29 Sep

Remembrances of George Washington Carver

In 1896, Booker T. Washington, the university’s president, invited George Washington Carver to head its Agricultural Department.  He spent 47 years at Tuskegee developing numerous inventions and agricultural practices.  He was likely one of the first scientists to initiate extension programs and actively train farmers.  The same farmers would often be recruited into Carver’s research in an early form of citizen science.

I have always found Carver a compelling figure.  Born into slavery, Carver rose to become one of the most important and influential scientists of his time. Carver was a true renaissance man; he taught piano at the University and loved to crochet. Carver also represents yet another dichotomy of science in the South. In the early 1900’s when Carver began his career, very few university educated African-Americans existed. To this date, the representation of African American in science is appalling low. However, Carver revolutionized agriculture from cotton to peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potatoes, crops now inseparable from Southern culture. No scientist has had such a profound influence on the South.

Equally intriguing is that Carver’s dedication to science was only matched by his dedication to Christianity.  Carver carried a bible every day and taught a bible class on campus.  He developed walnut dies and stained the pews from a local church.  Carver’s evangelism led to disapproval by many in the scientific establishment.  In contrast, the local Alabama and university loved him.

In August, I had the privilege of visiting Tuskegee University.  Dana Chandler, chief archivist for Tuskegee University, showed me items belonging to Carver.  I am indebted to Dana, himself a man of science and religion and scholar of Carver, for discussing Carver’s life and legacy with me. 

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A farmer once brought a 202 lb meteorite by wagon into Tuskegee University for Carver to examine. I am holding 22 lb section of that meteorite.

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Carver’s typewriter and a glass cover for his Zeiss microscope.

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A very old photograph of Carver’s laboratory. In the foreground you can see the glass cover for his microscope.

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One of Carver’s exhibits for farmers demonstrating uses for Wisteria, a common nuisance vine throughout the South.


Carver’s field case.

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10 Jul

The Absence of Evolution in Arkansas

On January 18th, 2005 the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas sent a letter to the school board of Beebe, a small town of less than 10,000 located in the Northeast Central part of the state.  

The ACLU of Arkansas wishes to make clear our intentions in this matter. While we would prefer to avoid litigation, we seek the immediate removal of the sticker regarding evolution that now appears in textbooks in the Beebe School District. We expect to hear from you concerning this matter within two weeks from the date of this letter.

 The sticker in question had been in the front of Beebe textbooks for nearly a decade.


What had changed?  A few days earlier in Selman et al. v Cobb County School Board a federal judge ruled that stickers included in textbooks in this Georgia school district need  to be removed because it “improperly entangled itself with religion”.

This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.

Approved by Cobb County Board of Education Thursday, March 28, 2002

Of course, Beebe’s sticker went far beyond the Cobb County three-line sticker.  By a July, the Beebe School Board in fear of lawsuit ordered the removal of the stickers.  A month later Beebe teachers were ripping the pages with the stickers out of the textbooks.

The teaching of evolution in Arkansas has always had a contentious history.  The landmark 1968 Epperson v. Arkansas trial invalidated an Arkansas statute that prohibited the teaching of human evolution in the public schools.  Nearly four decade later the issue of teaching evolution was still controversial. In 2003, Bob Dunning, a pastor of Rocky Comfort Assembly God Church, asked for a religious exemption for Rogers school district students to opt out of evolution studies.   Dunning brought several pastors and nearly three dozen congregational members with him to the April school board meeting.  Dunning proclaimed in these proceedings that “Evolution is the worst thing ever foisted on human beings.”  The school board voted against this 5-2 largely because local school boards cannot pass resolutions exemption students from any state required class work.  

In 2007, also in the Roger’s School District, a dentist, Don Eckard, and a patron, Mark Moore, approached Rogers school board to augment textbooks with “supplemental materials” including a DVD “How to Teach the Controversy Over Darwin Legally”and other materials from the pro-intelligent design and conservative think tank Discovery Institute .  Eckard stated

Teachers may have trouble fully meeting state science standards without supplemental materials for textbooks when some textbooks present a one-sided commitment to a portion of the material covered…all four [biology textbooks] present the neo-Darwinism theory of evolution…with very little critical analysis…no objective observer can look at these textbooks and with intellectual integrity say they fulfill state standards.

