Liberal Media



The Two Dixons

Thomas H. Dixon Jr., via Wikimedia Commons

As I was researching and writing “Dixon, Not Darwin,” about a viciously racist passage sometimes misattributed to Darwin but actually taken from Thomas F. Dixon Jr.’s novel The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905), I was intermittently chatting with my colleague Josh Rosenau about it. Perhaps he lost the thread, because after I mentioned something about Dixon—using only his surname—Rosenau asked, “Are you talking about A. C. Dixon, the co-editor of The Fundamentals?” “No,” I replied, “I’m talking about Thomas F. Dixon Jr., the author of The Clansman.” A moment later, I added, “Golly, I wonder if they’re kin.” A quick visit to Wikipedia later, I added, “Gosh, they were brothers.” (I apologize for the strong language, but I am a man of strong passions when it comes to historical trivia.) So what’s the story?

In 1848, in York County, South Carolina, Thomas Dixon, a Baptist minister, married Amanda Elvira McAfee. Their first surviving child, born in 1854, was Amzi Clarence Dixon. (Amzi? It’s a name from the Bible, in which it appears twice, in Nehemiah 11 and 1 Chronicles 6, which are basically genealogical passages.) The Dixon family migrated to central Arkansas in 1861, but returned, amid the furor of the Civil War, to the east, settling in Cleveland County, North Carolina. Thomas F. Dixon Jr. (above) was born shortly thereafter, in 1864. Both boys were educated at home and at the Shelby Academy, in Shelby, North Carolina; both then enrolled in Wake Forest College, Amzi in 1869 and Thomas following in 1879. While Amzi was in college, he felt called to preach, and was ordained in 1875, serving as a Baptist pastor in various churches in the Carolinas.

Thomas’s route to the ministry wasn’t as straightforward. At Wake Forest, he won a scholarship to attend graduate school at the Johns Hopkins University, where one of his classmates was the young Woodrow Wilson (whose attitude to evolution I mentioned in part 1 of “Searching for F. E. Dean”). In Baltimore he became stage-struck and moved to New York to act, but, unsuccessful, returned to Shelby, studied law, and was elected to the state assembly. He was admitted to the bar, but ultimately decided to follow his father and his older brother into the ministry. Ordained in 1886, he served as a Baptist pastor in various churches in the Carolinas, then in Boston, and then, after 1889, in New York. Amzi, meanwhile, after declining the presidency of Wake Forest College, moved to a church in Baltimore in 1882 and then a church in Brooklyn in 1890.

With both brothers serving as Baptist pastors in New York, it might sound as though their careers were converging. But finding his commitment to the church waning, Thomas resigned from the Baptist ministry in 1895 and stopped preaching altogether in 1899 to become a full-time lecturer and writer. He was inspired to write his historical novels extolling the antebellum South—The Leopard’s Spots (1902), The Clansman (1905), and The Traitor (1907)—after seeing a theatrical production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that he regarded as outrageous. In all, he wrote twenty-two novels, as well as plays and screenplays; a professor of English literature describes his fiction as “the most powerful shaping factor of the southern image for twenty years or so,” succeeded by Gone with the Wind (whose author was a fan of Dixon). He died in 1946 and is buried in Shelby.

Meanwhile, Amzi stayed in the ministry but bounced around: from Brooklyn to Boston to Chicago to London to Baltimore again, where he ended his career. A sympathetic article describes (PDF) him as “[s]omething of a microcosm of fundamentalism … [who] embodied the qualities of personal piety, evangelistic zeal … and a fervent disdain for what he called the ‘vagaries of modernism’”. Those vagaries included “Roman Catholicism, liquor and licentiousness, gambling, Henry Ward Beecher’s liberalism, Robert Ingersoll’s agnosticism, Christian Science, Unitarianism, and higher criticism of the Bible.” That disdain was manifested in his involvement in the production of The Fundamentals (1910–1915); Amzi oversaw the first five of the twelve volumes (with R. A. Torrey taking over thereafter). He died in 1925 and is buried in Baltimore.

