Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Review: Science, Evolution, and Creationism

Science, Evolution, and Creationism
The National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine
Washington: National Academies Press, 2008. 88 pages.
Reviewed by
David C Kopaska-Merkel

Science, Evolution, and
is the latest offering
from the National Academy of
Sciences in an ongoing program to
inform the public about evolution.
The book first discusses the nature
of science in the context of evolution
and then considers evidence
for biological evolution. This is followed
by an analysis of creationism,
a brief conclusion section, and
supporting materials.

Chapter 1 presents as good an
explanation of the nature of science
and the relationship between
science and religion as I have seen.
For example, from a discussion of
genetic distances among species:
"... some genes that control the
production of biochemicals or
chemical reactions ... essential for
cellular functioning show little
variation across species ..."
Scientists involved with education
and many science educators will
have seen all this before in similar
forms (Cartwright and others
2000; Pojeta and Springer 2001).
One notable addition is an extensive
discussion of Tiktaalik, the
fish/amphibian transitional fossil
discovered a few years ago in the
Canadian Arctic. Many "intermediate
forms" have been discovered,
but this is one of the most important.
Because it is new, its addition
to the book is valuable. I could
wish that the explanation included
a graphic comparing the limb
bones of lobe-fin fish, Tiktaalik,
and amphibians.

Chapter 2 does a significantly
smoother and more comprehensive
job of presenting evidence than
other similar publications I have
read. Each line of evidence is clearly
developed, so a literate reader
should easily follow the argument.
The authors avoid the laundry-list
approach of briefly presenting a lot
of information in superficial detail.
Instead, very nice explanations of
methods, such as radiometric dating,
and particular examples, such
as human evolution, make a compelling
case by showing enough of
the evidence and inference that lies
behind the modern theory of evolution
to give a flavor of its richness.
There are a couple of minor
errors. The scope of origin of sedimentary
rocks is misrepresented.
Some sedimentary rocks, like rock
salt, form in place and are not made
of particles deposited from fluids.
The book also states that the sun is
the center of the solar system. The
sun's displacement from the center
is quite significant for orbital
dynamics and, ultimately, for the
earth's climate.

Chapter 3 concerns creationism.
Evidence supporting the theory
of evolution is contrasted with
the observation that young-earth
creationists reject any facts that
contradict their interpretation of
the Bible. Because the theory of
evolution is open to falsification by
contradictory evidence (if any
were to be found), whereas creationism
must be accepted on
faith, evolution is scientific and creationism
is not. In response to the
often-made claim that "no one has
seen evolution", the authors refer
to the regular emergence of resistant
strains of microorganisms: evolution in action. This is a strong
point, but it could be even stronger
if they mentioned the development
of polyploid plant species in historical
time, and the evolution of the
HIV virus, a macroevolutionary
jump that took place in the 1970s
or early 1980s.

"Intelligent design" is demolished
even more effectively.
"Intelligent design" assumes that
scientific questions can have only
two possible answers: undirected
evolution or design. However, failure
of scientists to identify a specific
mechanism for evolution of a
complex structure like the vertebrate
eye does not automatically
validate "intelligent design". In addition,
there is still no evidence to
support any "intelligent design"
assertions, and all of this is made
very clear in this chapter. Chapter 3
concludes with a reminder that the
courts have consistently ruled that
creationism (including "intelligent
design") is religion and therefore
not allowed in a science classroom.

The rest of the book consists of
a brief conclusions section, a list of
frequently asked questions, additional
readings, biographies of committee
members, and an index. The
conclusions are simply a succinct
summary of the first three chapters.
The FAQ list will be more valuable,
because most of the questions
are the sort that creationists feed to
their listeners, and the answers are
clear and apt. Most of the additional
resources are articles from the
scientific literature and books written
at a popular level, so they will
be more accessible to the nonscientist.
They are organized into
broad subject categories, such as
"books on evolution" and "books
on the origin of the universe and
the earth." Most of the books listed
are less than ten years old; some
older classics (such as Gould 1980)
are included as well. The reader is
referred to the National Academies
of Sciences website for a list of science
education and evolution websites.
Many of these links are
already broken, but the links to government
websites and to reputable
organizations such as NCSE should
be stable.

Any open-minded reader will
become convinced that evolution
is the only persuasive scientific
explanation of the diversity of life ceron
earth. The difficult work that
faces scientists and science educators
consists in reaching those who
do not want to listen. I have
become convinced over the years
that books like this one are necessary
but far from sufficient tools.
Their greatest value is in informing
willing teachers of the strong arguments
and evidence supporting the
theory of evolution. This book also
will help youngsters educate themselves
and give them the evidence
and arguments they need to challenge
the dogma of their peers.

In conclusion, Science,
Evolution, and Creationism

results from no macroevolutionary
leap. It is the sympatric daughter
species of its predecessor (NAS
1999). Larger, more versatile, and
better adapted to its sociopolitical
environment, this book should do
well in a shifting landscape.

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
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