NAS evolution book too technical?

Joe Lapp, from Austin, Texas, posted this review on of the National Academy of Science’s book Science, Evolution and Creationism. It’s worth reading, and repeating. Despite Joe’s criticism, the book is well worth your time to read; if you know about the example Joe uses, you’re ahead of the game.

Cover of NAS book, Science, Evolution and Creationism

Beneath the fold.

In addition to Amazon, the book is available for free download at the National Academy of Science’s site. It’s a great backgrounder for anyone interested in learning “what scientists say” about evolution and creationism, from our nation’s oldest and most trusted society of science advisors (Lincoln called on NAS for advice, and wise policy makers still do).

In a brief 54 pages this book covers material that everybody should understand about evolution and creationism. It is written in a beautifully clear, concise language and may be the shortest intelligible explanation of evolution that you’ll ever read. Unfortunately, most of that beautiful language is written at the advanced high school or college level and so won’t be accessible to the public at large. It seems like a huge opportunity lost. However, the short FAQ at the end of the book is much easier reading and should hit its mark.

Every modern book on evolution and creationism should mention the amazing discovery of Tiktaalik, and indeed this book does. On the basis of what we know about evolution, scientists hypothesized where the transitional form between fish and four-legged animals should appear in the fossil record. Scientists then went to that place and found the animal. They called it Tiktaalik. It’s an amazing case of evolution making a prediction and the prediction coming true.

Tiktaalik makes for a great story. People of all ages, especially children, engage readily in stories and retain stories better than raw facts. But this book tells the story in a choppy, non-chronological, expository way. I can hardly piece the story together from the book. This amazing opportunity to all at once instill the reader with both scientific process and evidence for evolution was lost. The reader likely will not remember Tiktaalik.

Isn’t there a rule of thumb that when writing for the general public one should write at the 5th or 6th grade level? Many sentences have too many clauses. Parenthetic remarks frequently interrupt the train of thought. Several pages build concept upon concept too quickly, rapidly constructing sentences consisting of multiple newly introduced words. It takes training to collect and apply so many definitions so quickly. The section on how Intelligent Design has no scientific support is so dense I couldn’t quite follow it’s logic.

The book does go out of its way to make some concepts more accessible, and it does a great job of it. New words are introduced in bold and defined succinctly and clearly in the margin. Boxed regions describe practical examples of the theory expounded in the text. There’s a box on SARS, one on the domestication of wheat, one on the evolution of whales, etc. There are plenty of stimulating photographs and diagrams. The simple cladograms do a wonderful job of illustrating evolutionary relationships among past and present organisms. The language in these boxes is generally simpler than that of the text proper and should be accessible to a wider audience. I just wish there was more of it. For example, it would have been helpful to diagrammatically depict natural selection acting on a population or the gradual transition from hooved mammals to whales. Such diagrams might even have wholly replaced the explanations.

The book also does a great job of highlighting the opinions of those who have no difficulty both accepting evolution and being religious. It calls them out on their own pages and gives each quote its own color. It’s hard to fly by them without reading them and giving the opinions their due. The book also distinguishes among scientism (no God necessary), deism (God only started things), and theism (God continues to intervene), saying that people who accept evolution can fall into any of these camps. It is absolutely wonderful that the book offers readers these perspectives for consideration. I wish these positions had themselves been highlighted in boxes to keep readers from blowing past.

The book ends with an FAQ targeted at people who are confused about the compatibility of evolution and faith. This FAQ is very well written and should be accessible to general audiences. The paragraphs, though, would have benefited from spacing to make the text seem less daunting. The FAQ answers questions such as “Isn’t belief in evolution also a matter of faith?” and “Wouldn’t it be ‘fair’ to teach creationism along with evolution?” But I almost dismissed the FAQ as a collection of chapter notes. Each chapter of the book begins with a full-page photo, and when I hit a blank white page, I assumed that was the end of the book proper. The FAQ should have been a full-fledged chapter to be sure that casual readers wouldn’t dismiss it as academic end matter.

For such a small book, the authors did a great job of carefully choosing content, and I only have one nitpick there. The book quickly summarizes the history of the universe and traverses through the origin of life. That may unnecessarily confuse biological evolution with cosmology. The book makes it clear that we’re fuzzy on the origins question, but I don’t think it makes it clear enough that origins and evolution are different things and that scientists are not the least bit fuzzy on the question of evolution.

This is a great book for confident readers. It hits all the important points on evolution and creationism. Unfortunately, the text probably isn’t appropriate for the portion of the public that is actually confused about the issues, although the FAQ would likely reach these people. There doesn’t appear to be even one child educator or public communications expert listed in the acknowledgements — they’re all scientists or professors. I think the book is one revision away from reaching the general audience it strives to reach.

One Response to NAS evolution book too technical?

  1. meson says:

    Mr Joe must be joking. The way the book is written is clear and insightful with most of the facts had already been dumbed down. The book is simpler than even the most basic science textbooks available in schools. If there is any wrong done, it must be due to the oversimplification of things. I believe that the public with minimum level of literacy could read the book with no real problem. Even just by looking at the pictures, the message conveyed are clear enough. Even childrens could read the book with little problem.


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