Sunday, August 12, 2007

Book Review: The Top 10 Myths About Evolution

A catchy title matched only by the cuteness of the cover. The first time I saw this book, I thought: "Oh no! Not more pseudoscience nonsense." Don't you worry, readers. It's not at all like that.

The Top 10 Myths About Evolution by Cameron M. Smith and Charles Sullivan is part evolution apologetic and part “Myth Busters” science writing. You'll not find any new arguments about the evolution debate if you are familiar with the controversy, but the short book does frame the discussion in a particularly accessible manner. Scientists who find themselves defending evolution to non-scientist Christians will find several useful historical vignettes, scientific points and rhetorical tools in this short book. The arguments against evolution are presented fairly, but it is clear that the intended reader is sympathetic to scientific perspectives.

Smith is an archaeologist and Sullivan is a college writing instructor. Ten Myths emerged from an article co-written by the two in Skeptical Inquirer. Published by Prometheus Books, Ten Myths is not particularly targeted to theist scientists – rare off-hand remarks are mildly derogatory of Christian fundamentalism – but it does not take much patience on behalf of the reader to extract the authors’ salient points. Criticisms of religion are balanced with a critique of naturism.

Smith and Sullivan cite in the introduction several reasons why the American public is confused about evolution. Public misunderstanding and ignorance of science is the result of poor science education and a paucity of good science programming in the media. The power of myth – here defined as explanatory story-telling – increases in influence in the context of poor background knowledge. In this context, it is most problematic for the authors when religious texts are used to provide scientific answers about the natural world. Ten Myths combats the misunderstandings of evolution in concise ten-page arguments that are for the most part freestanding.

The ten myths are presented in a logical order. The first chapters address the history of evolution (Survival of the Fittest, It’s Just a Theory, The Missing Link); next are surveys from a philosophy of science perspective (Evolution is Random, Nature’s Perfect Balance); the last chapter group identifies where evolution science and religion clash (Creationism Disproves Evolution, Intelligent Design is Science, Evolution is Immoral). Some of the sections clarify facts and history, while others present more difficult ideas. In the latter case, it sometimes feels like the conflict is oversimplified. Perhaps those chapters could beeffectively expanded in the context of a college 200-level defense of evolution course.

To satisfy the authors’ goal to provide a handbook that dispels myths about evolution, the chapters are well annotated with an extensive index that will help the reader return to a particular argument long after the initial read. The bibliography for each section is good, but not comprehensive. This is a short read (the body of the book consists of 120 of the 200 bound pages), and each chapter has a clever illustration of the myth to be debunked. This book is inexpensive and could be a useful resource for believing scientists wishing to better engage fellow Christians on the topic of evolution, or could introduce students or other individuals to some of the basics of the evolution debate. Folks with a good knowledge of evolution will have encountered these arguments before, but perhaps not in as a concise form.

The Top 10 Myths about Evolution by Cameron M. Smith and Charles Sullivan. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007. 200 pages, index. This review was written for the journal of the American Scientific Affiliation called Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith.

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