In Redeeming the South (2000), the historian Paul Harvey writes that “[Amzi] abhorred Thomas’s popular works of fiction as much as Thomas poked fun at Amzi’s stuffy theology.” It would be amusing to think so, although it’s not clear to me on what evidence Harvey bases his claim. At any rate, whatever fraternal animosity there may have been between them, the Dixon brothers at least agreed on evolution. In Living Problems in Religion and Social Science (1889), for example, Thomas was skeptical of evolution, claiming that to accept evolution is to posit no fewer than three miracles. Amzi, for his part, regarded evolution as a Trojan horse for the modernism he opposed, and his Evangelism Old and New (1891) repeatedly describes it as “the pagan theory of evolution.” But neither Dixon ever really published a full-scale assault on evolution.

I’ll end with a final irony, which Josh Rosenau (a good sport) noted. In 1955, Miriam Allen deFord published a short biographical memoir in The Humanist. Of her subject, she said that, growing up in Baltimore,

He was reared in the Baptist church and his first Sunday-school teacher was the wife of the Reverend Thomas Dixon, notorious both for his anti-Negro novels and his Fundamentalist activities; but it may be added that [he] and his two younger brothers … so plagued poor Mrs. Dixon with their critical questions and arguments that she called on their mother and asked that they be kept away from the Sunday school!

Here deFord, like Rosenau sixty years later, was confusing Thomas and Amzi. It was a confusion that she corrected in her 1956 full-scale biography of the same person—none other than Maynard Shipley, the founder of the Science League of America!


October NCSEteach Update

The school year is officially underway! And the members of NCSE’s teacher network, NCSEteach, have just received their October newsletter, packed with resources, and event announcements related to teaching evolution and climate change. Why these topics? National teacher surveys show that many science teachers are reluctant to teach evolution and climate change because these topics are perceived as socially divisive. We want to make sure that teachers get the support they need to teach these topics with confidence.

Just to give you a little taste of the kinds of resources we point teachers toward, let me tell you a little bit about this month’s recommendation: Jason Donev’s Energy Encyclopedia.

Teacher Resource: Energy Education

Reading an encyclopedia can be pretty boring, unless you happen upon Jason Donev’s Energy Encyclopedia.

Dr. Donev and his team have created an easy to read online encyclopedia on a diverse set of topics including energy and climate change.

 As a physicist at the University of Calgary, Donev is concerned about climate change, energy policy, and education. Donev and a dedicated, talented group of undergraduate students started working on the energy encyclopedia three years ago. It now has over 1,000 entries. The aim was to give readers a realistic picture of what is going on, while not introducing political bias.

What’s great about the encyclopedia is that it succinctly describes some of the buzzwords associated with climate change science. Take, for example, “renewable” and “sustainable.” If you’re not sure what these terms mean, you can’t answer the question: “Are all renewable energy sources sustainable?” (The answer is “no”. Click here to find out why.)

The encyclopedia is also loaded with information-packed graphics. Look at the entry for total final consumption. Users can look at the total energy consumption for any country and view which sectors are responsible for the use of different types of energy.

Jason and his team hope that teachers will use the encyclopedia as a resource in their classrooms to help students understand complex topics. Are you a teacher? Please let us know what you and your students think!

Teacher Giveaway: “The Madhouse Effect”

Emily Schoerning recently reported on a school in Iowa where science teachers were working with an annual supply budget of considerably less than one dollar per student per year. So the results of a recent national survey (reported on here, the full report requires registration) showing that 91% of teachers buy supplies for their classrooms out of their own pockets come as no surprise. NCSE can’t close that gap. But sometimes generous publishers and authors give us books and CDs to give away to members of our teacher network.

I am really excited to be able to host this month’s give-away of The Madhouse Effect by Michael Mann. When Ann Reid wrote that The Madhouse Effect should make everybody mad, and that’s a good thing, she really wasn’t kidding. (Read an exclusive excerpt of the book here.)

This is one of those books that once I started reading, I couldn’t stop.

The book provides overviews of the scientific process and basic climate change science, including background information about the famous “Hockey Stick curve” that Mann published in the 1990s. The book also examines, in depth, climate change denial. The authors walk the reader through the many stages of denial from “ global warming isn’t happening” to “even if there are things we could do, they are too expensive”.  The book also examines the political context for climate change denial and compares it the tobacco industry’s efforts to create doubt about the link between smoking and disease.