Roger’s High School science teacher, Steve Long, stated the materials were

superfluous and may detract from the overall biology curriculum by creating confusion where no mainstream controversy exist or adding additional days of instruction to an already crowded curriculum.

The school board ultimately didn’t adopt these extra materials

But all of this may be a moot point.  Fifty miles south of Rogers in the Ozarks is Cedarville, Arkansas. I graduate from the small high school here.   There were a mere 42 people in my graduating class.  I never once heard about evolution during any of my science classes. Not once.  Evolution was simply not a controversy because my teachers never mentioned the topic despite being a requirement of Arkansas state science standards.  

This absence is by far more dangerous than the visible cases about whether evolution should be taught.  In these silent school districts the choice has already been made. Censorship rules the day.

Back in Rogers, apparently unknown to Eckard and Dunning before,  the theory of evolution was apparently rarely covered.  Dr. Angela Potochnik, an associate professor of Philosophy at the University of Cincinnati with a Ph.D. from Stanford University, happens to be a 1998 graduate of Rogers High School.  In 2002,  while at Stanford she found she had deficiency in her understanding of evolution compared to her classmates. We had both faced a similiar issues only realized by both of us later in our academic careers when the gaps in our education became noticeablew .  In Potochnik’s letter to the Roger’s School Board  later that year, she noted that she could not recall evolution ever being brought up in the curriculum.  She recounts in her letter an interaction with a teacher who told her that evolution was not mentioned in class because “other students weren’t mature enough for such a subject.”  

I leave with Dr. Potochnik’s words

…we live in a state forward thinking enough–at least in our laws–to say that we will teach the methods and theories of science, including those regarding evolution.  We are as a population, I believe, forward thinking enough to realize that covering our ears when such subjects are mentioned is not a way to deal effectively with the situation.  Dissenters can, by all means, dissent.  But dissenters, either school children or their parents, should not be feared to the extent that teachers fails to teach information than can turn out to be central to someone’s academic or professional success.





02 Jul

Monkey’s Uncles, Evolution, and the South



My journey for understanding the frequently tense relationship between the South and science has led me to an unlikely place—Oakland, California. In what appears to be a former auto body shop, complete with large garage doors, resides the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), an organization striving to keep evolution and climate change science in public school curricula. NCSE serves as a clearinghouse of information, resources, and literature including everything from creationist pamphlets, news articles, evolution textbooks, and policy documents to email exchanges and hate mail. I am currently pouring over boxes of vitriol in paper form. “You are the enemy.” “You commie bastards. Leave other people’s children alone.” And my personal favorite, “I think you should be locked up with your monkey ancestors.” (Never mind that spending a day hanging around with monkeys actually seems fantastic.) You likely have an image in your head of the kind of person that writes these words—Southern, poorly educated fundamentalists. You may be surprised that these words originated from residents of Minnesota, Arizona, and New Hampshire.


In part this assumption stems from the fact that some of the most famous legal cases about teaching in evolution in classroom have occurred in the South. In 1925, in The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, commonly referred to as the Scopes Monkey Trial, substitute high school teacher, John Scopes, was accused of violating Tennessee’s Butler Act which made it unlawful to teach human evolution in any state-funded school. In the 1968 case Epperson v. Arkansas, 10th grade teacher Susan Epperson filed a suit to test the constitutionality of Arkansas state law prohibiting the teaching of human evolution in public schools. Both courts ruled in favor of teaching of evolution in the public classroom. In the latter, the U.S. Supreme Court stated the First Amendment prohibits a state from requiring, in the words of the majority opinion, “that teaching and learning must be tailored to the principles or prohibitions of any religious sect or dogma.”

The geographic locality of these landmark cases, along with the often-unfavorable press coverage of stereotyped Southerners, has bolstered the view of an anti-science South. The famous journalist H.L. Mencken who covered the Scopes trial characterized the local population of Tennesseans as “morons”, “hillbillies”, and “peasants” with “degraded nonsense which country preachers are ramming and hammering into yokel skulls.”

