Science and Creationism


In his preface to the original 1984 version of this document, Frank Press, my predecessor as president of the National Academy of Sciences, called attention to a pair of illustrations similar to the ones on the front and back of this booklet. The first is a photograph of Earth from space--the one on this booklet was taken by the GOES-7 satellite in 1992 as it passed over Earth and captured in graphic detail Hurricane Andrew. The second shows a map of the world prepared during the 7th century by the scholar Isidore of Seville. As Press pointed out, both illustrations reflect the efforts of humans to understand the natural world. "How then," he wrote, "can the two views be so different? The answer lies at the very heart of the nature of this system of study we call science."

     Since those words were written, the mapping of Earth has provided further powerful examples of how science and science-based technologies progress. Beginning in the early 1990s, a network of satellites has allowed anyone with a hand-held receiver to know his or her position on Earth to within a few feet. This Global Positioning System* (GPS) now is being used to locate vessels lost at sea, study plate tectonics, trace open routes through crowded city streets, and survey Earth's surface. Yet the technology originated with a purely scientific objective--the desire to build extremely accurate clocks to test Einstein's theory of relativity.

     The tremendous success of science in explaining natural phenomena and fostering technological innovation arises from its focus on explanations that can be inferred from confirmable data. Scientists seek to relate one natural phenomenon to another and to recognize the causes and effects of phenomena. In this way, they have developed explanations for the changing of the seasons, the movements of the sun and stars, the structure of matter, the shaping of mountains and valleys, the changes in the positions of continents over time, the history of life on Earth, and many other natural occurrences. By the same means, scientists have also deciphered which substances in our environment are harmful to humans and which are not, developed cures for diseases, and generated the knowledge needed to produce innumerable labor-saving devices.

     The concept of biological evolution is one of the most important ideas ever generated by the application of scientific methods to the natural world. The evolution of all the organisms that live on Earth today from ancestors that lived in the past is at the core of genetics, biochemistry, neurobiology, physiology, ecology, and other biological disciplines. It helps to explain the emergence of new infectious diseases, the development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria, the agricultural relationships among wild and domestic plants and animals, the composition of Earth's atmosphere, the molecular machinery of the cell, the similarities between human beings and other primates, and countless other features of the biological and physical world. As the great geneticist and evolutionist Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote in 1973, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."

     Nevertheless, the teaching of evolution in our schools remains controversial. Some object to it on the grounds that evolution contradicts the accounts of origins given in the first two chapters of Genesis. Some wish to see "creation science"--which posits that scientific evidence exists to prove that the universe and living things were specially created in their present form--taught together with evolution as two alternative scientific theories.

     Scientists have considered the hypotheses proposed by creation science and have rejected them because of a lack of evidence. Furthermore, the claims of creation science do not refer to natural causes and cannot be subject to meaningful tests, so they do not qualify as scientific hypotheses. In 1987 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that creationism is religion, not science, and cannot be advocated in public school classrooms. And most major religious groups have concluded that the concept of evolution is not at odds with their descriptions of creation and human origins.

     This new edition of Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences is a companion volume to a publication released in 1998 by the Academy, Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science. That longer document is addressed to the teachers, educators, and policymakers who design, deliver, and oversee classroom instruction in biology. It summarizes the overwhelming observational evidence for evolution and explains how science differs from other human endeavors. It also suggests effective ways of teaching the subject and offers sample teaching exercises, curriculum guides, and "dialogues" among fictional teachers discussing the difficulties of presenting evolution in the classroom.

     This new edition of Science and Creationism has a somewhat different purpose. It, too, summarizes key aspects of several of the most important lines of the evidence supporting evolution. But it also describes some of the positions taken by advocates of creation science and presents an analysis of these claims. As such, this document lays out for a broader audience the case against presenting religious concepts in science classes. Both this document, and the earlier Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science, are freely available online at the Academy website (

     Scientists, like many others, are touched with awe at the order and complexity of nature. Indeed, many scientists are deeply religious. But science and religion occupy two separate realms of human experience. Demanding that they be combined detracts from the glory of each.

Bruce Alberts
National Academy of Sciences

*"The Global Positioning System: The Role of Atomic Clocks." Part of the series Beyond Discovery: The Path from Research to Human Benefit by the National Academy of Sciences (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1997). This document is also available at

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