Science and Something Else: 
Religious Aspects of the NAS Booklet, "Science and Creationism"

David Price, John L. Wiester, and Walter R. Hearn

ASA Committee for Integrity in Science Education
762 Arlington Ave.
Berkeley, CA 94707

From: PSCF 42 (June 1990): 115-118.

Two booklets similar in format intended to help teachers cope with the so-called creation-evolution controversy are now circulating widely. In this communication the authors of one of them, Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy: A View from the American Scientific Affiliation (referred to here as "the ASA
booklet"),1 comment on its relation to the other, Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences (referred to here as "the NAS booklet").2 We also  comment on the NAS booklet's treatment of certain scientific and religious issues, which led us to attempt an alternative or complementary treatment in the ASA booklet.

This "tale of two booklets" begins when bills mandating "equal time" or "balanced treatment" for "scientific creationism" were introduced first in Iowa in 19773 and then in nearly a dozen other states.4 Perceiving a threat to science education and to the future of science, the National Academy of Sciences brought the directors of a
number of scholarly societies together in October 1981 at NAS headquarters in Washington, D.C., to discuss appropriate responses.5 In July 1983 James D. Ebert, vice president of NAS and president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, convened an NAS Workshop on Secondary School Science Textbooks to
see what could be done to maintain "the scientific integrity of science textbooks."6

In 1984 an eleven-member NAS Committee on Science and Creationism, chaired by Ebert, produced a 28-page booklet for science teachers entitled Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences. The committee had been authorized by the NAS Governing Council, which subsequently reviewed its report. The Commission on Life Sciences of the National Research Council provided staff support. The booklet acknowledged support of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation and others, which evidently financed an initial mailing to some 40,000 teachers in the United States. 

In 1984 the Executive Council of the American Scientific Affiliation established a Committee for Integrity in Science Education. The committee's original intent was to help textbook publishers strengthen their presentations of science while avoiding statements that could be interpreted as anti-religious by the conservative Christian
 community. Publication of Science and Creationism by NAS stimulated the ASA committee instead to produce its own booklet for teachers, using the NAS booklet as a model. In October 1986, the 48-page Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy: A View from the American Scientific Affiliation was published with the support of several foundations.  Some 20,000 copies were mailed to high school biology teachers in southern and western states. In February 1987, with further foundation support, a slightly revised version was printed and another 20,000 were mailed to high school biology teachers in the northeastern and midwestern states. In June 1989 an extensively revised version of the ASA booklet brought the total number in print to over 100,000 copies.

In its 1986 Preface (by John E. Halver, member of both ASA and NAS), the ASA booklet referred to the earlier booklet, observing that "to some readers the NAS booklet seemed to overstate its case-particularly with regard to human evolution."7 The two overstatements cited were (a) that "the `missing links' that troubled Darwin and his followers are no longer missing," and (b) that "a succession of well-documented intermediate forms
or species" leads from early primates to humans. The ASA booklet called the tone of those two statements "dogmatic rather than tentative" and said that they ignored "the current situation in anthropology."8

Without withdrawing its scientific criticism, the 1987 ASA booklet deleted the comment about the dogmatic tone of the two statements. Referring to their implication that the branching of hominids from other primates is well documented in the fossil record, the ASA booklet asserted that "the current situation in paleoanthropology is not that clear."9

Some critics who misread Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy as a "creationist tract" also misread it as a general attack on the NAS booklet. For example, in a critique of the 1986 version, U.C. Berkeley paleontologist Kevin Padian charged that Teaching Science "labels the NAS book `dogmatic'." "And what scientific authority is presented to challenge the NAS viewpoint?" he asked, using the phrase scientific authority three times in a five-paragraph critique. Padian suggested that if ASA "did not mean to challenge the scientific authority or integrity of NAS" but intended to influence "hard-line creationists," it should have mailed its booklet to "fundamentalist preachers" instead of to science teachers.10

Far from attacking or rejecting Science and Creationism, however, the 1989 ASA booklet recommends it as an additional resource "available to help teachers deal with `scientific creationism' in the classroom." The 1989 Preface of Teaching Science says of the NAS booklet: "It provided a broad summary of the evidence on which current scientific conclusions are based, but to some readers, its rejection of `special creation' seemed to imply rejection of a divine Creator. Further, it ignored certain unsolved problems that should be an integral part of scientific education." The 1989 wording about the two questionable scientific statements is: "In fact such documentation is far from complete."11

The two contested sentences in the NAS booklet leave the impression that the problems of human evolution have essentially been solved. Overstatements about scientific accomplishments make it more difficult for teachers to convey the challenge of ongoing research. Such overstatements, especially when made by "scientific authorities," also tend to exaggerate the contribution of science to human understanding.

