Yale professors are often noted for speaking out on controversial issues. This time the teaching of evolution in public schools is the issue at hand, and all four professors are named “Steve.”
Stephen Anderson, Steven Novella, Steven Sherwood and Stephen Stearns were asked to cooperate in “Project Steve,” a list released earlier this month by the National Center for Science Education, or NCSE.
The project is a “whimsical attack” on the long-standing creationist tradition of amassing lists of scientists who doubt evolution — a part of a greater movement to ban the teaching of evolution in public school science classes. Creationists deny evolution, stating that God created the universe and the Bible’s story of the Creation is accurate. Project Steve lists scientists named Steve who support the teaching of evolution in public schools.
Steve “Skip” Evans, NCSE Project Director, helped develop the project and organize the list.
“Creationists — mislead the public into thinking evolution is not widely supported in the scientific community,” Evans said. “This list clearly demonstrates the falseness of such claims.”
The project takes a light-hearted approach to a subject that even the list’s members consider a serious issue.
“The point is to just survey scientists whose names are Steve,” said Steven Novella, assistant professor of neurology. “[From that], you can extrapolate the number of scientists that do support evolution.” Novella is President of the New England Skeptical Society, an organization which promotes science and reason and investigates pseudoscientific claims.
The project, which is based on the premise that “Steves” make up approximately one percent of the population of scientists in the United States, is named in honor of the late Stephen Jay Gould, a Harvard professsor, NCSE supporter, and stauch evolutionary theorist.
The original list included 220 Steves, but has grown since its release. Project Steve includes Stephens, Stevens, Stephanies, and Stefans. On NCSE’s website, Evans said the project will not be replicated with other names.
Project Steve’s mission statement asserts that evolution is a vital, well-supported, unifying principle of the biological sciences, and that the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that all living things share a common ancestry. The statement also calls the teaching of creationism “inappropriate and pedagogically irresponsible.”
“Creationism does not belong [in public education] at all,” said Stephen Anderson, professor of linguistics and cognitive science. “It is a dogmatic decision to ignore science.”
Creationists purport that evolution is a “theory in crisis,” and have developed a theory of “intelligent design” which states that life is too complex to have been created by evolution. Those who support intelligent design believe that organisms’ complex structures prove God’s existence as a “designer.”
“Creationism is touted as scientific theory,” said Steven Sherwood, professor of geophysics. “But it is not a theory; it is an argument. In teaching science, you have to teach the scientific method. You can’t teach creationism in that way.”
Novella said creationism’s value is purely religious, and not scientific.
“[Creationists] don’t have a scientific hypothesis, scientific program, or scientific publication,” he said. “Creationism is not a view supported by any scientific community, and is composed of entirely evolutionary denial.” He added that creationists should only be taken seriously because they are effective liars who have done substantial damage to science education. But the project does not attempt to wholly remove creationism from the classroom.
“Its place is in a course in religious studies, [or a] Bible as literature [course], which I think is legitimate in public school,” said Stephen Stearns, professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, who is the author of numerous books on evolution and the cofounder of a scientific journal and association devoted to evolutionary biology. “As long as people are open to the alternative, there is nothing wrong with creationism.”
Stearns recounted the 1996 event in which Pope John Paul II announced his support of evolution while still preserving the concept of the Holy Ghost. Stearns said that in his evolution class he teaches the origin of life, and then spends twenty minutes discussing the origins of meaning from culture to religion itself.
“I recognize science destroys value systems. That is what creationists are reacting against — the destruction of value, and not replacing it,” he said. “But the answer does not belong in science.”