But really, one of the best things about this book are the strategically placed cartoons that complement the subject matter. When I was frustrated by all of the science denial, a perfect cartoon appeared to calm me down. This one is my favorite.

Teachers who belong to our network can fill out this form to receive a copy of The Madhouse Effect. We only have 50 copies to give away, so act fast! Not a member of the teacher network yet? No problem. Sign up here.


If You Science It, They Will Come

For the last 18 months, the National Center for Science Education has been conducting an experiment in Iowa City. Our question: Can a grassroots community effort improve understanding and acceptance of topics such as climate change and evolution that are societally, but not scientifically, controversial? We’ve been writing about the results on the NCSE blog, but if you missed them, here are a few recent highlights.

 “you can’t do evolution outreach here”

One of the reasons that many classroom teachers avoid or downplay teaching evolution and climate change is fear of controversy. Just one angry parent can have a stultifying and, often, lingering effect. So when we started talking about organizing Science Booster Clubs to bring hands-on evolution and climate change activities to community events in Iowa City, many people in local education circles were skeptical. A little more than a year later, after dozens of successful and popular events, the Iowa City Science Booster Club was asked to develop a science outreach booth focused on evolution at the Iowa State Fair. We estimate that some 10,000 people came by the booth in just one day. How did we get from “no way” to “more, please!” so quickly? Emily Schoerning, the National Center for Science Education’s Director of Research and Community Organizing, tells the story here.

the secret to improving adult science literacy: it’s not what you expect

Sure, it’s fun to do science activities at community events, but does it have any lasting impact? Preliminary results from our new Science Booster Club program in Iowa suggest that it does: scores on a stripped-down test of science literacy improved significantly in a community that held six events in the last year.  Was it the brilliance of the programming? The skill of the presenters? No doubt that helped. But we think the answer may be simpler and more universal. Emily explains in her recent post: “Outreach With Impact“.

can graduate students change the world? why, yes. Yes, they can.

What happens when you let a molecular biology graduate student out of the lab and put her to work facilitating fun science activities at a farmer’s market? Changed lives, that’s all. In “Nice to Meet You,” NCSE’s newest staff member, Claire Adrian-Tucci, describes how she was bitten by the science outreach bug, and how she felt when she saw “the light bulb come on above people’s heads” after she handed them a thermometer and packed them into a small plastic greenhouse.

NCSE Booster Clubs are scaling up

NCSE members and supporters are starting clubs in Tennessee, Virginia, and DC.  We want to help you learn how to energize your community around science.  If you are interested in starting a booster club in your community, email us at!


Who the Heck Was Verdt?

Verdt and Wundt

If you spend any time looking through creationist literature, you will become accustomed to lists of scientists who supposedly reject evolution, doubt Darwin, and the like, although the exact complement of the lists changes over time, of course. A famous example is from Luther Tracy Townsend’s Collapse of Evolution (1905), which mentions:

scientists who have devoted their lives to the investigation of nature’s phenomena and who have taken rank in the past and who take rank to-day with those who stand the highest in their departments of study—such men as Agassiz, Beale, Carpenter, Dana, Davy, Dawson, Faraday, Forbes, Gray, Helmholtz, Herschel, Lord Kelvin, Leibnitz, Lotze, Maury, Pasteur, Romanes, Verdt[,] and hundreds of others …

Townsend, as Ronald L. Numbers notes in The Creationists (1992), “assembled one of the earliest—and most frequently cribbed—lists in order to prove that ‘the most thorough scholars, the world’s ablest philosophers and scientists, with few exceptions, are not supporters, but assailants of evolution.’”

Even though Townsend provided his list in a tidy alphabetical order, I am not going to work my way through it systematically; that would be dull. Instead, cutting to the chase, I want to ask: who the heck is Verdt? There is no Wikipedia entry for anyone named Verdt, nor is there apparently any listing for a Verdt in standard reference works such as the Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Townsend himself is no help: in his Bible Theology and Modern Thought (1883) and his Evolution or Creation (1896) he gives similar but unalphabetized lists, both including “Verdt” but with no first name. His followers are not helpful either: John D. Charles in Fallacies of Evolution (1917), to take a single example, gives a similar list, misspelling “Lotze” in the process, but still not providing a first name for Verdt.

