Tom Gilson

The NAS on Science, Evolution, and Creationism


Book Review

Science, Evolution, and Creationism, richly illustrated and printed on glossy stock, is a marvelous scientific defense of evolutionary theory from the National Academy of Sciences. If that were all it tried to accomplish, it would be quite a fine little book (just 54 pages plus bibliography, index, and author bios). What it attempts to do instead, though, is to show the compatibility of religion and evolution, and the utter worthlessness of Intelligent Design and other “creationisms.” Like so much else that has been written on this topic, it oversimplifies in some places, misrepresents in others, and is thoroughly wrong in others. It’s hard to know where to begin addressing it all.

I’ll dive in with this from page 37, the opening words of a chapter titled “Creationist Perspectives.” Several of the book’s major distortions crop up in these two-plus paragraphs:

Advocates of the ideas collectively known as “creationism” and, recently, “intelligent design creationism” hold a wide variety of views. Most broadly, a “creationist” is someone who rejects scientific explanation of the known universe in favor of special creation by a supernatural entity. Creationism in its various forms is not the same thing as belief in God because, as was discussed earlier, many believers as well as many mainstream religious groups accept the findings of science, including evolution. Nor is creationism necessarily tied to Christians who interpret the Bible literally. Some non-Christian religious believers also want to replace scientific explanations with their own religion’s supernatural accounts of physical phenomena.

In the United States, various views of creationism typically have been promoted by small groups of politically active religious fundamentalists who believe that only a supernatural entity could account for the physical changes in the universe and for the biological diversity of life on Earth. But even these creationists hold very different views. Some, know as “young Earth” creationists, believe the biblical account that the universe and the Earth were created just a few thousand years ago. Proponents of this form of creationism also believe that all living things, including humans, were created in a very short period of time in essentially the forms in which they exist today. Other creationists, known as “old Earth” creationists, accept that the Earth may be very old but reject other scientific findings regarding the evolution of living things.

No scientific evidence supports these viewpoints. On the contrary, as discussed earlier, several independent lines of evidence indicate that the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old and that the universe is about 14 billion years old…

Defining Terms
In any social or political discourse, being successful at defining vocabulary is the equivalent of taking the high hill in military battle. If you can pin an emotionally laden label on your opponent, you can cut thinking short. That’s why abortion supporters won’t use “pro-life” for their opponents, but label them “anti-choice.” A “creationist,” the NAS says, is “someone who rejects scientific explanation of the known universe in favor of special creation by a supernatural entity.” They don’t mention that “creationist” has a history of anti-intellectualism and poor science, but they do toss in some great buzzwords: “politically active religious fundamentalists.” Yes, indeed.

To label Intelligent Design as a form of creationism is a rhetorical ploy with some emotional force. Tactics like this have been successful already in leading many to believe that ID “rejects scientific explanation of the known universe,” and science in general. (I’m willing to bet some readers here have bought into that error.) Ironically, the book in previous chapters acknowledged that there is no scientific explanation of the known universe, i.e., the Big Bang; nor is there a scientific explanation for the first life on earth. There’s nothing there to reject.

Intelligent Design could be considered anti-science on one definition. On page 10 the book says, “In science, explanations must be based on naturally occurring phenomena.” That’s a perfectly sound and true statement, except that it’s used immoderately, with an assumption that explanations must be scientific to be of value. I’ve never read any ID author even hinting that scientific explanations be sought and applied in every conceivable circumstance; but they reject the view that every explanation must be based on naturally occurring phenomena, on grounds that there could be some causes that are not natural. This is the distinction between philosophical naturalism (or materialism) and a broader view that refuses to suppose that nothing exists besides matter, energy, and their law- and chance-based interactions.

So if one equates disagreement with naturalism to being “anti-science,” then much of ID is anti-science. That’s rather a twisted perspective, however. It’s like saying I’m anti-books because I believe I can read, enjoy, and learn from sources outside the bound, printed page.

