AAAS book explores evolution and Christianity's response

Scientists and theologians provided input




In an unusual undertaking for a science society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has produced a new book that discusses evolution and the rich diversity of Christian responses to the theory along with the quest for common ground on what has become a contentious issue in many school districts across the nation.

The book, The Evolution Dialogues, was written with the input of both scientists and theologians. Meant specifically for use in Christian adult education programs, it offers a concise description of the natural world, as explained by evolution, and the Christian response, both in Charles Darwin's time and in contemporary America. It has a glossary of terms from both science and religion, with "bacteria" and "Biblical infallibility" defined on the same page.

As an introduction to each chapter, the book features a narrative about the personal dilemma of a fictional college student, Angela Rawlett, as she struggles to reconcile her traditionalist Christian upbringing with her keen interest in biology.

Her story is rooted in reality, according to Connie Bertka, director of the AAAS's Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion program, which produced the book. Students from traditional Christian backgrounds sometimes approach biology professors with concerns that the study of evolution will conflict with their religious beliefs. "Biology 101 teachers can cite cases like this," Bertka said.

At a time when several leading scientists have written personal accounts of their own faith in both God and the scientific method, the new AAAS book offers a thoughtful look at science and Christianity. It mentions their shared values, including a commitment to truthfulness.

While concerns about evolution are not limited to Christian denominations or to the United States, the debate has been the most intense within segments of the American Christian community.

Bertka said the book grew out of discussions at AAAS starting in 2000 as the Intelligent Design movement began to make some headway. The movement, championed by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, maintains there is empirical evidence in nature for the existence of an intelligent agent beyond nature.

Scientists and some representatives of mainline religious denominations were concerned that Intelligent Design would be sold as an integration of science and religion, enticing even some members of mainstream religious communities to question evolution. Previously, school curriculum battles over evolution had been driven largely by young-Earth creationists whose literal interpretation of the Bible holds that our world is no more than 10,000 years old.

At the time, mainline denominations such as the Lutheran World Federation, the Episcopal Church USA, and the United Methodist Church had been somewhat disengaged from the earlier battles over creationism and evolution. But the debate over Intelligent Design raised the stakes, posing threats to the quality of instruction in public school science classrooms and to the constitutional division between church and state.

After consultations with representatives of scientific and Christian religious communities, AAAS decided to produce a book that could be used by religious educators and others seeking a concise description of the science of evolution and a respectful discussion of the cultural and religious responses to it.

As the book's prologue notes, "there are deep misunderstandings about what biological evolution is, what science itself is, and what views people of faith, especially Christians, have applied to their interpretations of the science. With this volume, AAAS seeks to correct some of those misunderstandings."

In addition to its potential use in religious adult education programs, the new book also should have value in other educational settings such as history of science classes, seminaries and community libraries.

The book, written by Catherine Baker and edited by James B. Miller, tells why evolution is not a hypothetical idea but rather is the essential framework for modern biology. It discusses new observations that have led to revisions in the theory since the time of Charles Darwin, including new views on why the giraffe's neck is long. But it emphasizes the underlying principles of evolution that continue to stand the test of time: all species, living and extinct, are related to each other and the forms of life that populate the Earth have changed over time and continue to change.

An array of distinguished reviewers, contacted by AAAS, found the book to be a useful, balanced treatment of the issues. Randy Isaac, a physicist and executive director of the American Scientific Affiliation, said Baker "has done an excellent job in writing at a level such that a broad audience would benefit from the book. Her research is well done and I felt she went to great lengths to be fair in every detail. I think the book will contribute significantly to the ongoing discussions." The American Scientific Affiliation describes itself is an organization of Christians in science who "share a common fidelity to the Word of God and a commitment to integrity in the practice of science."

Jack Haught, a Georgetown University theologian, said the book "will prove to be very helpful to teachers and students of biology, especially where questions might arise about the scientific status of Darwin's theory and the religious implications of evolution." Haught said the book "exhibits not only prudence and judiciousness, but also an erudite understanding of the distinct modes of understanding characteristic of science and religion. A major benefit of this project is that it demonstrates how a religious understanding of the world need not be looked upon as an alternative to evolutionary science and vice-versa."

Rodger Bybee, executive director of the nonprofit Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, said the book "will be an excellent, positive contribution to a contemporary understanding of evolution and religion."

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Copies of The Evolution Dialogues may be obtained from the AAAS Distribution Center, P.O. Box 521, Annapolis Junction, MD 20701. Telephone orders (VISA and MasterCard only) may be made at 800-222-7809 between 8:30 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. The price is $9.95 ($7.95 for AAAS members) plus postage and handling ($2 domestic, $4 international). For shipments to the District of Columbia, add 5.75 % sales tax; for California, add applicable sales tax; for Canada, add the GST. Ten or more copies: $5.00 each.

A study guide for the book is being prepared and will be available online at: http://www.aaas.org/spp/doser.

Reporters can request a copy of the book from Earl Lane, AAAS Office of Public Programs, 202-326-6431, elane@aaas.org.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the world's largest general scientific society, and publisher of the journal, Science (www.sciencemag.org). AAAS was founded in 1848, and has 262 affiliated societies and academies of science, serving 10 million individuals. Science has the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed general science journal in the world, with an estimated total readership of 1 million. The non-profit AAAS (www.aaas.org) is open to all and fulfills its mission to "advance science and serve society" through initiatives in science policy; international programs; science education; and more. For the latest research news, log onto EurekAlert!, www.eurekalert.org, the premier science-news Web site, a service of AAAS.


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To know what you prefer instead of humbly saying Amen to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to have kept your soul alive.
~ Robert Louis Stevenson