Could it have been a typographical error? Sure; that wouldn’t be surprising at all. But for what? Verdi? It would be odd to include the Italian opera composer Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901) in a list of scientists in the first place; moreover, Verdi was not religious and somewhat anticlerical (and the owner of a copy of Darwin’s Origin, I find). Vernet? There was a family of French painters of that name, but why include a painter in such a list? And the youngest of them, Émile Jean-Horace Vernet, died in 1863, a bit early to reject Darwinism. Verdet? Émile Verdet (1824–1866) was a French physicist who was more important for his teaching and editing, which helped to promulgate the theory of the conservation of energy in France, than for his research; if he expressed any view about evolution, the origin of life, and so forth, I’ve been unable to find any mention of it.

I was about to conclude that there was no way of knowing whom Townsend might have had in mind when I looked at the pad where I had scrawled “Verdt” and realized that Townsend probably composed in longhand. A little experimentation convinced me that it would be very possible for him to have written “Wundt” and for whoever prepared the typescript to have read “Verdt”—see the illustration above. Then all that would have been required is for Townsend to have overlooked the mistake when he examined the proofs. Presumably the error would have occurred with Bible Theology and Modern Thought (if not before) and then would have been carelessly propagated through his later writings; Townsend’s oeuvre was quite repetitive. But if Townsend had Wundt in mind, then the question becomes: who the heck was Wundt?

The answer is not far to seek: Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt (1832–1920), the father of experimental psychology. Wundt accepted evolution sensu lato, and even formulated a theory of instinct based on evolution, but he moved from accepting to rejecting the importance of natural selection. As Solomon Diamond writes in his “Wundt Before Leipzig” (2001):

[A]lthough one often meets quotations from Wundt’s later works in which he expressed great appreciation of Darwin’s achievement, when these are read in context it will be found that they are always followed by a rejection of the basic concept of Darwinian evolution (which is development in response to blindly operating forces) and by insistence on a view of evolution consistent with German idealistic philosophy and therefore directed primarily by teleological rather than accidental forces.

Accordingly, Wundt is often named in the early twentieth-century creationist literature as a scientist who abandoned Darwinism or rejects evolution, although he is not usually quoted as doing so—perhaps because no suitable passage was ever translated into English. (The main exception involves a passage from 1892 disapprovingly quoted by Ernst Haeckel in Die Welträtsel [1895–1899], translated into English in 1900.)

Curiously, Townsend himself manages to cite Wundt by name repeatedly. In Biblical Theology and Modern Thought, he writes, “We could cite Lotze, Wundt, Helmholtz, and others …”; in The Bible and Other Ancient Literature in the Nineteenth Century (1884), he mentions “Heinrich Frey, Lionel S. Beale, W. H. Dallinger, Lotze, Wundt, Helmholtz, and other of the profoundest thinkers of Europe and America”; in Adam and Eve, History or Myth? (1904), he quotes Haeckel on the antievolutionary conclusion supposedly reached by “most modern investigators of science” (see “Riled about Haeckel”) and gives his list of such: “E. Dennert and Goette, Edward von Hartmann and Edward Hoppe, … Paulson and Rutemeyer, W. Max Wundt and Zoeckler.” I guess that it goes to show you the paramount importance of proper cpyoetdiing!


A Lawyer’s Distortion of Huxley

Thomas Henry Huxley

I have a number of lawyers among my friends and family, so I usually try not to indulge in jokes that broadly impugn the legal profession. (What’s that? Well, if you insist. What’s the difference between a lawyer and a catfish? One is a slimy, scum-sucking, bottom-dwelling scavenger—while the other is a fish.) And in fact, I have a lot of respect for the legal profession, instilled, in part, by interacting with the lawyers—Eric Rothschild, Steve Harvey, Vic Walczak, Richard Katskee, and all their colleagues—who so effectively represented the plaintiffs in Kitzmiller v. Dover. But I am willing to complain about lawyers who abuse their skills in the service of attacking evolution—like Phillip Johnson, Norman Macbeth, or, in the Scopes era, Philip Mauro (1859–1952). Here, from Mauro’s Evolution at the Bar (1922), is a blatant distortion.