Although the National Academy of Sciences is the most prestigious scientific body in the country, its booklet for teachers was not about science alone but about "science and something else." Indeed, in June 1987 the U.S. Supreme Court declared the "something else" in the NAS booklet's title to pertain to religion rather than to science. Recognizing that the NAS booklet is about science and religion, it is legitimate to ask how its authors have handled religious questions. The following comments are directed at some religious aspects of the NAS booklet.

1. "Religion and science are separate and mutually exclusive realms of human thought whose presentation in the same context leads to misunderstanding of both scientific theory and religious belief."12

In the Preface (pp. 5-6), NAS president Frank Press quoted the above sentence from a 1981 resolution of the NAS Council. Many persons trained in both science and theology would disagree with the concept of separate "realms of thought."  Even those who accept the statement in theory generally find it difficult to apply
in practice. It is worth noting, for example, that Press himself discussed both religion and science in the context of the same booklet, same preface, and same paragraph.

If "creationism" had been clearly defined in the Preface as a more limited religious concept than "creation," it would have been clearer that when Press used the term "creationists" he really meant "advocates of scientific creationism" or "participants in the creation science movement" rather than all people who believe in God as their Creator. All theists (including Christians, Jews, and Muslims) are creationists in that broad sense, but most theists would probably resent being identified with any movement that rejects well-established scientific conclusions.

A sentence beginning on the last line of p. 5 was probably intended to clarify the situation: "A great many religious leaders and scientists accept evolution on scientific grounds without relinquishing their belief in religious principles." That sentence would have provided more clarification if it had said: "A great many religious leaders and scientists see no conflict between the scientific theory of evolution and the religious doctrine of creation." As it stands, "without relinquishing their belief in religious principles" is too vague in a context in which creation is the specific religious principle under discussion.

Biological scientists legitimately object when weasel words like "biological change" or "development" are used in textbooks merely to avoid using the word evolution. It should be understood that the word creation is as well established and as honorable a word as evolution, even in our modern vocabulary.  It stands in opposition not to biological evolution but to "evolutionary naturalism" or "evolution-ism." Some individuals are "evolutionists" not only in the scientific sense but also in a philosophical (even pseudo-religious) sense. Of such persons it might be said that they "accept evolution on philosophical grounds without relinquishing their confidence in the scientific method." (To substitute the word religious or pseudo-religious in place of philosophical would of course be a belief for the word confidence.)

2. "The teachings of creationism as advocated by and exemplified in the writings of the leading proponents of `creation science' include the following judgments: (1) the earth and universe are relatively young, perhaps only 6,000 to 10,000 years old; (2) the present physical form of the earth can be explained by `catastrophism,' including a worldwide flood; and (3) all living things (including humans) were created miraculously, essenštially in the forms we now find them. These teachings may be recognized as having been derived from the accounts of
origins in the first two chapters of Genesis in the Bible."13

"Creation-ism" is here adequately defined in the NAS booklet, but a problem arises from a close identification of "creation science" (including its concept of an earth only a few thousand years old) with the biblical account of creation. It seems indisputable that "creation science" is derived from a particular reading of the first two chapters of Genesis, and that many proponents of creationism are primarily concerned with defending their interpretation of Genesis. Yet any distinction among various biblical interpretations is obscured in a reference in the following paragraph to "the hypothesis of special creation." That sentence reads: "In the forms given in the first two chapters of Genesis, it is now an invalidated hypothesis."

Even "special creation" is definable in various ways, and although the term is often associated with an instantaneous "fiat" or narrowly literal interpretation of Genesis, it may also apply to broader views. Theists who take the Genesis account seriously (not a synonym for "literally") generally do think of creation as something special, just as scientists (theistic and otherwise) refer to the origin of the universe as something special (i.e., as a "singularity"). But Genesis is not a scientific textbook and does not present scientific hypotheses. It is a religious book concerned about who is doing the creating and why. We look to the scientific disciplines to explore the questions of how and when.

Perhaps we have here an example of what Frank Press meant about misunderstandings that arise from mixing science and religion in the same context. Scientific investigation has invalidated not the early chapters of Genesis but a pseudo-scientific interpretation imposed on them by advocates of "creation science." It is ironic if the authors of the NAS booklet have accepted a theological interpretation of Genesis provided by "creation scientists," the very people whom they consider untrustworthy in scientific interpretation.

