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The Evolution of RNCSE

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
The Evolution of RNCSE: The First Ten Years
Andrew J Petto
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

Many of our readers are aware that this publication is a combination of two earlier serial publications — NCSE Reports, the newsletter of NCSE, and Creation/Evolution, originally published by the American Humanist Association and later acquired by NCSE for the publication of scientific rebuttals of creationism and for reviews of creationist and anti-creationist books. In 1996, NCSE's board of directors decided to launch a new type of publication for our members that would combine the two publications into one, and would provide for a new type of contribution — the special feature.

The board realized that focusing mainly on scientific rebuttals to creationist arguments limited NCSE's ability to carry out its missions of promoting evolution education. The old format put us in the position of defending against creationist claims, but, more important, allowed creationists to set the agenda. The special features would allow NCSE and its contributors to promote a better understanding of evolution (and of science in general) because they would not be limited to the issues and arguments raised by opponents of evolution. The special features material also includes items that are reprinted from other sources, whenever we think that our readers might not have ready access to these materials in their original formats or locations.

The new format allowed us also to present reviews in areas of scientific research — such as human evolution or microbial genomes — that would bring our readers an upto- date understanding of various fields related to evolution. Such contributions are specifically chosen because they represent a scientific field of study that is important to understanding evolution and not because they specifically refute a particular creationist argument.

Articles of these two new types have made up about 30% of our content over the past ten years. The new format allowed us to tap into a rich array of contributions that we had turned away for lack of an appropriate way to publish them, and, even in the early years of RNCSE, about 20% of our items were special features or scientific reviews.

However, RNCSE in 2007 is not what it was in 1997, and it has changed in ways that we did not imagine at the outset. Some of these reflect changes in communications media. In Creation/Evolution, it was common for anti-evolutionists to write rebuttals to our articles. In 2007,it is more common for creationists to post a comment to a blog or to a web site. Of course, our policies on rebuttals has not changed, but fewer antievolutionists seem to bother.

In retrospect, the history of the content of RNCSE is a record of the history of NCSE and the state of anti-evolutionism in North America (and a few other places around the world) over the past ten years. Some issues persist, but others seem to ebb and flow. As we review some of the highlights of the first ten years, please note that this content analysis excludes the short news briefs in the Updates section, the contents of the book reviews, and the reports of the many outstanding contributions to our mission that appear each issue in the News From the Membership column. This analysis examines only news reports, special features, and scientific articles (see Figure 1).


Of all the components of RNCSE, the one that appears most often is the special feature, provided for by the new format established by NCSE's board of directors in 1996. About 18% of all the items published in the last ten years were special features. Our earlier volumes were lower in this content than some later ones, but six of the ten volumes contained 15–19% special features.

The ten-year average for original scientific reviews — not specifically addressing or refuting an anti-evolutionist position — is about 13%. There is a bit more variation in these items than in the special features, but six of the ten volumes contained 12–18% scientific reviews. Part of the variation in the volumeby- volume averages is that there were several special issues of RNCSE that took on special themes. Special scientific articles often appeared in themed issues, and some special issues focused on important events — such as the release of the PBS series Evolution and the outcome of Kitzmiller v Dover.

There were, of course, still many scientific articles in the Creation/Evolution mold. Their main purpose was to address or refute specific claims, arguments, and objections to evolution made by creationists. These appear in Figure 1 as categories ID-Gen and Biblical to refer to the source of the original idea. ID-Gen refers to the "intelligent design" literature, including all formats. About 7% of our content dealt specifically with these claims. Slightly less (about 6%) dealt with similar claims being made by biblical creationists. So overall about 13% of the content was devoted to scientific materials addressing specific claims by "intelligent design" or biblical creationists.

With the implementation of statewide science education standards administered by state school boards or departments of education, legislative action seems to have declined in importance (though a review of our Updates will show that anti-evolution legislation is a perennial issue). The action on statewide opposition to evolution has focused on these administrative units and their development, promulgation, and enforcement of state standards that include evolution. In eight of ten years, these items have made up over 10% of RNCSE content (see Figure 2).

We carried a similar proportion of items on evolution education (about 12%). It is important to know how teachers can — and do — implement the standards for evolution education. In addition, we read about the districts around the country where teachers and parents find opposition to their efforts to promote evolution education.

Associated with those statewide agencies are a number of grassroots and local citizens' organizations that have formed in various states to promote evolution education in the standards. These come and go as state agencies address evolution issues periodically. The grassroots column also includes reports on or by citizens who become active in supporting evolution in response to local or regional challenges.