In chapter three of Evolution at the Bar, Mauro challenges the idea that paleontology provide evidence for evolution. He contends that even Thomas Henry Huxley (above)—whom he describes as one of the ablest evolutionists, “who openly devoted his great talents to the destruction of faith in Divine revelation”—conceded that there was no evidence for evolution in the fossil record. Accordingly, he quotes Huxley’s address to the Royal Geological Society in 1870—“Palaeontology and the Doctrine of Evolution”—as follows:

“What then does an impartial survey of the positively ascertained truths of paleontology testify in relation to the common doctrines of progressive modification (i.e. Evolution), which suppose that modification to have taken place from more to less embryonic forms, from more to less generalized types, within the limits of the period represented by the fossiliferous rocks?” And he answers the question by saying, “I reply, it negatives those doctrines; for it either shows us no evidence of such modifications, or it demonstrates such modifications, or it demonstrates such modification as has occurred to have been very slight. The significance of persistent types, and the small amount of change which has taken place even in those forms which can be shown to have been modified, becomes greater and greater in my eyes, the longer I occupy myself with the Biology of the past[.]” (emphasis and parenthetical interpolation in original)

The quotation is problematic in a number of ways. For starters, the emphasis was added by Mauro; the italics are not to be found in the printed version of the address. And Mauro failed to indicate that he omitted about half of the next-to-last sentence (“and, as to the nature of that modification, it yields no evidence whatsoever that the earlier members of any long-continued group were more generalised in structure than the later ones”) or that the last sentence is separated from those preceding it by five paragraphs.

Those problems might be attributed to carelessness, but there is a further problem, which it is hard not to attribute to dishonesty. Huxley begins “Palaeontology and the Doctrine of Evolution” by harking back to—and quoting from—his 1862 address to the Royal Geological Society, “Geological Contemporaneity and Persistent Types of Life” (which, by the way, was the source of the “not proved and not provable” passage, which I have previously discussed). The first two sentences quoted by Mauro are taken verbatim from the 1862 address. Immediately after Huxley quotes himself from 1862, he announces his project for the 1870 address: “revising these old judgments with such help as further knowledge and reflection, and an extreme desire to get at the truth, may afford me.” Could he have signaled the need to read further any more clearly?

When Huxley indeed reconsiders those sentences in his 1870 address, he writes, “there is much ground for softening the somewhat Brutus-like severity with which, in 1862, I dealt with a doctrine, for the truth of which I should have been glad enough to be able to find a good foundation.” With respect to the “Invertebrata and the lower Vertebrata,” he says, he is willing still to say that the evidence for evolution is not in, but with respect to the “higher Vertebrata,” he declares that there is “a clear balance in favour of the doctrine of the evolution of living forms one from another.” He then discusses a variety of lineages, settling on the evolution of horses as his best example; a few years later, after reviewing O. C. Marsh’s collection of fossil horses with him, he would deliver his famous lecture in New York City on the evolution of the horse.

As for the final sentence quoted by Mauro, beginning, “The significance of persistent types,” it indeed represented Huxley’s views as of 1870, unlike the previous two sentences. A lot could be said about Huxley’s uncompromising stand on persistent types—involving the idea that certain kinds of life, such as crocodiles and ferns, displayed no evolutionary change—including the fact that he slowly divested himself of it through the second half of his career. Since Mauro was writing twenty-seven years after Huxley’s death, his abandonment of persistent types presumably wouldn’t have been breaking news. But more important is the fact that although persistence of types was not a good fit with the idea of evolution, it is not incompatible with it, so Huxley’s retention of it in 1870 was not evidence that he was uncomfortable with evolution, contrary to what Mauro implies.

The only possible excuse from the charge of lawyerly dishonesty against Mauro is laziness. Mauro quotes Huxley indirectly via “Th. Graebner, in ‘Evolution’”—by which he presumably means Evolution: An Investigation and a Criticism (1921) by Theodore Graebner, a contemporary Lutheran theologian I’ve discussed before. In his book, Graebner quotes the same sentences from Huxley, without adding any emphasis although without indicating the omissions that Mauro failed to indicate, preceded by “Huxley … quotes the following from an address before the same society in 1862.” That, too, is misleading, since the third sentence, beginning, “The significance of persistent types,” was new to Huxley’s 1870 address, but it isn’t as misleading as in Mauro’s book, where Huxley’s change of mind between 1862 and 1870 is ignored.

