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SCIENCE, EVOLUTION, AND CREATIONISM
Review by Larry Flammer


New Book by the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine (2008):
Science, Evolution and Creationism

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
The book can be purchased for less than $12 from NCSE so they get a cut they use for their efforts to keep evolution and science taught accurately - at:
http://www.natcenscied.org/store.asp?sectiontype=bookstore&bookcategorynumber=1&categoryname=Evolution

CONTENTS (with subtitled topics):
1. Evolution and the Nature of Science

Scientific evidence supporting biological evolution continues to grow at a rapid pace;
Biological evolution is the central organizing principle of modern biology (examples in medicine, agriculture, and industry are presented);
Evolution can result in both small and large changes in populations of organisms;
Scientists seek explanations of natural phenomena based on empirical evidence;
Is Evolution a Theory or a Fact?
Acceptance of the evidence for evolution can be compatible with religious faith (excerpts of Statements by Religious Leaders and Religious Scientists).
2. The Evidence for Biological Evolution
Many areas of science have produced support for biological evolution;
The origins of the universe, our galaxy, and our solar system produced the conditions necessary for the evolution of life on Earth;
Radiometric Dating
Living things appeared in the first billion years of Earth's history;
The fossil record provides extensive evidence documenting the occurrence of evolution;
Common structures and behaviors often demonstrate that species have evolved from common ancestors;
Evolution accounts for the geographic distribution of many plants and animals;
Molecular biology has confirmed and extended the conclusions about evolution drawn from other forms of evidence (including The Evolution of Limbs in Early Tetrapods and The Evolution of Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises);
Biological evolution explains the origin and history of our species.
3. Creationist Perspectives
Creationist views reject scientific findings and methods;
"Intelligent Design" creationism is not supported by scientific evidence;
The pressure to downplay evolution or emphasize nonscientific alternatives in public schools compromises science education (Excerpts from Court Cases);
4. Conclusion
FAQs

Aren't evolution and religion opposing ideas?
Isn't belief in evolution also a matter of faith?
How can random biological changes lead to more adapted organisms?
Aren't there many questions that still surround evolution? Don't many famous scientists reject evolution?
What evidence is there that the universe is billions of years old?
What's wrong with teaching critical thinking or "controversies" with regard to evolution?
What are common ideas regarding creationism?
Wouldn't it be "fair" to teach creationism along with evolution?
Does science disprove religion?

Additional Readings, and Index