Further, it is hard to imagine the scientists on the NAS committee having such a narrow or "literal" view of the Bible that they actually "see" a scientific hypothesis in Genesis. There may be some theists among the eleven
members of the committee that produced the NAS booklet, but of course the listing of their names and positions does not indicate their interest or competence in theology. Four of the eleven not identified as scientists seem to be lawyers rather than theologians.14

3. "Generations of able and often devout scientists before us have sought evidence for these teachings without success. Foremost among these was Charles Darwin, a member in good standing of the Church of England and an officer of his parish church at Down, in Kent, for many years."15

After mentioning "able and often devout scientists" who sought evidence of a young earth and catastrophic worldwide flood, the NAS booklet introduces Charles Darwin as "foremost among these." Darwin may well have been foremost in scientific ability but few Christians would regard him as having ended up foremost
in religious devotion. It is perhaps unclear whether Darwin's journey away from religious faith took him all the way into atheism or merely into agnosticism, but it should have been clear that citing his church membership would raise a red flag to many Christians. According to Ernst Mayr, Darwin "abandoned Christianity"
as part of "his conversion to evolutionism."16

In the current climate of controversy over public education, science needs the support of religiously motivated citizens as well as of those who have no interest in religion or who are antagonistic to religion. It is therefore important to demonstrate that many great contributors to science have also been believers in the Bible. Isaac
Newton, cited on p. 10 as a mathematician and "natural philosopher," would have been a far better choice than Darwin for such a demonstration. Newton may have ended up as a rather unorthodox theist, but in the end he considered his theological explorations to be as important as his scientific writings.  "Scientists, like many others, are touched with awe at the order and complexity of nature. Religion provides one way for human beings to be comfortable with these marvels."17

Some atheistic scientists may consider the above statement in the Conclusion of the NAS booklet a sop to religiously motivated citizens to win their votes for increased support of research. Many religious persons, however, are likely to regard it as a subtle putdown of religion. The purpose of biblical religion is not to make us
"comfortable" with the marvels of nature. The scriptures of the major theistic religions supply an alternative way of looking at human personhood that includes personal and purposive elements excluded from a reductionistic scientific view.

The Bible depicts human beings not as products of blind chance but as individual persons created in God's image, without specifying in scientific language how that deliberate creation occurred, or how long it took. The sense of obligation engendered by identification with divine purpose is likely to make believers in the Bible decidedly un-comfortable-with our own moral status and with the status of our understanding of nature. Indeed, a biblical faith was a driving force behind the work of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Pascal, Faraday, and other scientific pioneers, and that remains true of thousands of scientists today. It is not insignificant that modern science "evolved" under the influence of a Judeo-Christian view of nature as orderly, consistent, and inspiring to study. After all, seen as "the creation," nature revealed something of the mind of God.
Even scientists who are not themselves theists build on the pioneering work of many scientists who were.



1Committee for Integrity in Science Education, American Scientific Affiliation, Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy: A View from the American Scientific Affiliation. Ipswich, MA: The American
Scientific Affiliation, 1986; second printing, revised, 1987; third printing, revised, 1989. (Available from ASA, P.O. Box 668, Ipswich, MA 01938.)
2Committee on Science and Creationism, National Academy of Sciences, Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1984. pp. 2-4. (Available from National Academy Press, 2101 Constitution Ave, N.W., Washington, DC 20418.)
3Stanley L. Weinberg, "Reactions to Creationism in Iowa," Creation/Evolution, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Fall 1980), pp. 1-8.
4"Update on Creation Bills and Resolutions,"
Creation/Evolution, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Winter 1981), inside back cover.
5"News Briefs: Committees of Correspondence," Creation/Evolution, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Spring 1983), pp. 38-41.
6Stuart W. Hughes, "Textbook Publishers Face Scientists and Educators," Creation/Evolution, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Spring 1983), pp. 33-34.
7Ref. 1, 1986 printing, p. 8.
8Ref. 1, 1986 printing, p. 42.
9Ref. 1, 1987 printing, p. 42.
10Kevin Padian, "And More," (letter), The Science Teacher, Vol. 54, No. 6 (Sept 1987), p. 64.
11Ref. 1, 1989 printing, pp. 8, 42, 45.
12Ref. 2, p. 6.
13Ref. 2, p. 7.
14Ref. 2, p. 3. The four are: Joseph H. Flom of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, New York, NY; Peter Barton Hutt of Covington & Burling, Washington, DC; David I. Shapiro of Dickstein, Shapiro & Morin, Washington, DC; and Laurence H. Tribe, Tyler Professor of Constitutional Law, Harvard Law School, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
15Ref. 2, p. 7.
16Ernst Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1982. pp. 401, 402.
17Rev. 2, p. 26.