Science Booster Clubs: Outreach with Impact!

For months now, we’ve been telling you about the fun events that NCSE’s Science Booster Clubs have been bringing to farmers markets, Halloween haunts, and county fairs. The Booster Clubs have reached more than 50,000 people in the last 18 months. That’s a feel-good story, right? But do these efforts actually change anything? Could they possibly have any effect on the notoriously low level of science literacy among U.S. adults? The activities at our large-scale events are simple and quick. Our volunteers spend, on average, less than five minutes with each participant at fair-type events. Surely this type of programming can’t move the needle on a problem as stubborn as adult science literacy. Right?

Wrong. From the beginning, we’ve wanted the Booster Club program to be more than a good time. We’re looking for a way to affect societal attitudes towards and knowledge of science. At many of our events we’ve surveyed participants and bystanders. The early numbers are in and guess what? Our programs are working.

Check out the graph below:



The graph shows the results of our survey work in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Since the beginning of 2016, we’ve been using a survey at some of our larger events to measure science literacy on a 24-point scale. The survey asks questions like “Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?” and “Is all radioactivity manmade, or does some occur naturally?”

You might think these questions are silly, but they were previously validated by a Pew survey on American scientific literacy. Check out national results for the question on radioactivity here. You won’t like the numbers. And it may surprise you to learn that just over 25% of Americans are pretty sure the sun does in fact go around the Earth.

The latter number is similar to what our surveys found. I’m flabbergasted that there’s a need for me to develop an exhibit about heliocentrism in 2016. But I need to get past that reaction. After all, where am I finding these geocentrists? At public science events, where they’re trying to learn about science. And they’re nice people. They’re polite and engaging. They’re interested in enrichment activities for their children. Learning new things visibly delights them. They’re people just like me. But no one is teaching them about this newfangled Copernican theory. I better get to work.

So far, what we’re doing is working. Scores in Cedar Rapids have risen from 13 to 17 in just seven months (that’s about 30% for those of you keeping score at home). And the difference is statistically significant (at p=0.03, for those of you craving the details). We’re starting to see similar upward trends in the other communities where we work. I’ll be able to show you more data soon! But even these early results are very exciting.

Adult science literacy is a tough nut to crack. People have been tracking public answers to some of these questions for almost fifty years, when the NSF started investing in national survey work. While we’ve seen improvements in some areas, like the public understanding of probability and DNA, our national understanding of concepts related to evolution and geologic time have not improved. Check out this lovely figure in Jon Miller’s work, which includes the fascinating and terrifying tidbit that in the 1970s, fully half of Americans embraced geocentrism.

We are constantly learning more about our world through the application of the scientific method. Our understanding of climate change today is vastly different from what we knew even ten years go. But where can people access this knowledge? Most adults don’t get many science learning opportunities in their daily lives. The awesome hands-on programming of the Science Booster Clubs provides more of these chances, and, clearly, they’re having an impact.

If you check out that Smithsonian link to the Pew Survey, you’ll note that Americans aren’t happy about their lack of science literacy. They’re eager to learn and they’re passionate about improving science education. The message  take from these results? We really can make a difference in our communities. Adult scientific literacy isn’t impossible to expand, and it doesn’t cost millions of dollars. But it does take respect, and a sense of fun. We’ll keep bringing both to the table with the Science Booster Club project.

Grand Canyon and Fear of the Water

NCSE’s annual raft trip down the Grand Canyon just returned, and Teacher Scholarship winner Crystal Davis offered to describe her experience on the river with us. Enjoy, and consider donating to the scholarship fund to support future trips like this.

Crystal Davis taking a dip in the Little Colorado and on the lookout for Humpback ChubCrystal Davis taking a dip in the Little Colorado and on the lookout for Humpback Chub

I’m deathly terrified of water, rapids, rafts, and boats. I can’t begin to tell you how much I hate and fear boats, the swirling water that taunts me, threatening to drag me under. Both of these cause an immediate panic attack as I’m certain I will drown every time I am on a boat. I don’t even feel safe from drowning on a giant cruise ship, and a raft is minuscule in comparison. So why did I spend eight days this summer on a raft in the whitewater rapids of the Grand Canyon?

