Facing continued challenges to evolutionary science from religious conservatives who insist that public schools teach alternative explanations, the National Academy of Sciences has issued a new book that outlines the scientific evidence for evolution.
"Evolution is one of the bedrock theories in all of modern science, and we are coming to understand better and better as to why that is," said NAS President Ralph Cicerone at a panel discussion of the 86-page booklet, called Science, Evolution and Creationism.
"We are trying to give the public a coherent explanation of that and concrete examples of the impact of evolution," Cicerone said of the booklet, which insists that theories such as creationism and "intelligent design" have no place in science classrooms.
Two years in the writing, the NAS book is aimed at school board members, science teachers, policy makers and legal scholars on the front lines of the debate.
Only hours before, the political power of religious conservatives was made clear when former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee decisively won the Iowa Republican caucuses. A Southern Baptist minister, Huckabee has declared that he doesn't believe in evolution and thinks creationism should be taught in the schools.
"Our public schools should present both evolution and creationism," Huckabee told the Christian Broadcasting Network. "I would not support public schools teaching only creationism. Evolution is a theory based on a lot of science, so it must be part of the curriculum."
Members of the NAS panel also made their point: Although faith and acceptance of evolution need not be incompatible, creationism does not belong in a science classroom.
"I would worry that a president who does not believe in evolution would not believe in other [scientific] arguments as well," said Francisco Ayala, professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at University of California, Irvine, who chaired the panel that wrote the book. "That is a way to lead the country to ruin. If all the other countries that are chasing us are behaving rationally, we are doomed."
Barbara Schaal, a biologist at Washington University in St. Louis, agreed. "A lot of what we do in the United States is based on science and technology, and anything that weakens science and technology for students would necessarily be harmful," she said.
Vice president of the National Academy, Schaal was on the panel that wrote the evolution booklet, an update of editions published by the NAS in 1984 and 1999. The academy is a private, independent society of scientists chartered by Congress to advise the federal government on scientific and technological issues.
The science of evolution is founded on the observation that during reproduction, errors in the duplication of DNA - an organism's genetic blueprint - create individuals with different traits. Those traits that enhance survival are preferentially passed on to subsequent generations. That "natural selection" leads to differing populations and, with enough time, new species.
Earlier editions of the NAS booklet focused on the scientific evidence for evolution and the legal arguments for excluding faith-based theories from science classes.
This one also argues that acceptance of evolutionary science and religious faith are not mutually exclusive - that many evolutionary scientists are deeply religious, and many faiths and theologians accept evolutionary biology.
The Rev. Joseph Pagano, rector of Emmanual Episcopal church in Mount Vernon, said he read the booklet and found it compelling.
"It comes down to how certain people understand the nature and authority of the Scriptures," he said. "If one reads them in an extremely literalistic fashion, then one is going to have a problem with evolution. But of course that is not the only way to read them."
Pagano compared such a literal reading to someone who reads a sports headline that says, "Vikings Destroy Bears" and concludes "that a Nordic race has killed off a North American mammal."
The Rev. Jason Poling of the evangelical New Hope Community Church in Pikesville said he also has a non-literal reading of Genesis as a theological statement, a declaration that God created the parts of nature that others were worshiping - the sun and moon and stars.
"There are and always have been those who read the first chapter of Genesis and see it as a literal blueprint and those who see it as figurative," he said. "I really want to affirm that it is possible to be faithful and intelligent and take either of those views."
The NAS booklet suggests there is no real conflict. "The evidence for evolution can be fully compatible with religious faith," the booklet states. "Science and religion are different ways of understanding the world. Needlessly placing them in opposition reduces the potential of each to contribute to a better future."
Despite what the NAS says is incontrovertible scientific evidence, nearly 150 years after Charles Darwin first proposed his ideas in his paper, On the Origin of Species, a controversy still swirls.
In Texas, the current science curriculum requires the teaching of evolution. But that's up for review and a vote by the state school board. Conservatives hope to introduce changes that will discuss "weaknesses" in evolutionary science.
In Florida, proposed revisions to the science curriculum are up for public comment on the Internet. The revisions include, for the first time, references to evolution as a "big idea," critical to students' understanding of natural science.
Creationists there are making themselves heard, challenging evolutionary science and urging inclusion of alternative theories.
In Dover, Pa., a school board ended up in federal court - and voted out of office - after requiring in 2004 that science teachers tell students about intelligent design. The court ruled that intelligent design is "grounded in theology, not science" and should not be taught in science classes.
The NAS booklet argues that evolutionary biology "has been and continues to be a cornerstone of modern science." It has made "major contributions" to public health and medicine, agriculture, and industrial development.
"However, polls show that many people continue to have questions," the booklet says. Many believe the science is incomplete or in doubt, or can't explain the complexity and diversity of life.
"There is no controversy in the scientific community over whether evolution has occurred," the booklet states. Although there is continuing scientific debate about the details and mechanisms of evolution, there is now an "immense body of evidence" to support it, making it "one of the most securely established of scientific facts."
At the panel discussion, Ayala defended keeping creationism out of the classroom, saying, "We do not teach astrology as an alternative to astronomy; we do not teach witchcraft as an alternative to medicine. It is not a question of dogma, it is a question of what is science and what is not."
To view an electronic copy of the NAS booklet, visit www.baltimoresun.com/evolution