E-Streams.com Review

E-STREAMS, Vol. 10, No. 1 – January 2007

4546. The Science of Evolution and the Myth of Creationism: Knowing What’s Real and Why it Matters, by Ardea Skybreak, Chicago, IL, Insight Press, 2006. 352p. ISBN 9780976023654.(B&T  YBP) $24.95. LC Call no.: Q

Reviewer: Bruce E. Johansen, Kayser Research Professor, School of Communication, University of Nebraska at Omaha, Omaha, Nebraska, bjohansen@mail.unomaha.edu

Table of Contents:

Introduction 1
An Overview 7
The Evidence of Evolution in Action is All Around Us 39
Reviewing a Few Key Points About Adaptation 57
How Evolution Produces Whole New Species 65
More on Reproductive Isolation, Speciation and the Emergence of Evolutionary Novelties 83
Evolution is a Proven Fact — The Evidence is Concrete and Comes from Many Different Directions 99
The Evolution of Human Beings 117
Anti-Evolution Creationism: An Assault on All of Science, in the Name of God 179
Appendix A Glossary 301
Appendix B Selected Bibliography 316
Appendix C Geological Timeline 319
Appendix D Defend Science Statement 320
Index 325

This is not an ambivalent book. It is a basic primer on evolution (and a very good one for the general reader), but also something of an anti-creationism screed, which labels this line of argument “laughable,” “absurd,” and “out-dated.” This book’s strength lies in its lucid and conversant outline of why and how evolution is central to scientific thinking, and its detailed development of various themes related to evolution science. Andrea Skybreak ably relates evolutionary themes to important contemporary controversies, as in her excellent section on race and racism (pages 166-169).

A century after Albert Einstein published his first major article on relativity, in 1905, the world of science remains truly another country (and maybe even another planet) for many citizens of the United States of America. Various polls indicated that only about 40 per cent of U.S. citizens subscribe to the theory of evolution, about 20 per cent insist that the sun revolves around the Earth, one-half believes that human beings coexisted with the dinosaurs, and only 13 per cent can correctly define the word “molecule.” In 1993, an international study ranked U.S. students dead last, behind Bulgaria and Slovenia, in knowledge of evolution’s basics.

In such an atmosphere, some science teachers have been required to give equal time to creationism (dressed up as “intelligent design”). Resistance to evolution is an old story in the United States, of course. Recently, creationism has been revived, along with a general upsurge in religious fundamentalism. Today, creationists have stretched the biblical six days of godly labor and one day of rest to 6,000 to 10,000 years — still a far cry from the 4.5 billion years many scientists now accept as the age of the Earth, and the 13.7 billion years since the “big bang” that gave birth to the universe.

Promoters of “intelligent design” sometimes go to great lengths to avoid using religious-sounding nomenclature (such as “God”) to designate the character of the intelligent designer. Such vagueness is sometimes deemed necessary when arguing that “ID” should be taught in public schools as “theory” alongside the “theory” of evolution, thus attempting to avoid arguments that “ID” is nothing more than lipstick on the pig of creationism, which has been deemed legally out-of-bounds as public-school subject matter by federal courts for two decades.

Delusion enjoys a considerable constituency, however, By 2005, the Left Behind series of “Rapture” books by Tim LaHaye, which anticipates the end of the world at the hands of an angry, fundamentalist Christian god who condemns non-believers to hell on Earth, had sold more than 62 million copies, many to members of the religious right-wing who constitute President George W. Bush’s “base.” According to a poll taken by TIME magazine, 59 per cent of people in the United States believe that fundamentalist interpretations of biblical prophecies foretelling the world’s violent end and the eradication of non-believers will come to pass. It is estimated that one in eight U.S. citizens has read a “Rapture” book, in which the Book of Revelation, where Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Catholics, and those who profess other “aberrant religions” are consigned to an everlasting hell on Earth as seas turn to blood and waves of locusts torment non-believers.