Down the street from NCSE, I am grabbing a hamburger at an oddly Southern inspired restaurant with my long time friend and colleague Josh Rosenau.   Josh is NCSE’s Program and Policy Director, a rather succinct title, given his actual daily responsibilities of working with grassroots groups across the U.S., testifying before school boards, organizing scientists and concerned citizens, meeting with legislators, speaking with journalists across the country, and contributing writings to dozens of popular media venues. His characteristic bow tie and gentile nature often seem better suited for a Savannah gentleman of leisure than a Jersey raised superhero charged with defending science education. “The South doesn’t have a monopoly on being antiscience.   I’ve worked with groups across the U.S. Nearly every state has tried to pass anti-evolution legislation.” Indeed, that morning Josh pointed me to a series of file cabinets designated to “flair ups” files. The folders are named for places where an incident as occurred ranging all the way from Templeton, California to Dahlonega, Georgia and everyplace in between. I see just as many folders in these cabinets from outside the South as I do from within.

image010In one of the most thorough books every written on the subject, Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms, Pennsylvania State University political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer state, “there is overwhelming evidence…No matter how the questions are asked, no matter the theme of the survey, no matter the sponsor of the survey, we see again and again evidence that large majorities of Americans want to see creationism taught in the public schools.” In general between 33-44% of those polled, depending on the poll, favor teaching creationism instead of evolution in public schools. The percentages are even higher, 59.5-68.1%, for teaching creationism along side evolution.  

Favoring Teaching of EvolutionstatescoreGeographic variation does exist in these relationships and it would be disingenuous to not recognize that anti-teaching evolution sentiment is not greatest in the South. However, it is equally disingenuous to think it only exists in the South. In New England, 20% of those polled believed the statement “Human beings developed from earlier species of animals” is false. In the Pacific states, this rises to 29%. Yet, in East South Central, West South Central, and South Atlantic states percentages range from 43-51%.

State by state level data on acceptance of evolution is not existent, requiring a surveying effort beyond the scope of a single researcher or research team. Berkman and Plutzer actually solve this problem by combining several previous polls and analyzing them in an amazingly sophisticated statistical model framework with the lengthy name of Multilevel Modeling with Imputation and Poststratification. This model actually allows the researchers to estimate levels of support for teaching evolution in public schools. At the top of the list are Massachusetts and New York with 40.7 and 39.0%, respectively.   At the bottom are Kansas and Tennessee with 24.4 and 23.3%. Overall percentages are statistically lower in the South (p=0.003) and statistically higher (p=0.04) in the Northeast.EvolutionScoreBoxPlot Favoring Evoltuion Only Box Plot

Yet despite this lack of support for teaching evolution and some legislative success in Southern states, state science standards do not seem to equally suffer. In a survey of state science standards, a team gave each state a score with 0 being the lowest and 100 being the highest based on the inclusion of evolution in the state mandated biology curriculum. When we view those scores for Southern states, while somewhat lower, they are not statistically different from other regions. Indeed, the Carolina’s have some of the highest rankings and Kansas the worst with a grade of abyssal F-.

It is easy, though utterly fallacious, to equate the anti-evolution sentiment in the South with ignorance. The evolutionary biologist, defender of science, and staunch atheist Richard Dawkins once stated that, “It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).” An opinion I do no share. Indeed, my own interactions with Southern creationists have lead me to the opposite and quite unexpected opinion. Indeed, Berkman and Plutzer find that those who do not accept evolution are not quantitatively any less intelligent or more scientifically illiterate. Instead these researchers argue, “anti-evolutionists choose to ignore scientific arguments demonstrating evolution.” The single biggest predictors of antievolution sentiment appears to be the proportion of the population that are conservative Protestants, the proportion of the population holding masters or doctoral degrees, and the degree of urbanization. All of these point to similar factor—deep involvement in organized religion. Among the urban and suburban highly educated, participation in organized religion is low.

Perhaps then our view of an anti-evolution South is antiquated. Indeed, for ten years the United States premier (although I am biased as I served as its assistant director for six years) evolutionary think tank, the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, resided in North Carolina and forced to reconsider this view.   The real anti-evolution sentiment resides with conservative Protestants, who happen to dominate throughout much of the South and inspired the moniker of the “Bible Belt.” This group is not scientifically illiterate but chooses the Biblical narrative. And thus science needs a stronger narrative.  We need a better narrative for connecting science and the South; one that takes the beauty of the geographic place and the culture of the South and unfolds the beautiful scientific narrative underneath it all.