In Omaha, at wikipedia, Read her new book - interviewEugenie Scott - profileMonica Lam - San Francisco Chronicle, February 7, 2003 - originalOne morning in September, Eugenie Scott of Berkeley got a long-distance phone call from an alarmed parent in Cobb County, Ga. The board of education there was considering allowing creationism to be taught side-by-side with evolution as an alternative, scientific theory on human origins.
Berkeley scientist leads fight to stop teaching of creationism
Scott sat at her desk, beneath a portrait of Charles Darwin in an office littered with books about evolution, models of hominid skulls and a map of the human genome, and typed up a speech she has delivered many times before. While students' religious views should be respected, she wrote, schools should allow only science to be taught in science classes.
Two hours before the board's vote, Scott e-mailed the speech to the parent to deliver to the board. But that board had already put disclaimers against evolution in the science textbooks, saying "evolution is a theory, not a fact" and that it should be "critically considered."
Scott, the director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, has been fighting this particular battle for more than 15 years, and it has taken her around the country -- from small towns in California to the deep South.
Her opponents are parents, politicians and even teachers who want creationism -- the belief that God created human beings as literally described in the Bible -- taught in public schools. This despite the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court has issued numerous decisions disallowing the teaching of creationism in public schools because it is a religious view and would violate the separation of church and state.
Scott's work often takes her into the Bible Belt -- the Midwest and the South -- but closer to home, a recent conference in San Francisco on "intelligent design" attracted 200 college students and adults. Here Scott was confronted by the relatively new attack on evolution: scientists looking for scientific evidence to prove creationism is true.
While organizers insisted that the conference was about science -- creation science -- not religion, almost all the speakers were creationists. The intelligent design theory says that life on Earth is so complex and intricate that only an intelligent entity could have designed it.
"What we call creation science makes no reference to the Bible," said Duane Gish, vice president of the Institute for Creation Research in San Diego.
"It says there are two possible explanations for the origin of the universe and living things: theistic, supernatural creation by an intelligent being, or nontheistic, mechanistic evolutionary theory that posits no goal and no purpose in the evolutionary process. We just happen to be here."
"I think what bothers me so much of the time," Scott said, "is they take the data and theory and distort it. They must know they're distorting."
But intelligent design theory has gained a lot of momentum, Scott said, because it allows religion, labeled as science, to sneak into schools through the back door.
But another opponent, Phillip Johnson, a Jefferson E. Peyser professor of law, emeritus at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law and author of Darwin on Trial, said Darwinism is all about religion.
"Its (evolution's) impact is cultural," he said. "It's impact is it puts God out of reality. I am not bringing religion into the sacred precinct of science. The biologists are already neck deep in religion."
The Ohio Board of Education recently considered including intelligent design theory in the science curriculum, but after a long debate voted against it. Scott and the National Center for Science Education advised the opponents of the proposal and counts it as another victory. However, Johnson also considers it a victory because the ruling did not exclude teaching intelligent design.
Don Kennedy, a Stanford University biology professor and editor in chief of the journal Science, said Scott has been effective because she's knowledgeable about evolutionary theory.
"She's the central force in contesting creationist claims by bringing good science to bear," he said.
Scott grew up in Wisconsin and studied physical anthropology. She first heard of creationism in 1971, when she was a graduate student and, fascinated by what she thought was a rarity, started collecting literature and information on the movement.
Later, while teaching physical anthropology at the University of Kentucky in 1980, she led her first successful battle, blocking a Kentucky school board from including creationism in the curriculum.
In 1987, Scott was hired as the founding director of the nonprofit National Center for Science Education, the only national organization dedicated to "defending the teaching of evolution in public schools."
In 2001, Scott's organization recorded incidents in 43 school districts and five state boards of education in which the teaching of evolution was challenged. Legislation promoting the teaching of creationism was introduced in eight state legislatures and in the U.S. Senate, according to the center.
"She's a front-line soldier in this war," said Al Janulaw, a retired schoolteacher and spokesman for the California Science Teachers Association. "She's everywhere in the country fixing things." The association, a membership organization of K-12 and university educators, gave Scott its Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award in 2002.
Scott gave up her career as a scientist to pursue activism because she says she sees science as fundamental to a proper education.
"You can't really be scientifically literate if you don't understand evolution," Scott said. "And you can't be an educated member of society if you don't understand science."
Scott describes herself as atheist but does not discount the importance of spirituality.
"Science is a limited way of knowing, looking at just the natural world and natural causes," she said. "There are a lot of ways human beings understand the universe -- through literature, theology, aesthetics, art or music."
One of Scott's biggest victories was in Kansas. In 1999, the Kansas State Board of Education voted to remove evolution from the testing standards, generating national headlines and prompting a campaign to preserve the standards. The grass-roots group, Kansas Citizens for Science, called on Scott for advice.
"We'd never been through this before," said Liz Craig, who helped lead KCFS' effort. Scott provided reference materials, people to contact and a shoulder to cry on, Craig said.
Scott also traveled to Kansas for several speaking engagements. In her earnest, soft-spoken voice, she tried to explain to parents and teachers that science and evolution are not anti-religion. "Students don't have to accept evolution," Scott frequently has said. "But they should learn it -- as it is understood by scientists."
Two years later, a new board was elected, and it restored evolution to the school standards.
The Kansas fight drew national attention to Scott's work and brought in additional funding. With a spacious, loft-style office on 40th Street in Oakland, NCSE's annual budget is $500,000, and Scott recently received a raise in her salary to $70,000.
Hanging next to photos of her husband and daughter are awards and cards from scientists and teachers around the country expressing their gratitude.
In 2002, she received a public service award from the National Science Board, which governs the National Science Foundation, to go along with the CSTA honor.
Still, there are many smaller conflicts that are beyond her reach, many of which involve individual students. In the spring, a seventh-grader in Edmond, Okla., was branded "Monkey Girl" by her classmates because she wanted to learn about evolution.
NCSE wrote a letter on the girl's behalf, asking the principal and the teacher to respect her request and to curb the peer harassment, but to no avail. The family eventually moved to another school district.
Over the years, Scott has found her fight to be much less about science and more about politics. "I learned very early on that it's necessary but not sufficient for scientists to go to school board meetings and say, 'We shouldn't be teaching creationism,' " Scott said. "Being right doesn't mean it'll pass.
"Public schools are where the next generation of leaders are educated and where cultural exchange will take place," Scott said. And Scott will be there, fighting to ensure that students are taught evolution.