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Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences
by National Academy of Sciences NAS [edit]

Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences
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ISBN: 0309064066


Evidence Supporting Biological Evolution

Along path leads from the origins of primitive "life," which existed at least 3.5 billion years ago, to the profusion and diversity of life that exists today. This path is best understood as a product of evolution.

Contrary to popular opinion, neither the term nor the idea of biological evolution began with Charles Darwin and his foremost work, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859). Many scholars from the ancient Greek philosophers on had inferred that similar species were descended from a common ancestor. The word "evolution" first appeared in the English language in 1647 in a nonbiological connection, and it became widely used in English for all sorts of progressions from simpler beginnings. The term Darwin most often used to refer to biological evolution was "descent with modification," which remains a good brief definition of the process today.

Darwin proposed that evolution could be explained by the differential survival of organisms following their naturally occurring variation—a process he termed "natural selection." According to this view, the offspring of organisms differ from one another and from their parents in ways that are heritable—that is, they can pass on the differences genetically to their own offspring. Furthermore, organisms in nature typically produce more offspring than can survive and reproduce given the constraints of food, space, and other environmental resources. If a particular offspring has traits that give it an advantage in a particular environment, that organism will be more likely to survive and pass on those traits. As differences accumulate over generations, populations of organisms diverge from their ancestors.

Darwin's original hypothesis has undergone extensive modification and expansion, but the central concepts stand firm. Studies in genetics and molecular biology—fields unknown in Darwin's time—have explained the occurrence of the hereditary variations that are essential to natural selection. Genetic variations result from changes, or mutations, in the nucleotide sequence of DNA, the molecule that genes are made from. Such changes in DNA now can be detected and described with great precision.

Genetic mutations arise by chance. They may or may not equip the organism with better means for surviving in its environment. But if a gene variant improves adaptation to the environment (for example, by allowing an organism to make better use of an available nutrient, or to escape predators more effectively—such as through stronger legs or disguising coloration), the organisms carrying that gene are more likely to survive and reproduce than those without it. Over time, their descendants will tend to increase, changing the average characteristics of the population. Although the genetic variation on which natural selection works is based on random or chance elements, natural selection itself produces "adaptive" change—the very opposite of chance.

Scientists also have gained an understanding of the processes by which new species originate. A new species is one in which the individuals cannot mate and produce viable descendants with individuals of a preexisting species. The split of one species into two often starts because a group of individuals becomes geographically separated from the rest. This is particularly apparent in distant remote islands, such as the Galápagos and the Hawaiian archipelago, whose great distance from the Americas and Asia means that arriving colonizers will have little or no opportunity to mate with individuals remaining on those continents. Mountains, rivers, lakes, and other natural barriers also account for geographic separation between populations that once belonged to the same species.

Once isolated, geographically separated groups of individuals become genetically differentiated as a consequence of mutation and other processes, including natural selection. The origin of a species is often a gradual process, so that at first the reproductive isolation between separated groups of organisms is only partial, but it eventually becomes complete. Scientists pay special attention to these intermediate situations, because they help to reconstruct the details of the process and to identify particular genes or sets of genes that account for the reproductive isolation between species.

A particularly compelling example of speciation involves the 13 species of finches studied by Darwin on the Galápagos Islands, now known as Darwin's finches. The ancestors of these finches appear to have immigrated from the South American mainland to the Galápagos. Today the different species of finches on the island have distinct habitats, diets, and behaviors, but the mechanisms involved in speciation continue to operate. A research group led by Peter and Rosemary Grant of Princeton University has shown that a single year of drought on the islands can drive evolutionary changes in the finches.


Today, many of the gaps in the paleontological record have been filled by the research of paleontologists. Hundreds of thousands of fossil organisms, found in well-dated rock sequences, represent successions of forms through time and manifest many evolutionary transitions. As mentioned earlier, microbial life of the simplest type was already in existence 3.5 billion years ago. The oldest evidence of more complex organisms (that is, eucaryotic cells, which are more complex than bacteria) has been discovered in fossils sealed in rocks approximately 2 billion years old. Multicellular organisms, which are the familiar fungi, plants, and animals, have been found only in younger geological strata. The following list presents the order in which increasingly complex forms of life appeared:

Life Form

Millions of Years Since First Known Appearance (Approximate)

Microbial (procaryotic cells)


Complex (eucaryotic cells)


First multicellular animals


Shell-bearing animals


Vertebrates (simple fishes)








Nonhuman primates


Earliest apes


Australopithecine ancestors of humans


Modern humans

0.15 (150,000 years)


82 of 95 people found the following review helpful:

An Excellent Short Overview of Biological Evolution, August 28, 2000
Reviewer: Patrick A Daley (Fredericton, New Brunswick) - See all my reviews
This short book is an excellent overview of the reasons scientist accept evolution. Since the creationist controversialists are not above employing equivocal arguments, I should mention that the National Academy of Sciences brings out the distinctions between facts, hypothesis, laws, and theories. In science, theories are well-established general explanations which provide a unified view of the sciences. The creationist controversialists love to play on a popular meaning of the term, which is roughly equivalent to hypotheses.