This is not to say that traditional physical sciences draw no support in the United States. Scientists even occasionally needle religious myths, even in the land of mass-merchandised Rapture. Those scientific spoilsports! In 2006, a team of Israeli and U.S. scientists speculated that Jesus walked on water because it was solid. The sea of Galilee has never frozen in modern times, but the scientists said temperatures were colder 2,000 years ago. Doron Nof, who teaches oceanography at Florida State University, (and describes himself as an “equal opportunity miracle buster”) has advanced this theory. In 1992, he also proposed that a freak Red Sea windstorm parted the Red Sea for Moses. Purported miracles ascribed to mere meteorology. How prosaic.

At times, this book departs from its detailed description of evolution science to needle religion. Creationism can present a fat target, as with assertions by some of its proponents that God created all species at the same time (or within the same few days, at any rate), giving rise to the proposition, for example, that human beings cohabited the world (and within the last few thousand years, no less) with dinosaurs. Skybreak, with typical zest, calls such an idea an “absurdity” (p. 124).

So where did we come from, and why? Always addressing the diehard creationists in her audience, Skybreak writes that “There is absolutely zero doubt that we are indeed closely related to modern-day African apes…” (p. 125). On page 127, we learn that human and chimpanzee DNA corresponds at 98.5 to 99 per cent similarity. Skybreak nails her case shut by reminding any creationist who has reached page 155 without throwing this book across the room that human beings are an evolutionary accident with “no particular special purpose…except what we make of it” (author’s emphasis). Ashes to ashes, dust to dust – life without cosmic purpose can be hard science, indeed.

The author’s ideological gloves really come off in Chapter 8, titled “Anti-Evolution Creationism: An Assault on All of Science, in the Name of God.” Here, addressing Noah’s Ark, she goes a bit overboard (no pun intended) by taking myth literally – Earth hosts 10 million species in our time (perhaps as many in Noah’s), so how could the old codger have built a boat big enough to house a pair of each? “Come On!” Skybreak exclaims (p. 187). The book’s screed quotient rises as Skybreak weighs in against gay-bashing, creationist politicians (former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum in this case). What has been a splendid work of popular science very quickly drowns in a puddle of invective vis a vis “creationism lies and distortions” wielded by the “morality police.”

This work illustrates the difference between myth and science with capsule summaries of ancient peoples’ creation stories that are so truncated as to be culturally insulting (pages 14-15). The Iroquois creation story is boiled down, for example, to: “The world was created on the back of a giant turtle. First woman fell from the sky and lived with the help of the animals. She had one good grandson and one bad grandson from which stemmed the conflict between good and evil among humans” (p. 14). Subject to this kind of condensation, the Christian creation story might sound like this: “God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. He created the first man, Adam, and first women, Eve, from one of his ribs, in a nice garden called Eden. Their lives were perfect until Eve was enticed by a snake into eating a bad apple. Floods, disease, and pestilence followed in short order.” Skybreak’s own version of Genesis (on page 15) is only slightly more nuanced.

Skybreak need not ridicule religion. Evolution is perfectly capable of building its own case with rational argument, leaving cultural wiggle room for mythical accounts of the creation. The case for evolution strengthens as we watch. The journal Science, announced as its “breakthroughs of the year in 2005” advances in the study of evolution: “Equipped with genome data and field observations of organisms from microbes to mammals,” Science’s editors said, “In 2005, biologists made huge strides toward understanding the mechanisms by which living creatures evolve.” Among scientists, the case for evolution all but closed early in April, 2006, when an evolutionary “missing link” was found between fish and land animals – bones as long as nine feet from an ancient, river-dwelling predator with scales, fins and gills, as well as arm joints in its fins, an alligator-like head and ribs heavy enough to support its body on dry land.

The newly discovered creature was named Tiktaalik roseae, after “tiktaalik” an Inuktitut word for “large, shallow water fish,” and “roseae,” one of the project’s patrons, who wishes to remain anonymous. This discovery supports the theory that fish emerged from the oceans and rivers perhaps 370 million years ago, then evolved into vertebrates, the first being amphibians and reptiles, then, much later, mammals — among them human beings who now continue to debate their origins and purpose with particular zealotry. Thus, this book is popular science, as well as an artifact of contemporary political and religious debate.

Recommended for public libraries and undergraduate collections.