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 Creationism 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.