It should be pointed out that creationists believe in special creations, supernatural interventions, to explain the origin of life. Creation in the sense of sustaining the universe in being is in no way opposed to evolution.

In remarkably clear and compressed language, the authors discuss the ages of the universe, the galaxy, the earth, life, and human life. Based on radiometric dating, the earth appears to be about 4.54 billion years old. From fossil evidence, living organisms much like bacteria are known to have existed 3.5 billion years ago. The authors have a chart which shows when selected types of organisms evolved. The first hominids in the genus homo evolved about 2.4 million years ago.

A large subgroup of special creationists, the young earth creationists, try to compress the universe, or at least the history of life, into 10,000 years or less. This totally ignores many different areas of science, and the only basis is their interpretations of the biblical texts. And, of course, as anyone who has discussed the issues with them knows, the creationists have never been able to agree on their interpretations of the biblical texts.

Besides the sequences and dating of the fossil record, there are many things which point to a common ancestry. There are common structures in many different species, different distributions, similarities in their development, and more recently, advances in molecular biology. It is due to molecular biology that scientists have been able to deduce that the first modern humans originated about 100,000 to 150,000 years ago.

For some reason, the special creationists have decided that evolution is somehow opposed to creation. Evolution is, after all, simply "descent with modifications." The National Academy of Sciences, however, does not deal with this lack of logic or their appallingly bad biblical scholarship.

This book also deals with legal and other issues about teaching creationism in publicly funded classrooms in the United States. The federal course and the Supreme Court have decided that creationism is religion. Perhaps more significantly, it is bad science.

This fine little book cannot cover the whole controversy completely, of course, but it is authoritative and well worth reading. It shows that evolution is a central unifying concept in biology, and that students really should have the opportunity of learning about it in the classroom. Creationism, since it is not good science and is not testable, should not be taught in science classes.

Lest anyone should think otherwise, I should point out that I am a practising Christian, and have been all my life. As well, I have a particular interest in the history of the notion of creation.


14 of 22 people found the following review helpful:

A good general outline supporting evolution, May 29, 2005
Reviewer: Dave "the Penstemon" Liberal Warrior of the West at (SLC, UT) - See all my reviews
This book shows unequivocably what the consensus is among scientists regarding evolution of species on the planet earth. This book will not be well-received by those who pin their hopes on the mythological writings of bronze age tribesmen from the Bible, However, the book does a good job of laying out the evidence and the consistency of the evidence between scientific disciplines.

Creationists, who have no clue concerning the difference between a hypothesis and a theory will continue to say "it's just a theory" and hope to lead their dumbed down sheep who continue to believe in the creation myth of Adam and Eve. The battle is being waged for the hearts and souls of Americans regarding a scientific mindset or a mindset based upon adherence to ancient myths. The American Taliban is alive and well and is attacking science as a mortal enemy because it calls into question the myths the Taliban hold most dear. This century may determine whether America is a land of exploration and advancement or a land of dogma and superstition. The National Academy of Sciences produced a sound and persuasive document to further the cause of truth and reason.

National Academy of Sciences NAS (Biography)

About the NAS

NASThe National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is an honorific society of distinguished scholars engaged in scientific and engineering research, dedicated to the furtherance of science and technology and to their use for the general welfare. 

The NAS was signed into being by President Abraham Lincoln on March 3, 1863, at the height of the Civil War. As mandated in its Act of Incorporation, the NAS has, since 1863, served to "investigate, examine, experiment, and report upon any subject of science or art" whenever called upon to do so by any department of the government. Scientific issues would become even more contentious and complex in the years following the war. To keep pace with the growing roles that science and technology would play in public life, the institution that was founded in 1863 eventually expanded to include the National Research Council in 1916, the National Academy of Engineering in 1964, and the Institute of Medicine in 1970. Collectively, the four organizations are known as the National Academies.

Since 1863, the nation's leaders have often turned to the National Academies for advice on the scientific and technological issues that frequently pervade policy decisions. Most of the institution's science policy and technical work is conducted by its operating arm, the National Research Council, created expressly for this purpose. These non-profit organizations provide a public service by working outside the framework of government to ensure independent advice on matters of science, technology, and medicine. They enlist committees of the nation's top scientists, engineers, and other experts, all of whom volunteer their time to study specific concerns. The results of their deliberations have inspired some of America's most significant and lasting efforts to improve the health, education, and welfare of the population. The Academy's service to government has become so essential that Congress and the White House have issued legislation and executive orders over the years that reaffirm its unique role.

The Academy membership is comprised of approximately 2,000 members and 350 foreign associates, of whom more than 200 have won Nobel Prizes. Members and foreign associates of the Academy are elected in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research; election to the Academy is considered one of the highest honors that can be accorded a scientist or engineer.The Academy is governed by a Council comprised of twelve members (councilors) and five officers, elected from among the Academy membership. Dr. Ralph J. Cicerone is the president of the National Academy of Sciences.


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