The Steve That Got Away

You can’t say we didn’t try.

As Stephen Colbert ends his long run as the bombastic, willfully ignorant television talk show host of The Colbert Report, I’m wistful that we never landed him as a Steve.

stephen colbert

NCSE’s Project Steve, of course, is the elbow-in-the-ribs parody of creationist lists of scientists “doubting Darwin.” For years, both young-earth and intelligent design creationists have assembled lists of scientists who allegedly question the reality of evolution as part of their campaign to discredit this well-accepted science. After the Discovery Institute published a list of 100 scientists who “dissent from Darwin,” NCSE in short order assembled twice as many scientists to sign a statement supporting evolution, and the importance of teaching it in the science classroom. But (and here’s the elbow) in Project Steve, all the signatories were named “Steve” (or Stephanie, or Stefano, or Esteban…), in honor of Stephen Jay Gould—illustrating that the number of scientists supporting evolution was vastly greater than the small number presented by creationists. At this writing, the Dissent from Darwin statement has crept to about 900 signatures (they don’t tell you on their website, and I don’t feel like wading through the list), whereas the Project Steve list is 1358 (see the Steve-o-Meter!). Because about 1% of American names are Steve or cognates, every NCSE Steve can be considered to represent about 100 scientists. Evolution obviously wins the numbers game— though Project Steve also illustrates the silliness of thinking that science is decided by vote.

Where does Colbert come in? In 2009, NCSE’s communications director Robert Luhn hit upon the brilliant idea of pitching my appearance on The Colbert Report in the context of the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. Colbert’s on-air character had previously identified himself as a creationist, and having him square off on the show against NCSE—the most effective anti-creationist organization—would have been a great combination. And obviously it would be fabulous publicity for NCSE.

On top of this obvious hook, we suggested making him an honorary Steve, offering to present him with a special t-shirt with his name prominently displayed along with the names of the rest of the Steves. Colbert on many occasions has referred to himself as “Dr.” Colbert, having received an honorary doctorate (of humanities), so we figured we could employ that meme, as well. All in all, we thought there were a lot of reasons that my appearing on The Colbert Report would be good theater.

We enlisted NCSE friends Kenneth R. Miller and Neil deGrasse Tyson, previous guests on the program, to second our pitch, but even with their efforts, it was not to be. Who knows what scheduling decisions go into choices of topics on a hugely popular program like The Colbert Report? Obviously it would have been magnificent publicity for NCSE, which can use all the free press it can get (and depends on it, actually). We were disappointed, but at least we tried.

Having seen Colbert tear into his guests on occasion, a small part of me was secretly not at all unhappy to have been spared the chance of a skewering! Still, Robert had a great idea, and I probably would have risen to the occasion, apprehensions or no.

And wouldn’t it have been fun to see Colbert in a Steve shirt?

But I guess that he’ll go down in NCSE annals as the Steve that got away.