Review by Larry Flammer
This is the third and much improved edition of the NAS's Science & Creationism. It is far more comprehensive, yet brief enough to use as a classroom supplement. It clearly presents and explains the essential features of the nature of science, evolution, creationism in all its variations, and their critical interactions. Highlights include a discussion of evolution as fact and theory, and an example of an industrial application of natural selection. There are excellent explanations of how molecular biology repeatedly confirms evolution.
The weakest part of the book consists of two omissions from the main body of the text. One is the fact that most mutations are neutral in effect, and the other is the clear indication that evolution is not a random process. However, these two points are brought out in one of the answers to the very useful and well-selected FAQs, the one on page 50: "How can random biological changes lead to more adapted organisms?"
My only reservation about the response to that FAQ is its use of the phrase "adapt to" in the last sentence. This is vaguely applied here to a population, but it is all too often mistakenly interpreted as what individuals do in order to survive. This unfortunately leads to a common confusion of Lamarck's ideas with Darwin's theory of natural selection. Because of this, I would avoid using the word "adaptation" when referring to the process of evolution or natural selection. We could speak of "an adaptation" as some particular feature that enables an organism to fare well in its environment, but use "natural selection" for the process. We should say that individuals may "adjust" to their environment, rather than "adapt." The last line in the response to the FAQ would be better worded as "Others may be unable to survive in a changing environment and will become extinct." Or "Others may be less well-adapted to..."
I would also emphasize more strongly one of the main reasons for not including "Intelligent Design" or other creationist explanations as alternatives for evolution is that supernatural or mystical forces cannot be used in scientific explanations, because such explanations cannot be definitively tested (they are not capable of being disproved). This is a basic rule of science, one of the main reasons that science has been so effective.
The Revision Committee is a stellar list of scholars, and they've done an excellent job of presenting the most essential elements of evolution, without too much technical jargon. There are about 44 pages of readable and interesting text, well illustrated with examples along the way. An index enables readers to easily find specific points presented.
TEACHING SUGGESTIONS: The greatest difficulty with trying to help students to understand evolution is that for many, it seems to run counter to logic, and, in many cases, counter to what they may have been taught or taken for granted. It doesn't seem to fit the world-view held by many people. Furthermore, many students fail to recognize the practical value that evolution has. How has knowledge of evolution helped people? There are teaching strategies that will improve success in these efforts, and they can be found on the ENSI site.
One way teachers could use the book would be to provide copies of the FAQs (9 questions and answers, on 6 pages), and have the class read and discuss each item. Perhaps each team of 3-4 students could read a different question, discuss its answer, and then each team can take turns discussing their reactions to each FAQ with the entire class. The chapters would provide more detailed information backing up the FAQ responses, and would help to reach understandings.
Another approach would be to assess student understanding and perceptions before starting the unit, perhaps using an "Evolution Survey" quiz, similar to the one on the ENSI site. Or make up a similar survey using the FAQ questions, and asking students to mark the FAQs that they think should be asked, or that they would like to know the answers to. This could be followed with different teams reading and discussing the answers provided (as described above).
You can read the book free at http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=11876
CONTENTS (with subtitled topics):
Additional Readings, and Index