Northwest Arkansas Times: Art Hobson, Prof. Emeritus Physics, University of Arkansas

The Science of Evolution and the Myth of Creationism


         Creationists have thrown monkey wrenches at good science education throughout the past century and they're still at it.  Like true-believing fundamentalists worldwide, they have cherry-picked the evidence, jumped from one irrational argument to another, and lied outright. 

         For example, it's a creationist mantra that there is a crisis of confidence over evolution among scientists.  This notion is so obviously wrong that it must be called a lie.  It would be difficult to find a scientific fact or theory that is as universally supported by knowledgeable scientists as evolution.  For over a century, it's been the foundation for all of biology. 

         Fundamentalist propaganda has helped make Americans victims of all sorts of nonsense so long as it's served up with religious or patriotic fervor.  For example, fifty percent of the U.S. population believe, literally, in the Genesis story of creation.  I have often wondered what these folks think they would have seen if they had been there when God created Adam.  Would Adam appear out of thin air?  How long would the process take?  An hour?  A millionth of a second?  And there's the old question:  Did Adam have a belly button?  Dr. Gary Parker, author of Answers in Genesis and former head of the Science Department at Clearwater Christian College, replies with all seriousness:  "No--Adam didn't.  Neither did Eve."  These are the kind of people who are trying to tell school boards how to teach science. 

         There are many good books elucidating evolution and patiently explaining, for those who might be misled by the Gary Parkers of the world, what's wrong with creationism.  But Ardea Skybreak, author of The Science of Evolution and the Myth of Creationism," is not so patient.  She's outraged at the fundamentalist lies and distortions that have derailed serious biology education for so long, and she's quick to say so.  For rational people, Skybreak's book is a breath of fresh air in our superstition-shrouded society. 

         You can get a feel for the book from some of the section titles:  "Anti-evolution creationism: an assault on science, in the name of God," "Snake oil salesmen and charlatans at court," and "A guide to the creationist zoo." 

         Skybreak is a good scientist with a solid understanding of evolutionary biology.  She presents mountains of evidence of evolution in action today and throughout the past 3.8 billion years since the beginning of life on Earth:  moths, fruit flies, the Grand Canyon, the sickle cell gene, HIV, so-called "gaps" in the fossil record, the evolution of new species in the laboratory in real time, embryo development, remnant features, the independent evolution of similar features in different species, nature's many imperfections demonstrating that any Grand Designer is prone to serious mistakes, the geographic proximity of similar species, the "nested" hierarchy of living organisms demonstrating evolutionary relatedness, and most impressively the immense fossil and genetic record showing the six-million-year evolution from the first upright apes to Homo sapiens. 

         The book is directed at non-scientists, but scientists can learn plenty from it.  Earlier chapters review common knowledge about evolution and creationism.  One highlight is a list of one-paragraph descriptions of 15 of the more common creation myths, including the Hebrew and Christian myth (Genesis). 

         Later chapters go into much more detail about both evolution and creationism.  We learn that a "species" is a reproductively isolated group of organisms, in other words a group whose members can reproduce only with individuals within the same group.  We learn the various ways reproductive isolation can come about--the ways that new species can begin.

         And we learn fascinating details of the evolution of human beings.  Two major changes occurred on the road to becoming Homo sapiens:  the emergence some 6 million years ago of an upright posture on two feet, and the emergence some 2 million years ago of a larger brain.  The upright posture was facilitated by mutations that shifted the position at which the head is attached to the spine, enabling early humans to stand upright and look forward without having to hunch over as apes do.  The larger brain was facilitated by mutations that changed the timing of the birth process and caused human babies to be born at an earlier "premature" stage of development, when their heads are smaller and can thus pass through the pelvis.  The brain then continued developing, and growing, after birth.  Before this change in timing evolved, the brain grew to full size before birth and so big-brained humans could not pass through the pelvis.  Is that fascinating or what?  And it's so much more interesting than simply "God did it." 

         Skybreak explains the many varieties of creationism, from Young Earth Creationism to the latest mutation known as Intelligent Design.  And we learn all about intelligent design's misguided "hypothesis" (it's charitable to call this non-scientific fantasy a hypothesis) concerning "irreducible complexity," along with the evidence that disproves this hypothesis.

         This book has its flaws.  Skybreak is so angry with the creationists that she tends to go on and on about it.  The result is wordiness and lots of repetition.  The book could have benefited, and been 50 pages shorter, from a sharp editing pencil.  But this is a relatively small problem;  the book is well worth reading. 

         I've always made a point of reading not only the major books about evolution, but also books such as Icons of Evolution, Pandas and People, The Collapse of Evolution, and Creation Science, from the creationist community.  Will creationists read this book? 

—Appeared in NWA Times, October 25, 2008

Art Hobson is the author of Physics: Concepts & Connections, a scientific literacy textbook for non-science college students.