of their foes. But being “Darwin’s golden retriever,” and staying friendly when tempers flare—that’s a lot rarer. The line shows both Scott’s genial humor and also the kind of pro-evolution advocacy we need more of: tolerant, strategic, accommodating, but always firm when necessary.

The National Center for Science Education is a clearinghouse for pro-evolution information, and a fount of unrivaled expertise on the complex and ever-changing stances and strategies of the creationists. It is also the leading source of advice and counsel to local communities whenever evolution battles crop up, as they do each year virtually without fail. NCSE’s goal is always to help communities resolve such conflicts without resorting to litigation. But when courtroom fights do arise, the group is also invaluable, and served as a scientific adviser on the historic Kitzmiller v. Dover evolution trial of 2005, which ended in a resounding victory for science and an equally resounding defeat for “intelligent design.”

Scott, an anthropologist by training, has been steering this ship since 1987, her career marked not only by Dover but by another key pro-evolution legal precedent, 1987′s Supreme Court ruling in Edwards v. Aguillard, which banned the teaching of “creation science” in schools. She has been involved in pro-evolution advocacy longer still, since the year 1980.

And if you want some idea of how difficult the job is, just try the following. First, peruse the web for all the creationist attacks on Scott. According to Wikipedia, she likes to joke that sometimes she thinks her first name is “Atheist,” they call her “Atheist Eugenie Scott” so much. Then, when you’re done sampling the anti-evolutionist  barbs, flip over to this recent post by University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, which takes Scott and NCSE to task for their “accommodationist” stance on religion, calling it “offensive and unnecessarya form of misguided pragmatism.”

As this evidence suggests, Scott is regularly under fire from the culture war combatants on both sides. Not only does NCSE have to monitor the endless permutations of the creationists, who are constantly coming up with new ploys for attacking evolution. It also has to deal with the pugilistic evolutionists who want to make this battle about the truth or falsehood of religious belief, rather than the truth or falsehood of what science discovers about the world. In this gauntlet, Scott has remained an eloquent defender of the view that people of science and people of religion can and must work together to solve conflicts—and indeed, this is the best and only way forward.

I would be remiss, though, if I didn’t commend NCSE’s single best initiative: Project Steve. In riposte to creationists who are constantly promulgating lists of scientists who allegedly question evolution, NCSE created an even bigger list of scientists named “Steve” who support it. Yes, that’s right: Scott and NCSE made a statistical argument hilarious and memorable. How many people can you say that of?

I know Scott, although not particularly well. I’ve interviewed her, seen her at the typical conferences, and witnessed her on the ground in Pennsylvania during the Dover conflict. And for some time, I have been asking myself the following question: Given that we’re barely holding back the creationist tide as it is, what on Earth would we do without her? I sincerely hope these latest awards bring added recognition and support to the woman who is working every day in one of the toughest jobs imaginable: Keeping our schools, and our society, safe for science.

Chris Mooney is contributing editor to Science Progress and author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and the forthcoming Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.”

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