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Farewell to Eugenie Scott, Executive Director of National Center for Science Education

eugeniescott.jpgAs Mike Keas recently noted, Eugenie Scott, longtime executive director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), has announced she is retiring. At the NCSE, Dr. Scott’s main job would be, as she might put it, to promote the teaching of evolution. Detractors would say she has tried to enforce “Darwin only” education, and has supported dangerous efforts (like the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial) to have non-Darwinian views like intelligent design banned from public school science classrooms.

I happen to be one of Dr. Scott’s detractors, and I strongly disagree with a whole host of Dr. Scott’s ideas, tactics, and arguments. But regardless of what you think about her work, I respect the fact that she has generally striven to maintain civility in the debate — a mark that distinguishes her from many of her colleagues in the Darwin Lobby.

For example, I recall an incident from when I was attending the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial in 2005. Nick Matzke, who at the time worked at the NCSE, was standing with Eugenie nearby listening to my conversation with a reporter. He tried to butt in and interrupt, but Eugenie restrained Nick and encouraged him to wait until I was done to have his turn. It was a classy move on her part — and memorable for how unusual it was in the Darwin-defending community. In most other contexts, letting people speak their mind even if you disagree with them would be taken for granted.

In some of my other encounters with her, Eugenie showed the same admirable regard for civility. In 2009, after the Texas State Board of Education adopted standards requiring students to learn about scientific evidence for and against Darwinian evolution, she came up to me afterwards and in a genuinely kind manner congratulated me on the victory. We had a short yet genuinely friendly, conversation, though I’m sure she was not happy about the outcome of the vote that day.

Once, back in 2000 when I was still a student and heard her speak at UC San Diego, I wrote some unkind things in a private e-mail to some friends about Dr. Scott, and she found out about them. Because I too strive for civility, I felt convicted and eventually wrote a letter of apology to Eugenie. She was very gracious in her reply, and if I recall correctly she wrote me a very nice letter back, accepting my apology and forgiving me, and even had the decency to overlook my misdeed as the result of youthful “student enthusiasm.” Much as I disagree with Dr. Scott on evolution and many other issues, I’ve tried to learn from the wisdom that’s evident in her style of personal interaction.

One last item in praise of Dr. Scott. When Nature recently reported her forthcoming retirement, it recounted a famous incident:

Scott’s strategy is to attack what she calls dichotomous thinking: false assumptions that a churchgoer cannot believe in evolution or that a scientist cannot believe in a higher power. When, in 1995, the US National Association of Biology Teachers [NABT] issued a statement describing evolution as “impersonal” and “unsupervised”, Scott and others called successfully for those words to be removed, arguing that science could not address such questions.

This anecdote shows Dr. Scott’s consummate skill in messaging and media coaching, trying to repackage evolutionary ideas in ways that are more palatable to broader sections of society. In a way, I appreciate Dr. Scott — an atheist — trying to tell religious people they don’t have to abandon religion.

But did her tactics truthfully and realistically solve the problems? Daniel Dennett famously called Darwinian evolution a “universal acid” that eats through traditional ideas, including religion. Will an acid stop being corrosive simply because you remove (or rewrite) the warning label from its bottle? Can we just erase any tensions between belief in God and Darwinian evolution by definitional fiat, or by better PR?

Not according to over seventy evolutionist biologists, including Richard Lewontin, John Lynch, and Nial Shanks. They responded to the NABT and Dr. Scott by sending a letter of protest, arguing that “evolution indeed is, to the best of our knowledge, an impersonal and unsupervised process.” They claimed that the notion that an intelligence is “supervising evolution in a way to perfectly mimic an unsupervised, impersonal process” is a viewpoint “that has been repeatedly invalidated on philosophical grounds ever since David Hume and well before Darwin.” They opposed Scott’s solution to the situation, and harshly criticized the NABT’s removal of the adjective “unsupervised” for evolution:

Science is based on a fundamental assumption: that the world can be explained by recurring only to natural, mechanistic forces. … [T]his is a philosophical position. … The NABT leaves open the possibility that evolution is in fact supervised in a personal manner. This is a prospect that every evolutionary biologist should vigorously and positively deny.

Those are pretty strong words. What they show is that the NCSE’s approach, holding that God and Darwinian evolution are BFFs, isn’t convincing to many people who think carefully about these issues. In fact, given that Dr. Scott is a signer of the Third Humanist Manifesto, sometimes I suspect she herself may not always have found the NCSE’s approach wholly convincing.

In any case, say what you will about Dr. Scott, I want to genuinely wish her a happy retirement. Somehow I doubt she will be leaving the evolution debate entirely, since she’s a very popular speaker at conferences and events related to the issue. I suppose we should get a betting pool going at Discovery Institute about who her successor will be. Though I’m not confident enough to bet very much, I might put a couple of dollars on the former NCSE staff member that I mentioned earlier in this article. Any takers?