Mixing Terms
I cut short the third paragraph of this quote because it continues in a very similar vein. Note how, after describing young Earth and old Earth creationism, it says “no scientific evidence supports these viewpoints,” but proceeds to refute just one of them. The rest of the passage is about the same. This is slippery work. Yes, young Earth creationism seems to be rebutted quite effectively by science. Given the definition of science as requiring natural explanations, though, what could it mean for scientific evidence to support the old Earth creationist viewpoint? It would have to support the finding that a non-natural cause was involved in natural history; but science, by definition, can’t do that. What they should have said with respect to old Earth creationism is that scientific evidence cannot speak to it.

I it cannot yet be a legitimate scientific finding that all life came about on Earth by strictly material, natural causes. Science can and does show the relatedness of all life. From there, the inference of common descent is a reasonable one to make (disputable on some grounds, yet certainly reasonable from the scientist’s perspective; more on that in a future blog posting). The further inference they want us to make, that common descent happened entirely from within a closed system of natural cause and effect, is philosophical and theological, not scientific. This is because the methods of science restrict it to knowledge of what happens within its sphere. If there is anything happening outside that sphere, science does not have the tools to comment on it.

Compatible With Politics, Too

“As was discussed earlier, many believers as well as many mainstream religious groups accept the findings of science, including evolution.”

The earlier discussion referred to was intended to show that religion is not incompatible with evolution. I don’t know anybody, though, who believes in religion. I know people who have very specific beliefs about the nature of God, His work in the origin of the universe, His relationship to people, and the like. Some of them agree with evolution in all its materialist glory, some accept theistic evolution, some who remain uncommitted, some are ID proponents, and some are young Earth creationists. I struggle with understanding the value of showing, as this book attempts to do, that evolution is compatible with religion. You might as well say it’s compatible with politics.

The only conceivable purpose of this could be to try to persuade readers to change their religious beliefs. There’s nothing wrong with that in general, but in this instance it’s another example of the immoderacy of science. Certainly my beliefs take scientific evidences into account; that’s why I’m not a young Earth creationist (there are Biblical reasons as well). To suppose that readers will alter their beliefs only on account of science, however, is presuming far too much. Our beliefs take in far more than that: history, philosophy, personal experience, God’s revelation, and more.

Just a Couple of Paragraphs
In just two-odd paragraphs we see several confusions and distortions. I’ll write further on this later, for these are not all that there were.

Let me reiterate, though, what I said so briefly earlier: the explanation of evolution in this book is excellent. I am strongly encouraging my two children to learn as much as they can about evolution, including the arguments in its favor. Even if it’s wrong, it’s essential education. You could say the same about the Bible–though I obviously I wouldn’t agree that it’s wrong. Both evolution and Bible are essential parts of the intellectual landscape in the Western world, and they are both mighty forces to contend with. If this book was intended to bring some reconciliation between people who reject one or the other, it has unfortunately not done the work necessary to succeed.


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16 thoughts on “The NAS on Science, Evolution, and Creationism

  1. I’m curious about the raison d’être of Intelligent design.

    For it to be a useful thing we’d assume it adds to human knowledge in a concrete way (read non-philosophical).

    Now intelligent design may have only a prospect of adding to human knowledge. What is the prospective gain to our knowledge from intelligent design?

    Before I’m willing to judge intelligent design I think I really need to see what its proponents think it offers to human knowledge.

  2. Philosophical does not equal non-concrete; I think you meant something like non-speculative, or not just theoretical, maybe.

    What it offers to human knowledge (if it succeeds, prevails, becomes accepted as supportable knowledge) is
    1. Human knowledge. That’s good in itself.
    2. A different theoretical approach to biology, based on looking for design rather than accident
    3. An additional corrective to a whole lot of nonsense on the origins of human behavior, values, etc. (you can tell I think there’s already reason to discard the nonsense that’s out there)
    4. A very significant conundrum to pursue in regard to the nature of the Designer. Theists have a jump on that one; others will have some intriguing contrary theories to offer, I’m sure.

    That’s my start for a list. Do others have any other ideas to add?

