Friend of Darwin: Donald Prothero

Donald ProtheroIs it possible that Donald Prothero, one winner of NCSE’s 2016 Friend of Darwin award, is actually several tiny paleontologists in a trenchcoat? Consider: His website says that he’s the author of “over 35 books.” That he seems a bit uncertain of the exact count is understandable when you start looking at the publication dates. The paperback edition of Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future, comes out in January, 2017. California’s Amazing Geology is due to come out on December 22, 2016 (just in time for Christmas!), while The Princeton Field Guide to Prehistoric Mammals will drop on November 29. Giants of the Lost World: Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Monsters of South America is slated for September 27, 2016, a whopping five-month stretch after Eocene-Oligocene Climatic and Biotic Evolution comes out (April 19, 2016). Last August, he released The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution, with the paperback edition of Abominable Science!: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids coming out that April, and the third edition of his widely-used textbook on Sedimentary Geology has been on the market since late 2014. Where could any lone scientist find time to write all those books?

Productivity aside, consider the breadth of this work. Prothero’s geology textbooks are standard in many college courses and his paleontological monographs are vital to the discipline (he recently retired from his geology professorship at Occidental College, in Los Angeles). But his books and other outreach to the broader public are staggering in volume and breadth, and often address science denial. His Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters (2007) is a concise, clear, and compelling account of the fossil evidence for evolution, and a forceful rebuttal of young-earth creationist attacks on that science. As science writer Brian Switek enthuses, it is “the best popular resource I’ve come across to date about evolution and the evidence from the fossil record,” not to mention the definitive response to creationist claims about fossils. His more recent books on cryptozoology and science denial in general provide the same balance of accessible science writing and thoughtful responses to pseudoscientific claims including climate change denial, tobacco, and Sasquatch.

Other books are just pure, fascinating science. Reviewing 2006’s After The Dinosaurs for RNCSE, Kevin Padian described Prothero’s account of the rise of the mammals as “about the most readable volume imaginable” on the subject. Other books explore fascinating extinct rhinoceroses, the rise of hoofed animals, fossil life more broadly, and even the grand theme of Catastrophes!. Little wonder that the National Association of Geoscience Teachers gave him its Jim Shea Award in 2013, an award honoring “exceptional contributions in the form of writing and/or editing of Earth science materials (broadly construed) that are of interest to the general public and/or teachers of Earth science.” (Past winners also include NCSE Advisory Council member Bill McKibben and last year’s Friend of the Planet awardee Naomi Oreskes.)

Prothero has also effectively tangled with science deniers in person. In 1983, as a young professor at Knox College, he debated Duane Gish, the young-earth creationist star. In 2009, he was part of a four-person debate with “intelligent design”creationists (Prothero joined Michael Shermer of Skeptic magazine in debating Discovery Institute honcho Stephen Meyer and Disco. ’Tute fellow Richard Sternberg). He even challenged and defeated Ben Stein, though that was on Win Ben Stein’s Money, well before Stein made himself a creationist icon in Expelled. He is also a regular blogger for the Skeptics Society, a regular speaker at its events. He even served as one of the hosts for a climate change-themed Alaska cruise run by the Skeptics Society, guiding attendees through climate science and helping them address denial.

There’s never been any doubt that Prothero was a friend of Darwin. His tireless, nearly superhuman, efforts have fended off creationist attacks and drawn countless people into a deeper love for evolution, science, and skeptical thinking. For all these contributions and more, it’s only natural to honor his contributions to evolution education and the defense of evolution and climate education with NCSE’s Friend of Darwin Award.

Josh Rosenau
Short Bio

Josh Rosenau is a former Programs and Policy Director at NCSE.