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By National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine
Reviewed by Richard Wiener
The National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 2008, 70 pages, ISBN 978-0-309-10586-6
Shelby Foote, in his engaging history of the Civil War, recounts the experience of a soldier who survived the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single-day event in American history with nearly 23,000 casualties. The soldier explains that he finally understood the meaning of the biblical passage that says the sun stood still at the Battle of Jericho. During the death and mayhem, this poor battle-scarred survivor was desperately hoping for an end to the horrific day and a chance to leave the battleground alive. But time seemed to stand still and the sun to take forever to pass across the sky.
As evocative and plausible as this interpretation is, we don’t know if it is the biblical author’s intended meaning. We can hope not all the Bible was written literally: it is a much richer text if it is infused with metaphor and subtle shades of meaning. We can hope our ancestors, who authored the Bible and related works, were not lacking in literary sophistication.
I recently asked a refugee from a fundamentalist cult how the faithful could be so certain of their interpretation of the Bible when they are not even familiar with the ancient languages it is written in. I was told that God reveals the true meaning through prayer. At least this “theory” of interpretation is consistent with creationism; it is entirely antiscientific. No amount of evidence or Biblical scholarship can refute revelation.
What strategy should reasonable people, who accept the findings of empirical science, adopt in the culture war against fundamentalists who wish to impose their pernicious ideology on public education and discourse? The National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine tacitly answers this question with a well-written polemic entitled Science, Evolution, and Creationism. The intended audience is composed of frontline warriors embroiled in debates about evolution: school board members, science teachers, policy makers, and legal scholars. It is written at a high-school level and assumes no knowledge of science. The book is handsomely illustrated, reads easily and is filled with interesting facts and a coherent account of the importance of evolutionary biology as part of an overall scientific worldview. The book also debunks “Intelligent Design” by arguing persuasively that it is not supported by scientific evidence.
I learned that in an outcropping of rock in far Northern Canada, paleontologists discovered a 375-million-year-old fossil of a creature that they named Tiktaalik. Tiktaalik forms a link between fish and early tetrapods, sharing features of both. This finding illustrates the unique strength of empirical science: quantitative predictive power. The discovery of Tiktaalik confirms a prediction of evolutionary biology that species emerged from the oceans 375 million years ago.
Though the information provided is valuable, entertaining and well worth learning, I suspect the book will have limited success toward winning the culture war. The approach is tactically sound but strategically questionable. The implicit message is that fundamentalism can be combated by reasoned argument based on facts. Certainly it is prudent to wear a Kevlar flak jacket of scientific facts when facing down a fundamentalist at high noon. A discussion of Tiktaalik may provide an appropriate riposte against creationists who rail at school board meetings about gaps in the fossil record. Facts are important to know and use. Nonetheless, I cannot help but think that due to its effort to maintain political correctness and not offend moderate religious believers, Science, Evolution, and Creationism is crucially off target.
In the highly useful section of Frequently Asked Questions at the end of the book, one answer reads in part, “Many scientists and theologians have written about how one can accept both faith and the validity of biological evolution.” The book also contains a series of quotations from clergy and scientists who see no conflict between their faith and science. But there is a conflict between fundamentalism and empirical science. One cannot accept the Bible as literal truth and not be in conflict with science any more than one can believe the Earth is flat or resting on Atlas’ shoulders. Adam and Eve did not exist as real people and Eve was not created from Adam’s rib. The story of the Garden of Eden is a creation myth of a pre-scientific culture, equivalent to the myriad other myths created by many other cultures across the world. Myths may be poignant metaphors containing great wisdom, but they are not literally true. Fundamentalist beliefs contradict science.
Scientists need to be bold and intellectually honest. Rather than fighting a defensive holding action against the worshipers of ignorance, scientists need to go on the offensive. We need to deliver a truthful denunciation of factually incorrect religious beliefs. The strength of our nation and humankind depends on a scientifically educated citizenry that knows the difference between empirical fact and myth. We need to recognize fundamentalists for what they are—fanatics who are undermining our society and threatening the world. When religion is deeply destructive, it shouldn’t be allowed to hide behind platitudes about faith and science not conflicting. Though important and useful, I find Science, Evolution, and Creationism far too timid in confronting the dangerous zealots who advocate creationism.
The Forum on Physics and Society is a place for discussion and disagreement on scientific and policy matters. Our newsletter publishes a combination of non- peer- reviewed technical articles, policy analyses, and opinion. All articles and editorials published in the newsletter solely represent the views of their authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Forum Executive Committee.