  3. On #2)
    This would have the potential benefit of avoiding repeating such errors as the wholesale removal of so-called vestigial organs. Approaching organisms as creatures of design might also help us avoid repeating “the biggest mistake in the history of molecular biology “- “the failure to recognize the implications of the non-coding DNA”.
    And we have such opportunities about us even now with regard to such things as the discovery of layers of code in the DNA, and the fact that almost all DNA is transcribed into RNA (which some researchers insist on calling “junk RNA” even in the face of such past embarrassments).
    Research is about asking questions, and approaching problems from the correct theoretic will cause people to ask the right questions.
    For instance, the ID theoretic has already led us to great insights and predictions about the TTSS and its relationship to the bacterial flagellum. And in another field, viewing canola oil as designed (by God, for good) helped J.K.G. Kramer to discover the limitations of testing it on rats and to allow for its use by humans.

    Not to mention that ID is the very reason science was developed in the first place.

  4. I appreciate you answering that, Mr. Gilson [edit, thanks Charlie also].

    If you don’t mind I’ll ask a follow-up question.

    What would it require for intelligent design to evidentially succeed. What weight of evidence would be required for scientists to reasonably accept the framework?

    Also, does intelligent design have a specific falsifiable hypothesis?

  5. Hi Econ,
    I’ve really appreciated your contributions around here lately and found your blog very worthwhile as well. I was typing a long opinion on your post about Heaven but couldn’t post it yesterday.
    Anyway …

    I don’t think you can say that there is a specific hypothesis upon which all of ID rests. Behe’s and Dembski’s hypotheses can be falsified, and that would falsify their formulations and sink their projects, but that wouldn’t undo the overall inference that life and the cosmos are best explained by reference to a designer.
    As I mentioned, that is the framework of many anyway, whether explicitly or implicitly. It just happens to run up against a lot of explicit dogma that stands against it.

    What weight of evidence would be required for scientists to reasonably accept the framework?

    This question is somewhat loaded. Scientists do accept the framework. To say otherwise is to boast of no true Scotsmen.

    As for convincing those (the vast majority, granted) who don’t accept the framework, I think very little can be done. Some few may follow the evidence where it leads and come to accept it (as did evolutionist/scientists Kenyon, Behe, Denton, etc. and atheist philosopher Antony Flew) but I think they will be few and far between. There will always be those who are immune to the evidence, as I would venture that we all are in some instances.
    I don’t really see that resistance is primarily evidentially based – notice the resistance (non-scientific) to even discussing it as an option as displayed on Tom’s previous thread.
    I think that recognizing the I in the D will never be more than one option among others, but its becoming that option is something I’d like to see. Science can only benefit.

  6. Tom, I’d love to hear your biblical reasons for rejecting young-earth creationism. Some friends and family are very committed to the young-earth perspective, and it would be nice to have a solid set of verses to use when discussing the issue with them. I’d like to at least create enough doubt in their minds so that I’m not regarded as a corrupted liberal that has rejected the Bible in favor of science.

  7. Econ,

    What would it require for intelligent design to evidentially succeed. What weight of evidence would be required for scientists to reasonably accept the framework?

    Good question. It would take more than evidence, because of philosophical commitments that direct many persons’ opinions. I’ll have more to write on that later today on a blog post.

  8. Well, I may not get to it today. I think I’m about 2/3 done with it but it’s complex and it’s getting long. I’ve already chopped one entire section. I don’t want to post a carelessly written rendition of this one, because I think it’s quite important.

    Not to mention that I’m still dealing with the stomach bug that hit me Friday night. I’m over the rough part, but I’m needing more rest than usual and I haven’t been able to eat anything more exciting than crackers yet. What fun! Stay away from it if you can.

  9. I want to strengthen one point I was hinting at yesterday. That is my belief that there will likely be very little practical change in the way science is done overall even if ID were to somehow become openly mainstream. Some of the evidence is in the Kramer story mentioned. He is speaking more specifically of a belief in God than an ID view in particular, but the notion holds:

    I have often been asked whether these two approaches are different. Strictly speaking, they are. However, I have found that scientists do not maintain a strictly evolutionary approach in the biochemistry-nutrition area. Generally scientists take a pragmatic approach in research. They look for order, consistency, a biochemical basis, and differences between species. Hence this great commonality between researchers from both camps. It is as though they know better but are afraid to sound religious. I am delighted to see that scientists are becoming brave and pointing out the inconsistency of evolutionary thought and suggesting that “intelligent design” might be a better conclusion to explain the physical and biological world.

