A Glowing Profile of Evolution Warrior Dr. Eugenie Scott

Today’s edition of the New York Times features a wonderful profile of Dr. Eugenie Scott, the long-time executive director of the National Center for Science Education:

Eugenie C. Scott’s journey to the front lines of the evolution wars began in 1974, when James Gavan, a physical anthropologist at the University of Missouri, accepted an invitation to debate Duane Gish, a biochemist and a leader in the creationist movement.

At the time, Dr. Scott was a newly minted professor of physical anthropology at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Gavan had been her mentor at the University of Missouri, where she earned her doctorate, so she took a few of her students to Missouri to hear the debate.

“We were greatly dismayed,” Dr. Scott recalled in an interview. “The scientist talked science, and the creationist connected to the audience and told good jokes and was really personable. And presented a lot of really bad science.”

The most controversial passage in the piece has nothing to do with evolution, but with the age-old question of overlapping magisteria:

She is particularly distressed to hear people assert that belief in evolution is incompatible with religious faith. Though Dr. Scott described herself as a “humanist” who is not religious, she said, “there is not a dichotomous division between people of faith and science. There are many people of faith who accept evolution. This is something many people do not realize.”

As someone who believes science and religion are not compatible, I strongly disagree with what Dr. Scott is saying here, but this was never her issue. It never had to be. Her goal was always to promote sound science. If religious people were capable of being strong allies, great. That’s what mattered to her. The philosophy behind their decision was irrelevant.

Her legacy doesn’t rest on that answer, either. She’s been an advocate for good science her entire career and never hesitated to go after anyone whose primary interest was to promote a particular faith over an evidence-based education. She will be missed even though she’s not leaving the science movement for good.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Art_Vandelay

    There are many people of faith who accept evolution. This is something many people do not realize.

    That’s not an argument for the compatibility between theism and evolution. It’s just an argument for cognitive dissonance. It’s also only true in the most general sense. What they don’t accept is evolution via natural selection. I’ve never had one person able to answer me the question as to why a God who had human beings in mind as the intended goal when he came up with evolution would have it guided by blind, mindless, natural processes or how that could even possibly be compatible with the characteristic of omni-benevolence.

    • Jasper

      The fact that my day job is that of a doctor, and my night shift is that of an assassin, and the fact that technically I do both professions as the same person, doesn’t mean that being a doctor, and being an assassin are compatible.

    • AxeGrrl

      That’s not an argument for the compatibility between theism and evolution. It’s just an argument for cognitive dissonance.

      If we’re talking about a believer who claims that everything in the Bible is true, then of course, yes, there’s cognitive dissonance, but if their god is, say, a deistic god (one who just started it all and then let things unfold on their own), where’s the cognitive dissonance?

      • Art_Vandelay

        There is none but deism is not religion. Religious faith indicates a personal relationship with a deity that created you.

        • AxeGrrl

          Deists have ‘religious faith’, no? And having religious faith in a deistic god doesn’t require/indicate a “personal relationship” with such a deity.

          So, again, while there’s undoubtedly cognitive dissonance in a Bible-literalist accepting evolution, where’s the cognitive dissonance in a deist doing so?

          • Art_Vandelay

            There isn’t. There’s also no religious faith in a deistic God. Deism doesn’t attempt to define their God. It’s not a religion. It’s just an ambiguous belief in a higher intelligence/creator. Religion is inherently theistic.

            • AxeGrrl

              Of course there’s faith in a deistic god! Is there any evidence/proof for a deistic god? No. Which = faith.

              religion is inherently theistic

              And so is deism.

              The only point i’m making is that to say that “people of faith” accepting evolution must experience cognitive dissonance is too broad a comment ~ you have to be more specific. Deism is a form of theism and doesn’t involve a “personal relationship”. There are many concepts of a god that are very different from the Bible-specific/literalist god……and some of them don’t necessarily involve cognitive dissonance in the acceptance of evolution.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    As someone who believes science and religion are not compatible, I
    strongly disagree with what Dr. Scott is saying here, but this was never
    her issue.

    Well actually, Dr. Scott went around giving talks on the compatibility of science and religion. Her arguments were very bad. And a perusal of the NCSE web site will show you that it is full of accommodationist apologetics.

  • 00001000_bit

    It’s true that science facts aren’t necessarily in opposition to religious belief. That’s why you can find religious people in the various sciences. They, too, can learn the facts and memorize and repeat them.

