On Eugenie Scott and Historical Memory

Eugenie Scott, the director of the National Center for Science Education, is retiring.  That announcement on Monday has had me thinking about the role that the NCSE has played in the past few decades of the history of antievolutionism.  Like many people, my first thought was to wonder about who might be hired to replace her.

But a very close second thought was that someone had better make sure that her papers are saved for historians! Dr. Scott’s retirement announcement came as I was working on an article criticizing her portrayal of a “creation/evolution continuum.”  While I find the goals of the NCSE to generally be admirable; sometimes its portrayals of the groups, people, and ideas that they are opposed to are not always accurate.  That’s not a historical objection per se, but there’s a lesson to be learned from the history of the school evolution controversies: the distorted views that you popularize can become real nemeses, and in doing so, debates become more polarized.

There’s no shortage of historical questions that could be asked about the NCSE and Scott.   There’ve been few individuals and organizations more influential in the public conflict over the teaching of evolution in the past quarter century.  Of course the line between historical questions and contemporary political and policy questions becomes blurry when working on recent history.  There’s a tendency, or at least a temptation, on the part of some organizations and individuals when preparing some materials for archives, to preserve the materials that are seen to best serve the policy aims of the organization.  In fact, a 2008 article on the NCSE’s website suggests that the aim of the NCSE’s archives is to serve the aims of the NCSE—that is to debunk and to legally and politically fight creationism.  Where the archive’s utility to historians is mentioned, it’s with the understanding that by exploring the history of creationism, that present-day antievolutionism can be unmasked a recycling of old ideas.  It’s an archive on the history of creationism, not the history of the NCSE.

I would hope that Dr. Scott’s retirement is going to be an opportunity for the NCSE archives to expand their mission.  While hiring a new director is a huge task and the organization ought to be thinking about its future, it also needs to devote some attention to its past.  Of course a non-profit organization with finite resources can’t spend a huge amount of its budget to preserving its own history.  I’d hope that if the NCSE does not intend to save the bulk of Scott’s papers, that it will arrange for a library to do so.  Even though embargoing financially or legally sensitive material may be reasonable, I would hope that the archive is neither culled of its human element, nor restricted only to highlights of the NCSE’s victories.

One advantage that I had in working on materials in the 1920s is that the fear of legal action prompting a shred-it-all mentality, seems not to have been so pervasive 100 years ago.  And the notes scribbled in margins of letters, or the way a letter was copied and attached to someone else’s note forwarding it on, were preserved in archives.  It’s often if these unintentional details that a picture of the human actors involved in organizations really emerges.  For that matter, I was also fortunate that most of the materials that I wanted to work with were letters written on paper, which has a much better shelf life than the 5 1/4-inch floppy disks of the 1980s, or even more recent forms of data storage.  This is why the question of historical preservation is more urgent.  Even materials that were not well-preserved from the pre-digital era are often accessible.  For example, there is a wonderful article from last week in American Libraries about the discovery, acquisition, and preservation of John Scopes’s suitcase full of papers and memorabilia by the Special Collections at Western Kentucky University.

There’s no question that the history of the NCSE will be an excellent project and an archive of its actors and actions will be invaluable to anyone understanding the history of the evolution battles from the 1980s to the present.  But the ability of that history to be written depends on what sources remain available.  (By the way, if anyone wants to come work on a PhD on this topic, get in touch with me.)

In an interview about her retirement, Dr. Scott stated that “all nonprofits hope someday to put themselves out of business,” but the mission of the NCSE has not yet ended.  It may be too soon to write the conclusion to the history of an organization that has played such a crucial role in science and religion issues in America in the past 30 years.  But it is not too soon (and hopefully not too late) to begin working on the beginnings of that history.  And that starts with the collection of materials.

Congratulations on your retirement, Dr. Scott.

UPDATE (9 May): I heard from Josh Rosenau, who’s the program and policy director for the NCSE.  From what he says, it sounds like 1) the NCSE archives do contain a lot of resources on the administrative history of the center, and 2) there are plans to maintain and preserve Dr. Scott’s papers and make them available to researchers.

This is very good news and certainly not what all organizations and people do, so the NCSE is to be applauded for this.  It also means that there’s the opportunity for some really interesting and important historical work.  Some historians have already worked wit the archives, but there’s a lot more to be said about history of the evolution wars of the past few decades.  A history that’s still unfolding…

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