Friday, December 23, 2005

Evolution named 2005's top scientific breakthrough

Evolution named 2005's top scientific breakthrough

By Deborah Zabarenko

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two days after a U.S. judge struck down the teaching of intelligent design theory in a Pennsylvania public school, the journal Science on Thursday proclaimed evolution the breakthrough of 2005.

Wide-ranging research published this year, including a study that showed a mere 4 percent difference between human and chimpanzee DNA, built on Charles Darwin's landmark 1859 work "The Origin of Species" and the idea of natural selection, the journal's editors wrote.

"Amid this outpouring of results, 2005 stands out as a banner year for uncovering the intricacies of how evolution actually proceeds," they wrote. "Ironically, also this year, some segments of American society fought to dilute the teaching of even the basic facts of evolution."

The journal's editor in chief, Don Kennedy, acknowledged this was a reference to the rise of the theory of intelligent design, which holds that some aspects of nature are so complex that they must be the work of an unnamed creator rather than the result of random natural selection, as Darwin argued.

Opponents, including many scientists, argue it is a thinly disguised version of creationism -- a belief that the world was created by God as described in the Book of Genesis -- which the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled may not be taught in public schools.

"I think what arouses the ire of scientists (about intelligent design) is ... the notion that it belongs in the same universe as scientific analysis," Kennedy said in a telephone interview.

"It's a hypothesis that's not testable, and one of the important recognition factors for science and scientific ideas is the notion of testability, that you can go out and do an experiment and learn from it and change your idea," said Kennedy. "That's just not possible with a notion that's as much a belief in spirituality as intelligent design is."

Intelligent design theory came under review in two U.S. states this year, with a federal judge in Pennsylvania on Tuesday banning the teaching of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in the Dover Area School District.

In Kansas, the state Board of Education approved public school standards that cast doubt on evolutionary theory.

Kennedy said Science picked evolution as the year's biggest breakthrough in part because it was a "hot topic," but stressed there was a wealth of research that justified the choice.

Other breakthroughs in the journal's Top 10 include research in planetary exploration, the molecular biology of flowers, the violent ways of neutron stars, the relationship between genetics and abnormal human behavior, the new field of cosmochemistry, a protein that controls the flow of potassium ions to cells, fresh evidence of global warming, an engineering approach to molecular biology and superconductivity.

Areas to watch for in 2006, according to Science, include the avian flu, ultra-high-energy cosmic rays and the possible sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker, long presumed extinct but rediscovered in 2004.