    But science isn’t just a collection of facts (or knowledge handed down from authority), it is a way of thinking. Science is about forming conclusions based on evidence. Religion is about having a conclusion regardless of the evidence. So, yes. They are at opposition. If you are rejecting evidence because it doesn’t fit your belief, you aren’t doing science right.

  • http://atheistlutheran.blogspot.com/ MargueriteF

    “She is particularly distressed to hear people assert that belief in evolution is incompatible with religious faith. Though Dr. Scott described herself as a ‘humanist’ who is not religious, she said, ‘there is not a dichotomous division between people of faith and science. There are many people of faith who accept evolution. This is something many people do not realize.’”

    I join you in disagreeing with her on this matter. I used to try to believe simultaneously in a God who created humans in his own image, as well as evolution, and the result, as Art said, was cognitive dissonance. If evolution is a random process rather than a designed one, then even if you postulate God set everything in motion, there is no reason to suppose that God meant for humans to evolve. The dominant species on this planet could have turned out to be anything, and intelligent life might never have evolved at all. To me, this invalidates most of Christianity, right there. We are not specially beloved of God and we were not a deliberately planned part of creation. We are essentially an accident. Therefore, in order to retain one’s religious faith and accept evolution at the same time, it seems to me that one must believe in a warped and distorted form of evolution, rather than accepting evolution as it actually happened.

    • Spuddie

      The idea that evolution is random or “an accident” is more rhetoric and parts of arguments against incredulity than an actual understanding of the process. The process is random but only in within some limits of where chance is a factor.

      http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/chance/chance.html
      “Darwinism is widely misunderstood as a theory of pure chance.”

      Being “beloved by God” has nothing to do with the scientific theories concerning our origins. If your religious belief is tied to concepts concerning how to interpret science, you are doing it wrong. Religious belief has never been about complete acceptance of everything written in scripture as literally true. Even self-proclaimed literalists are more than willing to pick and discard whichever scriptural writings are least convenient to their religious ideas.

      We exist, we are self-aware and aware of others and aware of God. That is enough for belief. At least that’s how non-fundamentalists look at Christianity.

      • http://atheistlutheran.blogspot.com/ MargueriteF

        Evolution is random in one sense, and not in another. The creationist nonsense about life being as likely as a wind blowing through a junkyard and creating a jumbo jet is not what I’m talking about here. Life evolves to suit its environment, which is not really “random,” but it does utilize random mutations in genetic material to do so. If we believe that God is creating those specific mutations in order to push life along a designated path, or pushing life forms into specific environments where they will evolve the way God wants them to, then it seems to me we really believe in creationism, not evolution.

        “Religious belief has never been about complete acceptance of everything written in scripture as literally true.”

        I never said it was. I was a pretty liberal Christian. Even so, if we evolved randomly, it’s hard for me to believe that we are God’s children. We evolved billions of years after the planet was formed, and were clearly not high on God’s to-do list. And I don’t think it’s a big stretch to say there was no guarantee humans would evolve. Suppose the dinosaurs had survived? We probably wouldn’t be here. To me, understanding how evolution works makes it pretty clear that God was not involved in the creation process, and (if he exists) has no particular interest in us as a species.

        • Spuddie

          “If we believe that God is creating those specific mutations in order to push life along a designated path, or pushing life forms into specific environments where they will evolve the way God wants them to, then it
          seems to me we really believe in creationism, not evolution.”

          Or Theistic evolution. It could very well be God just setting the stage for evolution to take place. Less pushing life, more like setting the stage to let it grow on its own. God as a gardener rather than a sculptor.

          There is always a way to rationalize and harmonize these things without coming into conflict. When one is already predisposed to believe in God, little things like the philosophical implications of science wouldn’t get in the way. Such things involve a lot more thinking and consideration than faith and belief require.

          • Art_Vandelay

            Theistic Evolution is just Old Earth Creationism. I agree with you that religious people can justify it but this doesn’t mean that we should accept it as a truth statement. If they had any interest in the truth, they would think about the philosophical implications of the science as compared to their definition of God as a loving creator/father figure. As it turns out, their conclusion is already drawn before they start thinking so for Eugenie Scott to use that as evidence of an overlapping magisteria strikes me as odd coming from an educator.

            • GubbaBumpkin

              Theistic Evolution is just Old Earth Creationism.

