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HOME > PAST ISSUE > May-June 2003 > Article Detail

SCIENCE OBSERVER

The Steve Wars

Margaret Pizer

When Stephen Jay Gould was writing a popular column for Natural History magazine, his views on evolution were widely known and quoted. A year after Gould's death, it seems that "Steve's" support of evolutionary theory survives him.

On February 16, the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) announced that more than 200 Steves—that is, scientists named Steve—had signed a statement in support of evolution and against the teaching of "creation science" or "intelligent design" in schools. This tongue-in-cheek petition has a serious point: to illustrate the overwhelming support of the scientific community for evolution. According to NCSE, only about 1 percent of scientists are named Steve (Steven, Stephanie, Stefan, Etienne ...), so the number of Steves amassed to endorse the statement shows that the support for evolution is not in crisis.

The somewhat unusual petition developed in response to opposing lists purporting to show that many scientists dispute evolution. One such list was published by the Discovery Institute in 2001 as an advertisement in The New York Review of Books, The New Republic and The Weekly Standard. One hundred scientists put their names on the list in support of the statement:

We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.

One of NCSE's own Steves, Stephen "Skip" Evans, argues that this statement was "cleverly crafted to mislead the public" into thinking that Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is not widely accepted among scientists. Indeed, most biologists would certainly encourage an attitude of healthy skepticism about the details of evolutionary theory and a careful analysis of all scientific evidence. But controversy over the details of how and why evolution occurs, Evans points out, does not indicate lack of support for evolution among scientists.

Steve-o-MeterClick to Enlarge Image

The Discovery Institute 100 list, as it came to be known, engendered extensive discussion on NCSE's network of e-mail listservs. One supporter remarked that finding 100 scientists in support of evolution would be easy—even if the signatories were limited to those named Steve. And so Project Steve was born.

By simply e-mailing a few scientists named Steve and asking them to pass along the message, NCSE quickly amassed a list of more than 220 Steves. One of the signatories, animal-communication expert Stephen Nowicki of Duke University, admits that when he first received an e-mail invitation to join the list, he thought it might be some kind of joke or scam. Once he checked with the NCSE, he was happy to sign on. "Now," he says, "everyone wants to be a Steve." In fact, the Steves keep rolling in—you can check the progress of the "Steve-o-meter" on the NCSE Web site (www.ncseweb.org).

Mark Edwards of the Discovery Institute says that Project Steve simply states the obvious: "The Discovery Institute recognizes that most scientists are Darwinian biologists. We just wanted to counter the claim that evolution is unquestioned among scientists." But Nowicki sees it differently. "You can find an arbitrary group of people to say anything," he says, "but NCSE tied both arms behind its back by restricting the list to Steves, and it still easily found over 200." In addition to allowing typically apolitical scientists to take a stand, he says the list "shows that scientists who believe in evolution have more sense of humor than those who don't."


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