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Genie Scott, Anthropologist

Most people who have heard of Genie Scott know her as the public face, or perhaps the embodiment, of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). I can’t remember how many times over the years I’ve toldgenie someone, including teachers, scientists, or others one might expect to have heard of us, that I work “at NCSE,” only to receive a blank expression until I add the magic words “with Genie Scott.” Then they make the connection.

Because Genie is retiring this week after nearly three decades as our first and only executive director, I thought it might be worth pointing out another, less well-known, but highly significant aspect of her professional career. Genie started academic life as an anthropologist, specifically a physical anthropologist with a research interest, like many others in those days, in teeth. Durable, informative, accessible teeth. (Don’t sneer; at least she was interested in human teeth. Some of us ended up out in left field looking at monkey teeth.)

Like all serious and aspiring young biological anthropologists, Genie joined our leading professional organization, the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA). In fact, it was at an AAPA meeting some time in the 1980s that I first met Genie, years before NCSE was founded. Over the years she has remained a committed and active member of AAPA, retaining strong ties even after she left university life to lead NCSE.

In 2012, I had the pleasure of arranging for Genie to receive one of the AAPA’s highest awards at our annual meeting in Portland, Oregon. With her permission I present here my (lightly edited) remarks delivered April 13, 2012, at the annual business meeting of the association and her response (which I also delivered because she was in Australia on a long-planned trip).

My remarks:

Last fall, while reading the preliminary information about these meetings, my attention was caught by this sentence from the Call for Nominations: “The Gabriel W. Lasker Service Award was established in 2006 to recognize and honor individuals who have demonstrated a history of excellence in service to the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, its members, and/or the field of physical anthropology.”

It occurred to me that a highly deserving potential recipient for this award was at that moment working in the office next to mine. Without informing her, I proceeded to consult with my colleague Anj Petto, and together we nominated Eugenie C. Scott for the Lasker Award. We have known and worked with Genie for many years, and are very pleased that the Executive Committee of the AAPA agrees that she deserves this award because of her outstanding dedication to AAPA as an organization, to physical anthropology as a discipline, and especially to science and science education in American society.

Genie has served the AAPA in many capacities over the years: President (2000–2002); Secretary-Treasurer (1993–1997); Executive Committee member (1990–1993); head of the local arrangements committee for the 1995 annual meeting in Oakland.

However, Genie’s greatest significance for physical anthropology, and all of evolutionary biology, has been her role as executive director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) since 1986. Over the last quarter of a century she has become the leading national figure defending the teaching of evolution in public schools and opposing attempts to insert any form of creationism into science classes.

It is no coincidence that so many of NCSE’s strongest supporters have been physical anthropologists. After all, it is the horror and revulsion provoked by the threat of the concept of human evolution, which is at the root of much of the religiously based opposition to evolution generally. Willingly or not, physical anthropologists are in the front lines of this struggle and are generally more conscious of its serious nature than many other biological scientists.

NCSE has grown and developed under Genie’s leadership from its foundation as a very small non-profit (literally one person working from the basement of her home) to today’s organization of more than a dozen permanent staff employees, over 5000 dues-paying public members, a robust regularly-appearing journal, a large library and archives of creationism and evolution, and most significantly an extensive network of collaborators and colleagues, scientific, educational, and legal, throughout the country and indeed around the world. Genie’s publications, lectures, presentations, and media appearances have made her one of the most widely recognized and respected American spokespersons for science education and for the significance and importance of evolution in understanding the history of life. Genie’s tireless and usually successful efforts in this endeavor have been recognized by eight honorary doctorates and numerous other awards, medals, and prizes.

Some of you here this evening know Genie well, but many probably do not. Beneath her calm, patient, polite, Midwestern-nice surface lie an iron determination and unflagging dedication. She makes what she does look a lot easier than it actually is. We are all very lucky that she left the conventional academic track to take up arms against a sea of creationist troubles and by opposing, if not end them, at least help hold them in check for the moment. Organized opposition to evolution (and now to the concept of climate change as well) will be with us for the foreseeable future. Genie has made dealing with this opposition her day job so that you don’t have to. This award is our thanks to her.

And Genie’s response:

Dear Friends,

Of all the professional associations to which I belong, AAPA has the greatest claim on my heart. This is “my” society. I therefore was delighted, and touched, to be informed that I would receive the Gabriel Lasker Award from “our” society. Certainly Gabe served AAPA well, and for a very long time. It is truly an honor to share an award previously given to the likes of Marty Nickels, Clark Larson, and Phil Walker, who have done so much for our Association.

Gabriel Lasker was a giant in physical anthropology, and had the personality to match.

I met Gabe when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, where I began attending the Central States Anthropological Society meetings. This would have been in the late 1960s, when both I and the world were young. He and his wife Bunny (Bernice) Kaplan were regular CSAS attendees, and for a while Bunny edited a small CSAS journal, Central Issues in Anthropology, with Gabe as a silent partner.

If you knew Gabe and Bunny, the thought of them cooperating on a journal abbreviated “CIA” will be jarring.

My least well-known publication was a paper on the concept of race published in CIA in 1980. I remember going through a number of drafts occasioned by the “anonymous” reviewer, who wasn’t very difficult to identify as Gabe. We remained friends, nonetheless, and when I later became president of CSAS, Gabe enthusiastically supported me.

I am so very sorry that I cannot be present to accept this wonderful award in person. If there had been any way I could have been with you to express my thanks and appreciation to you directly, I would have done so. I appreciate Eric Meikle’s bringing my thanks to you. I am honored, indeed, to receive the Gabriel Lasker Award.