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Evolution: Read All About It!

4 January 2008 (All day)
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National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine

Spreading the word.
A new booklet from NAS aims to educate the public about evolution.

WASHINGTON, D.C.--Prompted by recent court battles and persistent pressures to teach intelligent design in U.S. schools, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the Institute of Medicine today released an 88-page booklet—-intended for wide dissemination—-that explains why evolution is science and creationism is not.

The handsomely illustrated document, titled Science, Evolution, and Creationism and unveiled here at NAS headquarters, is an updated version of two previous publications, one released in 1984 and its successor in 1999. According to Jay Labov, the staff director for the project, NAS began revising the booklet during a highly publicized 2005 court case in Dover, Pennsylvania (ScienceNOW, 20 December 2005). The judge ruled that teaching intelligent design in the science classroom is unconstitutional, but some schools are still trying to circumvent the ruling by teaching what they call the scientific "controversy" surrounding evolution.

Work on the booklet was directed by a panel of scientists and educators headed by biologist Francisco Ayala of the University of California, Irvine. The authors say that the document is intended not just for policymakers and teachers but also for anyone interested in the subject. It "better explains evolution in ways the public can readily understand," said NAS President Ralph Cicerone. It's also twice as long as the 1999 version.

Contributing to the beefed-up page count is recent research fleshing out the evolution picture, such as the 2004 discovery in Canada of Tiktaalik, a 380-million-year-old creature that represents an intermediate form between fish and four-legged land animals (Science, 7 April 2006, p. 33). Textbooks on evolution still don't have such material because revisions take so long, said science educator and panel member Toby Horn of the Carnegie Institution of Washington in Washington, D.C. The latest iteration of the booklet also explores the role of evolution in medicine, pointing out its importance in understanding how viruses such as HIV and SARS mutate. And it features statements by clergy members explaining why evolution is not inconsistent with religion.

"This book is a small start to get scientists mobilized about how they teach science," said panel member Bruce Alberts, former NAS president and the newly appointed editor-in-chief of Science. But it's only part of the solution, noted Ayala, who chastised the press for falling down on the public education front. "You, the media, have certainly done a miserable job," he said, noting that many newspapers devote more space to astrology than to science.

Physicist Lawrence Krauss of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, welcomes the new booklet. "When candidates for president can raise their hands to say that they do not believe in evolution, it is clear that we need to do a far better job of educating people," he says. "This is precisely what the new NAS publication attempts to do."

An electronic version of the booklet is available for free on the Web (see below), and printed copies can be obtained for $12.95 from National Academies Press.

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