The dialog between science and religion is another area in which RNCSE has been able to explore ideas that are not anti-evolutionary. Taking up from the tradition of NCSE's Voices for Evolution, these items explore the religious traditions that support — or at least do not oppose — modern science,and evolution in particular.

Finally, we had minor, but measurable, numbers of contributions about "intelligent design" conferences around the country, about evolution in the media (excluding the internet), textbook adoption issues, and various legal cases involving evolution. Early in the history of RNCSE we carried a regular column by NCSE Supporter Frank Sonleitner detailing the contemporary research that refuted the arguments in Of Pandas and People. We ultimately moved Frank's review of Pandas — along with other resources about this book — to NCSE's website.


What is perhaps more interesting than the variety of articles that we publish is the way in which the content has evolved over the past ten years. For example,"intelligent design" conferences were rare in the early volumes, but "academic conferences" were a key goal of the "Wedge" strategy, and so the "intelligent design" community began organizing them. The number has been rising steadily,but our coverage has dropped off, since there is rarely anything new to report from these conferences.

However, general coverage of "intelligent design"-related issues has increased over the past ten years. Its presentation in RNCSE is episodic — as ID proponents trot out new materials or arguments, they are analyzed and reviewed. However, more and more of the anti-evolutionary materials seen by school boards and legislatures are from ID sources, and fewer are from old-style biblical creationists. In general, "intelligent design"- related content has been rising and biblical creationism-related content declining, but there has been an upsurge in old-style creationist material that has been addressed in the past two volumes — this is not unrelated to recent legal troubles of Kent Hovind and Answers in Genesis, and the ongoing saga of the "Creation Museum" that AiG opened recently.

Items related to textbook adoption, state science standards, elections and polls, and media also appear episodically (Figure 2). Textbook adoptions happen only at multi-year intervals, so stories about them do, too. Once the state science standards are adopted, they are typically re-examined only after five or more years. The media items we covered had to do with the PBS series Evolution and the reactions of anti-evolutionists to the materials — including their "alternative" video productions. Legal items appear only when there is an active court case, and most of the conflicts over the past ten years — with the notable exception of Kitzmiller and Selman — were settled before they went to court.

One part of RNCSE that seems to change little is the Updates section. For some reason, legislators and school officials can easily be convinced that court decisions on various aspects of creationism — "balanced treatment", "equal time", "alternatives to evolution", and now "critical analysis"— somehow do not apply when the anti-evolutionism is relabeled. Perhaps the most honest of these are the oldtime "creation scientists" who made it clear that the Bible was the basis for their proposals — and this does sometimes occur in the public forum even today. However, our Updates sections provide a stark confirmation of Genie Scott's observations (see p 19) that anti-evolutionism ********LINK DECADE IN RETROSPECT is both enduring and adaptable. It keeps popping up — in forms that we recognize as "same old, same old", but that seem to convince creationists that they are on to something new.


Finally, several other changes have allowed RNCSE to present new original material. Our associate editors help sort out the best papers to print. The application of their expertise in a wide variety of fields has helped us to provide high-quality features and articles thanks to their advice and guidance.

We also print more book reviews than before. We still ask our reviewers to focus on the issues of the public understanding of evolution and of the various forms and guises of anti-evolutionism. But, we can present more than just the standard "we-say–they-say" critiques of creationist publications. In the last ten years RNCSE has reviewed educational materials, websites, DVDs, CD-ROMs, films, and books in archaeology, geology, anthropology, geography, biochemistry, literature, and politics. All of these reflect the pervasive and multidimensional anti-evolutionism in our culture.

With the help of NCSE staff, and especially our archivists, more of RNCSE and Creation/Evolution appears on our NCSE website. We cannot post reprinted items, but much of the content of our publications is available shortly after it appears in print. We also have begun to post longer versions of some items on our website — keeping the items in print shorter and making the issues more diverse, while still providing access to an unabridged version.

Ten years ago, we had an idea about new things we could do for our readers. The board's decision to provide more and more different types of items for our membership has been exceeded. It has been an exciting ten years for us at RNCSE, and we anticipate more growth and more changes as we move into the future to meet NCSE's primary goal of providing our members with the best resources for promoting and defending evolution wherever you are.

About the Author(s): 

Andrew J Petto
Department of Biological Sciences
University of Wisconsin
PO Box 413
Milwaukee WI 53201-0413

Andrew J Petto is editor of Reports of the National Center for Science Education (RNCSE) and a member of NCSE's board of directors.