Is Evolution An Active, Accepted Area Of Science ?

One Creationist's Claim

A Creationist stated to me:
"Now if you were really up to speed on scientific literature, say for instance: The Indexes of Biochemistry, you would find out that out of 145,000 entries (in recent years) ONLY 146 made what could be termed a reference to Evolution. Indeed, that is only about 0.1%."
"I will list a few biochemistry textbooks used in major universities that totally ignore, zero references, to evolution."
He did indeed have names of texts, and he offered me the 146 references. The implication, of course, is that evolution is not that important to science, as some famous evolutionists claim (Dobzhansky, Mayr, Ridley).

A Scientist's Answer

I went to PubMed, the central index of life sciences journals, and searched for "evolution". I got over 180,000 hits.

How could the Biochemistry index be so far off? Well, biochem is just the chemistry of life processes. Evolutionary biology is a different science, and the biochemical aspects of that are covered in (for example) the International Conference On Biochemical Evolution, the Journal Of Molecular Evolution and Journal Of Evolutionary Biochemistry and Physiology. Clearly the Index in question doesn't pick those up, just as it doesn't pick up Trends In Ecology And Evolution, Development Genes And Evolution or Journal of Mammalian Evolution.

So, the number "146" doesn't begin to count the actual rate of publication about evolution, much less the totals over the last century. The Stanford library catalog has 7700 items under "evolution". But if you count journals, magazines, newsletters, and conference proceedings, scientists and academics have perhaps 10,000 outlets in which they publish. Not all of these are prestigious. So, let's ask how evolution is treated by the very top journals that cover all of science. Without question, the two most prestigious are Science and Nature. Both publish weekly in a magazine format.

It's easy to visit Science's web page. A simple search showed that Science publishes about one article a week that the editors categorize as Evolution. (More detail)

It's also easy to visit Nature's web site. A simple search showed that about 11% of their articles contain the word "evolution". On average, they publish more than one evolution article a week. (More detail)

I own two general college-level biology textbooks. Both try to survey all of biology, so it's interesting to ask how much space they give to evolution. Purves and Orians give it 250 of 1210 pages; Campbell gives it 261 of 1165 pages. So, these undergraduate texts agree that evolution is about 20% of biology. (More detail)

To sum up, evolution is a large and active area of science. Articles which accept evolution as valid science are printed several times a week in the most prestigious scientific journals.

More Detail: Science

I clicked on Science's "Browse subject collections" button and discovered myself on their collections page. According to the numbers there, Science published 158 Evolution articles in the last 41 months. (That's the number of months from March 1999 back to when they started running a web site.)

If you go through the free "registration", you can read summaries of these articles for yourself. Here's a short but typical one that I found at the top of list:

The Adequacy of the Fossil Record

The contributors discuss theoretical issues, quantitative approaches, and case studies demonstrating that the incomplete fossil record provides data adequate for examining a wide range of evolutionary questions.

The problem with this article is that it was classified under Evolution, under Geophysics, and under Paleontology. I added up the counts for all the categories on the page, and Evolution's count is about 2% of the total. But as I just showed, articles can be in several categories, so the 158 articles more likely represent 3% to 6% of what Science publishes. I read this journal, and I see many more articles which assume evolution, but which aren't directly about it.

More Detail: Nature

Nature also allows limited web access after a free registration. However, unlike Science, the editors do not classify articles for me. Using their "simple search" feature, "evolution" hit on 990 out of 8808 online articles (as of March 1999). That's about 11%.

However, text searching causes some nuisance problems. Searching for "evolution" found some articles that weren't about biological evolution. And, when I searched for "evolution or speciation or fossil", I got 1503 hits. So, searching just for the word "evolution" gives only an estimate of the real situation.

I tried searching only in the Genetics database. This removed all the non-biological articles, so "evolution" jumped up to 14%. However, searching for "evolution or evolve or speciation" now gets 24%. So, the concepts of evolution come into possibly 20-25% of Nature Genetics articles.

Here's a reasonably typical Nature article summary:

A molecular timescale for vertebrate evolution

A timescale is necessary for estimating rates of molecular and morphological change in organisms and for interpreting patterns of macroevolution and biogeography. Traditionally, these times have been obtained from the fossil record, where the earliest representatives of two lineages establish a minimum time of divergence of these lineages. The clock-like accumulation of sequence differences in some genes provides an alternative method by which the mean divergence time can be estimated. Estimates from single genes may have large statistical errors, but multiple genes can be studied to obtain a more reliable estimate of divergence time. However, until recently, the number of genes available for estimation of divergence time has been limited. Here we present divergence-time estimates for mammalian orders and major lineages of vertebrates, from an analysis of 658 nuclear genes. The molecular times agree with most early (Palaeozoic) and late (Cenozoic) fossil-based times, but indicate major gaps in the Mesozoic fossil record. At least five lineages of placental mammals arose more than 100 million years ago, and most of the modern orders seem to have diversified before the Cretaceous/Tertiary extinction of the dinosaurs.

More Detail: Textbooks

The biology textbooks I used are:
Life, The Science of Biology, Second Edition, Purves and Orians, Sinauer Associates 1987

Biology, Second Edition, Campbell, Benjamin/Cummings 1990

Last modified: 4 September 2006

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