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Review: Evolution and Religious Creation Myths
Evolution and Religious Creation Myths: How Scientists Respond is meant to arm "the public with facts about the differences between myth and science, fiction and theory." The book is intended as a college textbook; it contains a glossary, sections titled "Things to think about" at the end of each chapter, and an appendix of experiments for readers to perform.
Chapter 1 ("Creationism and intelligent design: The evolution of an idea") covers familiar ground — for example, that there are many different creation myths, that "intelligent design" (ID) is neither science nor a new idea, and that many creationists selectively claim that evolution is "just a theory" (that is, they do not make such claims about the germ theory of disease). This section of the chapter concludes with "... God as creator is right as a matter of religious faith, and evolution by natural selection is right as a matter of science" (p 14). Many readers will question this claim because it is often impossible to separate creation myths from the value systems they support. For example, conservative Christians often defend their values by defending their conception of how God created the universe; Answers in Genesis's $27-million Creation Museum is a monument to how many people link their value systems to a creation myth. That museum, which blames the teaching of evolution for societal ills such as divorce, school violence, and pornography, was visited by more than 360 000 patrons during its first year of operation.
Chapter 2 ("What is evolutionary biology and where is it coming from?") discusses some of the history of evolutionary thought while focusing on Buffon, Lamarck, Lyell, Darwin, and Wallace. The stories in this chapter will be familiar to RNCSE's readers. Although there is a considerable discussion of finches, the authors do not make clear that "Darwin's finches" were not mentioned in the first edition of On the Origin of Species, and became an icon of biology only after David Lack published Darwin's Finches (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1947). I was disappointed that there was no mention of Lyell's struggles with science and faith.
Chapter 3 ("Creationist purpose and irreducible complexity rebutted") discusses several topics challenged by creationists, including radiometric dating, molecular biology and biochemistry, and the evolution of antibiotic resistance, the eye, bacterial flagella, and the immune system. The chapter concludes with discussions of whether ID and "creation science" are sciences, and whether ID-based research has been published in scientific journals. Again, the stories in this chapter will be familiar to most readers of RNCSE. There is no discussion of any of the court decisions that have addressed "creation science" and ID.
Chapter 4 ("The origins and evolution of Homo sapiens") discusses human evolution, a topic that frightens many creationists. The authors concisely discuss drift, the migration out of Africa, cultural evolution, and the abundance of fossil evidence supporting current views of human evolution. The authors also raise intriguing questions about our ancestors (for example, what caused the demise of Neanderthals?).
Chapters 5 ("The origins of life and the cosmos as evolutionary themes") and 6 ("Evolution of the DNA world and the chance events that accompanied it") are the most interesting parts of the book. The authors do an excellent job of discussing — among other things — abiogenesis (including the difficulties with the experiments of Stanley Miller), the RNA world, the appearance of genetic information, the DNA world, and the evolution of eukaryotes. The authors also contrast probabilistic arguments with teleological ones, noting that the teleology that underlies ID and other types of creationism places these beliefs at odds with all of science, not just evolution.
Chapter 7 ("The dangers of creationism") completes the book with discussions of the political ramifications of evolution and creationism (for example, how conservatives often appeal to the anti-intellectualism of their constituents), the business of creationism, and the importance of a scientifically literate public. Again, the examples and stories will be familiar to readers of RNCSE. The authors note that the Discovery Institute had revenues of $4.1 million in 2003, but do not mention any of the other anti-evolution organizations (such as Answers in Genesis, the revenues of which far exceed those of the Discovery Institute).
Evolution and Religious Creation Myths has many strengths. However, some topics are tantalizingly incomplete. For example, despite the book's title, only about 10 pages are devoted to religious myths that are outside of biblical literalism.
The authors write, "back in those days, the State of Tennessee had banned evolution from its science curriculum ..." (p ix). In fact, Tennessee made it a crime for teachers in public schools (including universities) "to teach any theory that denies the Story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animal." That is, Tennessee (and, subsequently two other states — Arkansas and Mississippi) banned only the teaching of human evolution (it would have presumably been acceptable to discuss the evolution of cockroaches or turnips). Noting the legislative sensitivity to human evolution would have helped to place the chapter on human evolution into better context.
The authors correctly note, "Most professional scientists, even thought they are deeply irritated by all the attacks against evolution, have remained largely silent in public forms, at least in forums that involve the general public" (p x). It would have been helpful to remind readers that it has usually been high school teachers (for example, John Scopes, Susan Epperson, and Don Aguillard) who have resisted creationists in courts, the most public of forums. The primary battlefield of the creationism/ evolution wars in the US educational system is the high school biology classroom, where surprisingly high percentages of teachers continue to include creationism in their courses.
Almost half of the adults in the United States believe that humans were created by a deity approximately 10 000 years ago and that evolution — the foundation of biology — is a myth. Evolution and Religious Creation Myths will help readers to respond to such nonsense.