              Well, no. There are several varieties of Old Earth Creationism. There is Ruin & Restoration. There is Gap Creationism. There is Day-Age. There is Progressive Creationism (a la Behe). These are all generally speaking compatible with a literal reading of Genesis, if you allow that “a day” may be millions of years instead of 24 hours, or that things happened in between sentences, or other excuses.

              Theistic Evolution, while still clinging to “God did it,” must abandon a literal reading of Genesis, because there is no way to square the known science of evolution with the account in Genesis 1. For example, birds and sea mammals (Day 5) before land animals (Day 6)? No way.

              • Spuddie

                Plus the philosophical implications which Art_Vandelay and MargueritteF claim are foregone eventuality from considering the nature of evolution in relation to a loving God/creator are not as clear as one would think. Evolution does not preclude religious belief in a loving creator, it just allows for adjustment to what such a thing would mean.

                Again the contrasting a gardener to a sculptor would be a good example of how this adjustment is made. A gardener is always limited in their actions. Ultimately nature and environmental forces move things along. Nothing ever grows perfectly or precisely as planned from its beginnings. But the gardener still gets credit for the end results.

                Just because something is created by chance doesn’t mean it can’t be loved or appreciated. Some things are appreciated precisely because of the rarity and unlikelihood of their existence. It is rationalized as we may not really be high on God’s to do list, but we are on that list as are all living things.

                All I am really saying is that philosophical truth is always subjective whether it is religious or not. Philosophy is always as valid as one chooses to make it.

                • GubbaBumpkin

                  Nothing ever grows perfectly or precisely as planned from its beginnings.

                  I get your point about the distinction between theistic evolution and creationism.
                  But I will add that I also find theistic evolution to be lacking in the rationality department. The above passage, for example, is not exactly compatible with the gardener being omniscient and omnipotent.

                • Spuddie

                  If someone has power and knowledge but chooses not to exercise it all the time, do they still have it? =)

                • Art_Vandelay

                  Just because something is created by chance doesn’t mean it can’t be loved or appreciated. Some things are appreciated precisely because of the rarity and unlikelihood of their existence. It is rationalized as we may not really be high on God’s to do list, but we are on that list as are all living things.

                  That seems borderline deistic. Lets look at that in light of Christianity. I know Christians water down their theology how ever they see fit but what you have here is a deity whose master creation is not made in his image, is just a result of random chance, and he just sort of thinks it’s cool. What’s the distinction between us and the billions of other species on the planet or the 99.8% of species that have already perished? What are we being saved from if we were not created with higher expectations? Why reveal yourself to us after 14 billion years of random chance with cool shit being created all the time? Why wait 150,000 years after we’re even here to have your little blood sacrifice? Why expect us to understand his will more than any other creature that was a product of this “garden”? I suppose your scenario is possible but as usual…Occam’s Razor slices like a mother.

                • Spuddie

                  What’s the distinction between us and the billions of other species on the planet or the 99.8% of species that have already perished?

                  We are the only ones who can see the end coming or are aware of it. (As far as we can tell). We are different from the rest of the animal kingdom because we can transmit our thoughts in a complicated manner. To a Christian it might mean we are the only ones who can perceive God’s works.

                  “Why reveal yourself to us after 14 billion years of random chance with cool shit being created all the time?”

                  Its as good a time as any. =)

                  “Why expect us to understand his will more than any other creature that was a product of this “garden”? “

                  Because we came out of it with an understanding which exceeds the rest of its denizens Even if it is the product of chance and environmental pressures, its a very rare result. Something which has to be appreciated for its unlikelihood.

                  [I don't believe any of this stuff, I am just throwing it out there for the sake of discussion]

  • Mario Strada

    I have never agreed with the “Overlapping Magisteria” crap. With all due respect to Stephen Jay Gould.
    To me it has always sounded like a cop out to make the religious important and make them feel they are somehow equal and their fantastic beliefs, most of them provably false, are as important, and therefore as true, as science.

    Bullshit on that.

    However, I have to admit that for the sake of public relations I have used that very cop out myself whenever I found myself in a pickle with someone I was either going to piss off, or hurt terribly, if I didn’t toss him/her a bone.

    And since this lady looks like nobody’s fool, I think it has become part of her public persona to deflect the accusations of intolerance she would surely garner if her position was closer to reality.

    Sometimes, you have to compromise. Sometimes you have to go to war.

    You should only pick the wars you can win.

  • the moother

    For someone who works tirelessly for such a noble cause she has received far too little recognition.

    And far too criticism from the likes of pharyngula… when he has a go at her I stopped reading that blog…


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X