Earlier in the year I applied for a scholarship with the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). If selected, the scholarship would cover food, airfare, and a bucket list trip of rafting down the Grand Canyon for two teachers. 

A family of four bighorn sheep. Can you spot the two lambs playing?A family of four bighorn sheep. Can you spot the two lambs playing?

I was lucky enough to receive one of these scholarships from NCSE. As a teacher this trip was something I could not have afforded without NCSE’s generous scholarship. For eight days this summer I basked in the wonder of the Grand Canyon as I traveled through time accompanied by research scientists, science professors and writers. While not a formal classroom setting, I learned more here than I have in any of my professional development seminars.

Rock walls made of sandstone, shale and limestone towered up to a mile overheard in this informal classroom setting. I learned the names and ages of formations such as the Unkar Group, Vishnu Schist, and Bright Angel Shale. I was able to see and touch these and other geologic formations that are between 252 million and 1.8 billion million years old.

A nautiloid fossil by Crystal's sunglasses (for scale).A nautiloid fossil by Crystal’s sunglasses (for scale).

NCSE staff members Steve Newton (geologist) and Josh Rosenau (evolutionary biologist) explained the scientific formation of the Grand Canyon as we cruised down the river. They painted a vivid picture of how the Grand Canyon changed over time as we stopped to look at fossils of brachiopods, trilobites, bryozoans and lizard tracks. They contrasted the scientific theory of its formation to the creationist belief, showing how creationists have cherry picked data to make it fit their beliefs.

Hikers on the way to visit an Ancestral Puebloan granary at Nankoweap.Hikers on the way to visit an Ancestral Puebloan granary at Nankoweap.

The Fourth of July celebration was different from any Independence Day I’ve experienced before. Normally I’d spend the evening lying on the grass of Grand Park in Los Angeles, watching fireworks and listening to a band play. This year, I woke up on a beach, packed my camping gear in a dry bag, helped load two rafts and was off to spend a full day running some of the highest rated rapids in the Grand Canyon. My fellow rafters encouraged me to move to the front of the raft as we approached my namesake Crystal Rapid (rated a 10+), but I unselfishly let them keep the best seats; again, I’m deathly terrified of water, rapids, rafts and boats. For dinner there was the traditional watermelon, burgers and hotdogs made by the most amazing raft crew I have ever met. That night I slept outside on a sandy beach with the stars twinkling and dancing overhead. There were no lights from the city anywhere in sight. My fireworks were shooting stars that lit up the night sky as they flew by. I was in awe of how insignificant I am in the course of geologic time.

I couldn’t have asked for a better learning opportunity, even though it meant conquering my deeply rooted fears. I deepened my understanding of the geology and ecology of the Grand Canyon, and share that experience and understanding with my students.

The Confluence - where the Little Colorado meets the Big Colorado River. Endangered Humpback Chub call the Confluence their home.The Confluence – where the Little Colorado meets the Big Colorado River. Endangered Humpback Chub call the Confluence their home.

The focus in my classroom this school year is the Grand Canyon. In my environmental course we finished covering Garret Hardin’s the Tragedy of the Commons. My students learned that commonly owned resources are overused and exploited due to human nature. We tied the Tragedy of the Commons to national parks and the Escalade development proposed for the Grand Canyon. Basically this plan, currently being debated by the Navajo Nation’s leaders, will allow the development of a tram to the confluence of the Colorado River with the Little Colorado River. I was able to visit this area on my rafting trip this summer and it is a pristine ecosystem that is home to endangered species and a sacred site for many Native American tribes. Developing the tram would decimate the confluence.

My students are playing out the debate over the confluence in our classroom. They have been split into groups of stakeholders such as the Navajo Nation, rafting companies, geologists, ecologists, environmentalists, council members and citizens. After researching “their opinion” on the dam we will hold a debate to determine if the confluence is to be developed. Later in the year we will study the ecology of the Grand Canyon and how it will be affected by global warming, debate the removal of the Glen Canyon Dam, and study the geology of the Canyon.

The NCSE Grand Canyon trip reinvigorated and inspired me for this coming school year. I am so excited to bring this sacred place into my classroom and share it with my students. Thank you NCSE for giving me this opportunity.


