Theory & Science (2008)

ISSN: 1527-5558

BOOK REVIEW: Science, Evolution, and Creationism, 2008. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
May the Fittest Survive: The National Academy of Sciences vs. Creationism

Timothy McGettigan, PhD
Department of Sociology
Colorado State University - Pueblo

In an effort to extol the virtues of evolution, the National Academy of Sciences has published an updated version of Science, Evolution, and Creationism (2008). In this brief, but colorful book, a coterie of prestigious scientists take readers on a whirlwind tour of the triumphant and tumultuous history of evolutionary theory. It's quite a story. There's a surprising amount of information packed into this brief overview. Still, brainy as the book's team of co-authors happens to be, they have also worked hard to ensure that Science, Evolution, and Creationism remains accessible. And, sure enough, it's a relatively easy read; anyone with an eighth grade education should be able to knock this out in an afternoon. In addition, I suspect that Science, Evolution, and Creationism has been intentionally designed to look and feel like a Dr. Seuss book (it's about the same size, thickness and weight) in order to encourage readers of all ages to explore its pages. Presumably, the National Academy of Sciences has learned something from all the librarians who insist that half the literacy battle lies in finding some way to get kids--and adults!--to pick up books. I guess it's worth a try.

Also, if you have an aptitude for reading between the lines, it will quickly become apparent that the National Academy of Sciences is intent on achieving a number of additional objectives with Science, Evolution, and Creationism. While the book is certainly a recruitment tool, it is also loaded with pre-emptive messages for would-be opponents of evolutionary theory. In particular, Science, Evolution, and Creationism is composed as a one-sided debate with Creationism: a debate, the book emphasizes, that evolution has consistently won ever since  Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859. Evolution is a theory, the National Academy of Science will have you know, that has endured intensive scientific scrutiny and fiery public debate. Yet, despite the plaudits of the scientific community, throughout its history, various groups have repeatedly taken steps to undermine evolutionary theory, and nowhere more so than in the classroom (Monastersky, Richard, 2006; Simon, 2008). Indeed, it was just such an episode that motivated the National Academy of Sciences to republish this updated version of Science, Evolution, and Creationism.

During the fall of 2004, the Dover Area School District enacted a resolution that required all of its ninth grade biology teachers to read a statement asserting that evolution was such a feeble perspective that it was hardly worthy of being called a theory . In addition, the statement touted "Intelligent Design" as an appealing alternative, and even went so far as to proffer copies of a best-selling Intelligent Design text, Of Pandas and People (1989). To their credit, Dover's ninth grade biology teachers, citing a Pennsylvania educational code stating that teachers cannot present information to students that they believe is false, refused to read the statement. When a school administrator insisted on reading the statement anyway, a group of parents filed a lawsuit.

After a lengthy bench trial, Judge John E. Jones III ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. Essentially, Judge Jones concluded that Intelligent Design was a thinly-veiled version of Creationism and, as such, lacked the necessary scientific substance to serve as a rigorous counterpoint to evolution. Upon the announcement of this decision, supporters of evolutionary theory, both inside and outside the scientific community, breathed a collective sigh of relief. Yet again, the most important biological theory in the history of science had overcome a stealth attack from its theologically-motivated rivals.

Still, important as this decision might have been for supporters of evolutionary theory, there was no time to celebrate. A variety of opinion polls conducted during 2005 revealed that a substantial portion of the general public remained unswayed by the logic of evolutionary theory. In spite of the longstanding dominance of evolutionary theory in scientific circles (and, yes, in high school biology text books), in 2005, nearly fifty percent of Americans held fast to profoundly anti-evolutionary convictions such as: "humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time" (Goodstein, 2005), or "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so" (Keeter, 2005). Scientists may have won their battle in court, but they were losing the more treacherous struggle to influence public opinion.

For the scientific community this was a body blow. After all, evolution has been the dominant theory in the field of biology for over a hundred years. Among serious scientists there is almost zero dispute about the validity of evolutionary theory. It's a simple theory that explains a heck of a lot (i.e., nearly everything you could ever want to know about the history of life on the planet). What's not to like?

Bitter as it may be, the scientific community has had to face the fact that, for those whose daily round carries them outside the sphere of scientific endeavor, evolutionary theory remains unsatisfying. Although the search for scientific truth operates independently of public opinion (e.g., scientific truths, such as Einstein's contention that space is curved, are often at variance with widespread perceptions of reality), nevertheless, public antipathy can sometimes legitimate policy decisions that stymie scientific progress (Bellomo, 2006). Thus, evolutionary scientists would be ill-advised to ignore such a resounding expression of negative public sentiment. Something would have to be done. But precisely what sort of response should the scientific community mount?

Although evolution offers cunningly plausible explanations for the key processes that constitute life on the planet earth, nevertheless, there are important aspects of human existence that evolution currently fails to compass. For example, evolutionary theory provides weak-at-best spiritual support for a planet full of soul-searching mortals.

At some point in our lives, just about everyone ponders big questions such as: Who am I? Why am I here? What is the meaning of life? Being the parsimonious scientific theory that it is, evolution offers much more nimble responses to questions concerning the mechanics of life than its aesthetics. Thus, evolution's answer to such profound philosophical questions typically boils down to, "stuff happens." While such a view might be logical and acceptable to evolutionary scientists, for anyone plagued by deep-seated concerns about the ultimate meaning of existence, "stuff happens" simply doesn't cut it. Soul-searchers crave answers that are more personally relevant than evolution's standard shtick: "Life as we know it has been shaped by a fortuitous convergence of random natural processes, etc., etc...."