    Philip Skell’s writings demonstrate the point clearly as well.

    “While the great majority of biologists would probably agree with Theodosius Dobzhansky’s dictum that ‘nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,’ most can conduct their work quite happily without particular reference to evolutionary ideas,” A.S. Wilkins, editor of the journal BioEssays, wrote in 2000 “Evolution would appear to be the indispensable unifying idea and, at the same time, a highly superfluous one.”

    I would tend to agree. Certainly, my own research with antibiotics during World War II received no guidance from insights provided by Darwinian evolution. Nor did Alexander Fleming’s discovery of bacterial inhibition by penicillin. I recently asked more than 70 eminent researchers if they would have done their work differently if they had thought Darwin’s theory was wrong. The responses were all the same: No.

    To turn the “pro-science” crowd’s biases on their heads, here is John Lennox from his book God’s Undertaker.

    …science done on atheistic presuppositions will lead to the same results as science done on theistic presuppositions. For example, when trying to find out how an organism functions, it matters little whether one assumes that it is actually designed, or only apparently designed. Here the assumption of either ‘methodological naturalism’ (sometimes called ‘methodological atheism’) or what we might term ‘methodological theism’ will lead to essentially the same results. This is so for the very simple reason that the organism in question is being treated methodologically as if it had been designed in both cases.

    page 36

    This allusion to apparent design is in no way to be taken as an exaggeration. The literature is replete with references not only to design terms (always claimed to be merely linguistic habits or metaphors when pointed out) but also with statements such as those by Dawkins acknowledging the apparent design (and trying to explain why it is merely apparent).
    Biomimetics and bioinspiration are fields which may not acknowledge the actual design (and, in fact, the literature seems to make a self-conscious effort to sweep away the obvous tracks by making superfluous references to evolution and natural selection) but rely explicitly on the recognition of the apparent design in nature.

  10. Did you see that the NAS publication has been thoroughly refuted at
    The book looks like it is aimed at the naive and uninformed because it uses arguments that are out-of-date and that have been refuted long ago. It is hard to believe that the long list of experts who wrote the book were not aware of the refutations. But not a single word about the problems. They just trotted out the same old stuff that is so effective in convincing those who know no better.

  11. Did you see that the NAS publication has been thoroughly refuted at

    Of concern right away is the section that lists excellent scientists who believe in creationism. Of course, the validity of their scientific work has nothing to do with what they personally believe about creation, just as much as the anti-creationism beliefs of current scientists should have nothing to do with whether the content of their science is true or not.

    Mentioning famous scientists who believed in creationism in a refutation makes me worried about how good that refutation is (I haven’t had a chance to read the whole thing).

  12. Hi Paul,

    (I haven’t had a chance to read the whole thing).

    You haven’t read the part you cited very well, either.

    Of course, the validity of their scientific work has nothing to do with what they personally believe about creation,

    The so-called list of excellent scientists who believe in creationism does not equate their personal beliefs to the validity of their scientific claims. Neither is it a random list but a direct answer to the points raised.

    just as much as the anti-creationism beliefs of current scientists should have nothing to do with whether the content of their science is true or not.

    Then you are joining the reviewer in refuting what he sees to be the implied claim of the NAS booklet.
    The booklet lists many benefits of modern science and then states that evolution (anti-creationism beliefs) is a cornerstone for all these benefits.
    The reviewer provides evidence against this position – thus, the refutation.

  13. quote:
    If you can pin an emotionally laden label on your opponent, you can cut thinking short. That’s why abortion supporters won’t use “pro-life” for their opponents, but label them “anti-choice.”

    Just wanted to point out that, interestingly, this proposition can be perfectly reversed. So, “pro-choice” people are called “abortion supporters” by their opponents: a strange definition indeed, it sounds like these people go around in the streets searching for pregnant women and trying to convince them to abort as soon as possible.
    Conversely, “anti-choice” people like to call themselves “pro-life”, as if their opponents were haters of any known life form.
    So, that’s the deal. Words should be our slaves, but sadly most of the time we are slave to them.

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