05.13.2016

Friend of Darwin: Andrew J. Petto

Andrew J. Petto

Anyone familiar with Andrew J. Petto’s decades of service to NCSE—both on NCSE’s board of directors and as the editor of Reports of the National Center for Science Education—will wonder at the news that he is among NCSE’s Friend of Darwin recipients for 2016. What they’ll be wondering about is not that he deserved the award, of course, but that it took so long! We can only plead that it is our invariable custom not to give awards to current members of the staff or the board of directors. (We have been known to do so just after they depart or before they arrive, however. “Here’s your award,” Genie Scott more or less told a previous Friend of Darwin. “Now get to work!”)

I asked Petto how he came to be involved with NCSE and the fight against creationism in the first place. It began, he answered, in 1977, when he was a graduate student with Laurie R. Godfrey, who was already active in the fight. Intrigued, he attended a creation science study group conducted by a fellow graduate student, and he subsequently followed the young-earth creationist speaker Duane Gish on a tour of New England, “reminding him, as he repeated his stock speech, that various of his statements had been challenged and that he had recanted them ... even though he seemed not to remember to include those changes the next time he spoke.”

On the basis of his experiences, Petto published his first solo journal article—“The Turtle: Evolutionary Dilemma or Creationist Shell Game?”—in Creation/Evolution in 1982. “The approach there became the basis of how I taught about evolution from a morphologic perspective, not just comparative anatomy, but also functional morphology and developmental biology,” he explained. He met Genie Scott and members of NCSE’s board of directors at the AAAS meeting in Philadelphia in 1986. But his baptism by fire was in Madison, Wisconsin, while he was serving as associate director of the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Biology Education.

In 1994, the Henry Vilas Zoo had unveiled a children’s discovery center with a Noah’s Ark mural and also a chart purporting to display the history of human populations, beginning in 15,000 BCE with a population of two. (Guess which two.) Petto helped to shape a response to the controversy, resolving the issue satisfactorily (with the removal of the chart) and building a relationship between the county and the university for further cooperation and collaboration. “Sometime in the middle of all this,” as he recalls, he was invited to join NCSE’s board of directors. He was then also asked to serve, first temporarily and then permanently, as the editor of NCSE’s publications.

Petto’s tenure as the editor of RNCSE will be particularly remembered. He oversaw the merger of two publications—Creation/Evolution and NCSE Reports—into RNCSE and recruited a host of incisive and thoughtful authors to report on current events, explain the successes of evolution and the failures of creationism, and review the latest books relevant to NCSE’s missions. Later, he guided the migration of the on-line RNCSE content to the Open Journal Systems format. All the while, he contributed important articles and reviews of his own: particularly well-received was his “Over the Hump—Taking the AiG Camel Challenge!” from 1998.

The editorship of RNCSE (in which Petto was succeeded by Stephanie Keep) is a public and visible position. Behind the scenes, though, Petto was also a thoughtful, active, and constructive member of NCSE’s board of directors, whose calm approach and incisive analysis were always appreciated by his colleagues. In the two biggest decisions recently taken by the board—to expand NCSE’s sphere of activity to include climate change denial in 2012 and to hire Ann Reid to replace NCSE’s founding executive director Genie Scott in 2014—his contributions to the board’s deliberations were especially important and welcome.

But it’s not just for his services to NCSE, monumental though they were and are and doubtless will be, that NCSE is very pleased to honor Petto with the Friend of Darwin award. Even if he had never been involved with NCSE, his contributions to the cause of evolution education—through his scholarship, his teaching, and his activism—would still amply warrant the award. As a member of NCSE’s board of directors from 1995 to 2014, Petto approved the nominations of such previous recipients of the Friend of Darwin award as Lawrence S. Lerner, Robert T. Pennock, and Patricia Princehouse; it is entirely fitting that he joins their ranks now.

Petto is well-known as the editor, with Laurie R. Godfrey, of Scientists Confront Creationism: Intelligent Design and Beyond (2008), the much-needed sequel to Godfrey’s Scientists Confront Creationism (1984). As the publisher wrote, “this powerful collection eviscerates the newest tactics taken by anti-evolution proponents, exposes the religious and political foundations of their objections, and presents the overwhelming scientific evidence for evolution.” Besides editing the volume, Petto and Godfrey also contributed a chapter eloquently arguing that “[t]he old call to present ‘both sides of the evolution debate’ and let the students decide for themselves does not promote critical thinking.”

And Petto’s teaching—in the colleges and universities where he has served, at the many workshops and professional conferences where he has presented, and in the on-line communities where he has been active—is also impressive. As Genie Scott wrote in nominating him for the Evolution Education Award given by the NABT in 2015, “when it comes to communicating to students, teachers, and his fellow scientists what needs to be done to improve evolution education, Anj ‘gets it’—indeed, he gets it better than anyone I know.” To anyone who has been fortunate enough to see him in action, it will come as no surprise to learn that Petto ultimately received the NABT’s award.

But Petto’s contributions aren’t limited to the literature and the classroom. Devoting a large part of his time over the past thirty years to espousing the cause of evolution literacy, Petto helped to improve the evolutionary content of state science standards in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. He was also a tireless worker in grassroots activism to counter creationist encroachments in both of those states—to the point that, whenever NCSE was alerted to a controversy over the teaching of evolution in the Keystone State or the Badger State, it was confidently assumed that Petto would be ready, willing, and able to assess the situation and recruit allies to resolve it satisfactorily.

As I write, I form a mental vision of Petto wincing at the praise. When he was informed of the award, his response characteristically blended humor and self-deprecation: “This is such a honor, that I am practically speechless…and those who know me realize what a significant state that is!” His thoughts swiftly turned from gratitude for the honor to thinking about what use it would be for the cause of advancing evolution education: “I will be honored to accept and display the award proudly, hoping to use it to raise the profile of both NCSE and science education all over the place in Wisconsin and northern Illinois.” That’s him all over!