Evolution in the Back Seat

A 1924 Dodge sedan like Stumpy Reed'sThe idiom “take a back seat” means “to be given a less important role,” and it was employed accordingly in 2005 by the headline writer for The New York Times for Cornelia Dean’s article entitled “Evolution Takes a Back Seat in U.S. Classes.” Quoting NCSE’s founding executive director Eugenie C. Scott among others, Dean convincingly argued that evolution is often downplayed or omitted in public school science classes: “In districts around the country, even when evolution is in the curriculum it may not be in the classroom, according to researchers who follow the issue.” A few years later, a rigorous national public survey of high school biology teachers would confirm the anecdotal and impressionistic conclusions of Dean’s article. I mention the article now because of a rather more literal case of evolution in the back seat.

Back in 1995, for the seventieth anniversary of the Scopes trial of 1925, John D. Morris of the Institute for Creation Research asked, “Did the Evolutionists Present a Good Case at the Scopes Trial?” Limited by the format of the ICR’s Acts & Facts series, Morris only had about five hundred words to work with. Even so, he didn’t answer the question posed in the headline satisfactorily. He focused on the scientific testimony that the defense team hoped to introduce during the trial, which—as he acknowledged—was ruled by Judge Raulston to be irrelevant to the trial, and claims, wrongly if unsurprisingly, “each one of the arguments for evolution [that would have been presented by the defense’s expert witnesses] are now known to be wrong.” But there was a detail of his treatment that surprised me a bit.

Morris writes, “John Scopes, on trial for teaching evolution (contrary to Tennessee law), didn’t actually do so until after the charges had been filed.” That is not the detail that surprised me. Scopes was a general science teacher (and part-time sports coach) in Dayton. There are conflicting reports about whether Scopes ever taught evolution in class—before the trial, it was suggested that he reviewed the topic while substituting for the regular biology teacher; after the trial, he told a reporter that he skipped the lesson on evolution about which his students testified (“the kids were good sports and wouldn’t squeal on me in court”); and there’s evidence that he discussed it in his general science class. But it is clear that whatever the students might have learned in class, they were also coached about their testimony before the grand jury hearing and the trial.

Morris knows about the coaching, writing—and now, finally, is the detail that surprised me—“Then he did so [i.e., taught evolution] in the back seat of a car, just to be sure he had committed the proper crime.” You might be forgiven for thinking that Morris is confusing the Butler Act with the Motor Vehicle Code, for in fact the Butler Act provided only, “That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the Story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals,” with no reference whatsoever to automobiles—or to whatever hanky-panky might occur in their back seats.

But, in fact, Morris was more or less right. According to Warren Allem’s 1959 University of Tennessee, Knoxville, master’s thesis “Backgrounds of the Scopes Trial at Dayton, Tennessee,” “Scopes, called back from his vacation, herded some of his students into the back of ‘Stumpy’ Reed’s taxicab, and coached them in their answers as he had never done in school. They were to be the witnesses against him!” (Allem’s source was a personal interview with Franklin A. “Stumpy” Reed, conducted on June 22, 1959, the very day that Reed retired from the taxicab business—presumably a coincidence!) Their testimony wasn’t particularly damaging in any case: Darrow elicited laughter from the courtroom audience by asking the teenager Howard Morgan, of Scopes’s teaching him evolution, “It has not hurt you any, has it?” (“No, sir,” was the response.)

A wider consequence of the trial, of course, is that although Scopes’s conviction was overturned on a technicality, there was a chilling effect on the teaching of evolution across the nation. As Judith V. Grabiner and Peter D. Miller argued in 1974, “The impact of the Scopes trial on high school biology textbooks was enormous. It is easy to identify a text published in the decade following 1925. Merely look up the word ‘evolution’ in the index or the glossary; you almost certainly will not find it.” Thankfully, ninety-one years after the Scopes trial, the e-word is conspicuous in textbooks—but evolution is still neglected in too many classrooms. If you’ll excuse the pitch, NCSE is working to ensure that evolution is taken out of the back seat—or perhaps the trunk—of science education and restored to the front seat status it deserves—and we could use your support.

Photograph: 1924 Dodge type A. Papakura Vintage Car Rally, South Auckland, New Zealand, 2015. GPS 56 via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.