KONRAD LORENZ, the Nobel Prize-winning naturalist, once remarked: "I believe I've found the missing link between animals and civilized man: it is us." Perhaps, but it is sobering to realize that every fool you meet is the product of millions of years of evolution. Indeed, millennia from now the Earth may be inhabited by beings who will deny stoutly that they ever descended from us!

Yet, here we are--five centuries since Copernicus, three since Newton, one since Darwin--still debating in this, the most technologically advanced nation, over the fundamental findings and methodologies for explaining the origin and evolution of the world. During the lifetime of a current high school student, we have landed men on the moon, sent probes past Saturn, and have delved into the gene. For some, however, all this has been for nought.

A paleontologist and curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, Niles Eldredge here gives a highly partisan but thoroughly compelling analysis of "creationism," the belief that the cosmos, the earth, and life were separate acts of a supreme supernatural Creator, essentially in literal accord with Genesis 1. He carefully, methodically argues for evolution--the idea that all 10 million or so species of organisms descended from a common ancestor and that earth, life, and man were formed by natural processes, requiring billions of years.

How odd it is that such a book would be remotely au courant in 1982, 57 years since the Scopes trial. Yet, as recently as January of this year, when struck down by a federal judge, a law in Arkansas would have mandated the teaching of creationism along with evolution in public schools there. Even now, similiar lawsuits are pending in Georgia and Louisiana.

And a judge in Georgia recently charged that "this monkey mythology of Darwin is the cause of permissiveness, promiscuity, pills, prophylactics, perversions, pregnancies, abortions, pornotherapy, pollution, poisoning, and proliferation of crimes of all types."

Ironically, as Eldredge points out, the Old Testament documents the existence of many similiar ills plaguing society thousands of years ago, yet, presumably, no one was teaching evolution then. Some creationists seem more concerned about what man descended from than what he ascends to.

Creationists argue that there are two competing "theories" or "models," and then ask: which would you prefer your child to believe? As Eldredge notes, "by claiming the two models are equally viable, they appeal to the traditional American sense of 'fair play' to include both in the school curriculum."

But Eldredge marshals extensive evidence--from scientific findings to philosophical analyses--to demonstrate that "creation-science isn't science at all, nor have creation scientists managed to come up with even a single intellectually compelling, scientifically testable statement about the natural world."

Unquestionably, modern evolution theory is incomplete; but it is not incorrect. To discard it would be to discard biology, chemistry, anthropology, astronomy-- all of modern science. That science remains incomplete surprises only the non-scientist, for the scientist knows that while the "facts" of his field reveal wondrous beauty, the incompleteness of it gives challenge and makes it worth pursuing. Wisdom comes not in knowing the answer but in realizing how many questions remain.

The cardinal tragedy of the current creationism debate is what it reveals about the nation's level of education--particularly of science education. Moreover, as Eldredge argues, "we must insist on the integrity of our children's education in science: for scientific illiteracy will send the United States on a severe and straighter path to hell than ever will that idea we call evolution." Such an education should have at heart more than facts and observations; the student soon may forget them, and newer, better ones will be found anyway. Rather, the student should learn not only the findings of science but also its methodologies, so as to be able to differentiate science from nonscience, especially from pseudoscience. Eldredge touches on some characteristics of scientific theories, and several others could be mentioned.

Scientific theories should be: in accord with the facts; capable of correlating many separate facts into a logical, coherent whole; free from internal inconsistency; based upon few hypotheses and no ad hoc postulates; capable of suggesting future events; repeatable, testable, and potentially vulnerable.

This last characteristic distinguishes genuine science from many other practices and belief systems, such as magic, miracles, pseudoscience, and creationism.

With respect to creationism, Eldredge sums up the matter well: "It seems to me that the beauty and relevance of Genesis 1 are neither threatened nor enhanced by modern science. Why can't we just let it be and get on with the job of understanding ourselves and our world in our respective, time-honored ways?"

I, however, would put it more broadly. If properly understood, these two great areas of thought, dogma, methodology and belief--science and theology--need not conflict. To paraphrase Abb,e Georges Lemaitre, the renowned Jesuit cosmologist, science deals with how, when, where, and what, whereas theology deals with why and who.