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All About Steve (and Darwin)
Glenn Branch and Skip Evans

In their ceaseless effort to convince the public that evolution is problematic, creationists are fond of compiling lists of scientists who deny evolution. Introducing its list, the Institute for Creation Research declares that “[c]reation scientists can now be found in literally every discipline of science, and their numbers are increasing rapidly.” The creationist ministry Answers in Genesis (AiG) supplements its list with a roster of “creationist scientists” of the past, including Georges Cuvier, William Buckland and Adam Sedgwick (who are warily described as “old-earth compromisers” because they, unlike AiG, accepted that Earth is more than 10,000 years old).

And in 2001, the Discovery Institute, the institutional home of “intelligent design” creationism, placed advertisements in The New Republic, The Weekly Standard and The New York Review of Books, signed by a number of scientists who “are skeptical of the claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life” and who believe that “careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.” Innocuous as these sentiments are, the Discovery Institute’s list, like those of the Institute for Creation Research and AiG, is nevertheless brandished by those trying to show that evolution is a “theory in crisis.”

Discussing the propaganda value of such lists, advocates of evolution education associated with the Web site www.talkdesign.org started to play with the idea of a response. But compiling a list of the hundreds of thousands of scientists who accept evolution would be not only tedious but also heavy-handed: it would look as if the scientific establishment were out to squash creationism by sheer weight of numbers. Someone suggested that it would be just as compelling and quite a bit funnier to compile a list of scientists named Dave, say, or Chris, who accept evolution. Matt Inlay, a graduate student in biology at the University of California, San Diego, suggested that in honor of the late Stephen Jay Gould, a better choice of name would be Steve. Thus Project Steve was born.

The National Center for Science Education (NCSE), for which we work, undertook to sponsor Project Steve. We drafted a statement reading:

Evolution is a vital, well-supported, unifying principle of the biological sciences, and the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that all living things share a common ancestry. Although there are legitimate scientific debates about the patterns and processes of evolution, there is no serious scientific doubt that evolution occurred or that natural selection is a major mechanism of evolution. It is scientifically inappropriate and pedagogically irresponsible for creationist pseudoscience, including but not limited to “intelligent design,” to be introduced into the science curricula of the public schools.

We circulated the statement to selected Steves, Stevens, Stephens and Stephanies with Ph.D.s in the sciences. (We were also willing to take Estebans, Etiennes and Istvans.) Relying on data from the Census Bureau, we calculated that approximately 1 percent of the U.S. population possesses a qualifying name, so every signatory represents about 100 scientists.

The first few days of Project Steve were hectic. After about 10 days, the Steveometer was at 100, the initial target; and 100 percent of the eligible Nobel laureates — Steven Weinberg and Stephen Chu — were on board, as were a number of geological and paleontological luminaries, including Steven M. Stanley of Johns Hopkins. But responses were still pouring in. Shrugging our shoulders, we decided to shoot for 200.

The signatories were gratifyingly enthusiastic: “thrilled to participate” and “honored to be listed,” calling it “quite good fun” and a “great concept.” Steven Semken, a geologist at Diné College in Tsaile, Ariz., suggested that we add a reference to the importance of evolution to the geological sciences to the statement.

Unfortunately, by then the statement was so widely circulated that it would have been difficult to rectify our oversight. When we announced Project Steve on the NCSE Web site, we explained that “NCSE’s position is that evolution is vital to the geological sciences too; we confidently expect that the signatories would agree if asked, but we unfortunately failed to ask.”

With the Steveometer at 200, we decided to unveil Project Steve at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual convention in Denver, Colo. Lawrence Krauss, a physicist at Case Western Reserve University, who was speaking on “Scientific Ignorance as a Way of Life,” kindly announced Project Steve and referred reporters to Eugenie C. Scott, NCSE’s executive director, who was sitting in the front row. The Steveometer was then — on Feb. 16, 2003 — at 220; it is now at 290 and climbing.

The whimsical nature of Project Steve caught the attention of the media. Stories appeared in the Washington Times, in the Oakland Tribune and on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s The Science Show, which went so far as to arrange for a male chorus to sing, “Steve, Steve, Steve, Steve,” in the style of Monty Python’s “Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam.” Numerous articles appeared in local and college newspapers, accompanied by photographs of Steves wearing their official Project Steve T-shirts. The scientific media were responsive, too. Steve Mirsky wrote “Bringing in the Steves” (alluding to the hymn “Bringing in the Sheaves”) for The Scientist. And Project Steve was even mentioned in the Random Samples column of Science.

Project Steve is of course a parody of the lists used by creationists to try to convince the public that evolution is shaky. But there is a serious side to it, too: to remind the public that scientific questions are not answered by acclamation but by scientific research, which, of course, overwhelmingly supports evolution. But don’t take our word for it. Just ask Stephen Abedon, or Stephen Adler, or Stephen Aley, or ...


Branch is deputy director, and Evans is network project director, of the National Center for Science Education, a non-profit organization that defends the teaching of evolution in the public schools. Skip Evans, whose given name is Stephen, is now regretting his decision not to pursue a Ph.D., so that he could make the list. E-mail: branch@ncseweb.org or evans@ncseweb.org.

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