Of course, scientists look forward to the happy day when they will be able to construct a "Theory of Everything" (Hawking, 2007). However, for now, the scientific grasp of the cosmos in any field, though impressive, is far from encompassing. While evolution can explain much about the history of life on the planet, it cannot yet answer every question that humans contemplate, e.g., What is the significance of being? For those issues that evolution is unprepared to tackle, it is appropriate for scientists either to remain mum, or, as the National Academy of Science has elected to do in Science, Evolution, and Creationism, to open the door to other opinions. Having delineated their differences with theology, the authors of Science, Evolution, and Creationism have also incorporated numerous observations from scientists and theologians who argue that religion and evolution need not be perceived as contradictory. The implication being that, since science and theology explore a variety of issues that do not overlap, one could argue that these distinct endeavors might somehow be complimentary--or, at least, there are many issues over which adherents of these perspectives need not go to war...at least not at the moment.

As such, Science, Evolution, and Creationism is designed to chart a new course through the minefields of public opinion and, thereby, win over a larger percentage of reluctant converts. Science, Evolution, and Creationism asserts that religion and evolution need not be at loggerheads; if they work diligently to avoid stepping on each other's toes, there is a distinct possibility that religious dogma and evolution can work side-by-side. Therefore, individuals who seek solace in the realms of religion can also seek answers to many of life's enduring mysteries in the fields of scientific endeavor.

Interesting strategy, but will it work?

For the sake of argument, let's assume that the National Academy of Sciences' strategy is effective: lots of recruits pick up Science, Evolution, and Creationism and, in its pages, get an updated introduction to evolutionary theory. Now for the million-dollar question, "Will new readers come away more favorably disposed toward evolution?"

That's a tough question. To be perfectly honest (though I am sorry to say it), I don't think so. More than anything, Science, Evolution, and Creationism offers a condensed overview of the protracted battle between evolution and its tenacious (often theological) detractors. Frankly, I think opponents of evolution will be unimpressed by the book's token concessions to theology, whereas the majority of scientists will scoff at the suggestion that theology can provide any useful avenues of enlightenment. Therefore, in spite of the National Academy of Sciences' attempt to coordinate a Creation-Evolution group hug, the disconnect between evolution and many of its theological opponents are simply too deep and unyielding to permit meaningful compromise. Having gone their separate ways, these distinct paradigms will remain on separate and antagonistic intellectual trajectories until one or the other (if you will pardon me) goes extinct. If there are flaws or deficiencies in evolutionary theory, they will not be remedied through hybridizing evolution with Creationism. Any deficiencies in evolutionary theory will only be effectively ameliorated by redefining reality (McGettigan, 2008) through an evolutionary, rather than a Creationistic, lens.

Though pithy and carefully crafted, the argument developed in Science, Evolution, and Creationism is better designed to confirm the convictions of believers than to convert non-believers. In other words, the National Academy of Science is preaching to the choir. Rational compromises are possible only when all parties involved a conflict are committed to achieving rational solutions. Unfortunately, paradigm conflict is rarely rational. What's more, being right is not necessarily the shortest route to popularity; in fact, it's usually a recipe for the reverse (check with any classroom Brainiac to confirm this). As I have argued elsewhere (McGettigan, 2008), the means through which beliefs are shaped--and hearts and minds are won--often has more to do with power than truth. Evolution may never win a popularity contest, but it will persevere by doing precisely what it does best: finding better, more convincing ways to explain life, the universe, and everything through a scientific lens. If that rubs Creationists the wrong way, then so be it.

May the fittest paradigm survive.

References:

Bellomo, Michael, 2006. The Stem Cell Divide: The Facts, the Fiction, and the Fear Driving the Greatest Scientific, Political, and Religious Debate of Our Time. New York: AMACOM.

Davis, Percival and Dean H. Kenyon, 1989. Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origins. Richardson, Texas: Foundation for Thought and Ethics.

Goodstein, Laurie, 2005, "Teaching of Creationism Is Endorsed in New Survey." New York Times, August 31, 2005. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/31/national/31religion.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

Hawking, Stephen W., 2007. The Theory of Everything: The Origin and Fate of the Universe. New York: Phoenix Books.

Keeter, Scott, 2005. "What's Not Evolving Is Public Opinion." Washington Post, Sunday, October 2, 2005. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/09/30/AR2005093002083_pf.html

McGettigan, Timothy, 2008. "Anomaly Overload: An Evolutionary Theory of Truth." Theory & Science, 10 (1).

Monastersky, Richard, 2006, "On the Front Lines in the War Over Evolution," Chronicle of Higher Education, March 10, 2006. http://chronicle.com/weekly/v52/i27/27a01401.htm

National Academies of Science, Institute of Medicine, 2008. Science, Evolution, and Creationism. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Simon, Stephanie, 2008, "Evolution's Critics Shift Tactics With Schools: Pressure Hits States For Education Bills; A National Push." Wall Street Journal, May 2, 2008; Page A10.  http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120967537476060561.html