Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul
Kenneth Miller, Viking Adult, 256 pages, $25.95
The best parts of Kenneth Miller’s Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul are surprisingly those parts that deal only incidentally with his thesis: that the battle waged against evolution in the United States represents a threat to America’s culture of scientific excellence. The “only a theory” of his title refers to the critique often raised against evolution — it’s only a theory, so what’s wrong with evaluating alternatives?
The book can be roughly divided into three parts: First, Miller argues that the attack on evolution is dangerous to America’s scientific “soul”; second, he evaluates the scientific evidence for intelligent design (ID) theory; and finally, he offers an articulation of Darwinian evolution in light of his own Christian beliefs. In parts two and three, Miller is at his best. A professor of cell biology at Brown University, he is well qualified to analyze the scientific arguments of ID proponents. Miller spends most of his time on the idea of “irreducible complexity” (as advanced by Lehigh biology professor Mike Behe) and “specified complexity” (from the work of mathematician and philosopher William Dembski). No dunces themselves, Behe and Dembski are leaders in the ID movement, and Miller’s critique of their ideas is what it should be — an honest account of scientists, arguing science with other scientists. Miller remains unconvinced of the power of ID’s scientific arguments, and comports himself well. Anyone who wants to effectively defend intelligent design will need to wrestle with Miller’s counterarguments.
Of course, he does make a few mistakes in the discussion. He states at one point that, “from the ID perspective . . . descent with modification, which is another name for evolution, never took place.” This despite the clear statement of Behe that he has no quarrel with descent with modification. Miller erroneously takes ID to mean that every species was specially created and ignores those who are friendly to ID only in relation to the origin of life or the origin of certain unique biological features. He tries to recast ID as a less-explicitly-religious version of special creationism, and then seeks to demolish that straw man. While there are certainly many who claim the ID mantle and do believe in special creation, Miller’s arguments are irrelevant to those who think that Darwinian mechanisms explain most, but not perhaps all, of the history of life.
Miller is a Catholic by his own description, and spends a good deal of time defending evolution against the charge that it necessarily implies meaninglessness, and that man is nothing more than a complex animal. To that end, he offers his own perspective on evolution, and though he lacks the training of a philosopher or theologian — and indeed does not focus his writing on this theme — he comes off well. Miller offers an elegant and plausible image of evolution, wherein the Creator designed the initial conditions of the universe where “the capacity for life is built into matter.” In such a fine-tuned universe, both life and man are bound to develop, and thus are not mere accidents. Life is rather part of the intrinsic design of the universe, not the product of a violent and miraculous divine intervention. Miller thus acknowledges the fine-tuning of the universe for life and says that the atheistic explanation for this — the “multiverse” concept — is “an element of the imagination as wild as any tale in a sacred book” and “requires an extraordinary level of ‘faith,’ and the nonreligious would do well to admit as much.”
Not all of Miller’s book is as successful. He both overestimates the ostensible danger of the ID movement to science and underestimates the threat of the “evolutionist” movement to society.
Here’s what Miller thinks ID has in store for America:
What would happen to science if its ground rules were changed? What would a science of the future look like if we considered “nonnaturalistic” causes to be legitimate scientific explanations? At a stroke they would be accepted in every branch of science. That earthquake devastating part of the third world might have been caused by the shifting of tectonic plates, but it could also be a punishment for the sinfulness of those now suffering in the rubble. Why bother to conduct in exhaustive molecular search through simian virus genomes to find the source of HIV when clear-thinking ID scholars have concluded that it was sent as a divine warning against deviant lifestyles? In fact even the rainbow might just be a phenomenon presented to us by a “whimsical” designer, according to ID theorist William Dembski. Why worry about the physics of light when the mystery of the rainbow can be solved by easy reference to the personality of the creator?
Leaving aside the simple point that phenomena like earthquakes and rainbows might be explicable both by reference to Divine Will and physics, Miller himself provides counter-evidence in his very own book. If ID is so willing to turn a blind eye to science, why was Miller’s critique so technical? Why does he provide a note appended to the passage above wherein he quotes Dembski as saying, with respect to a certain type of rainbow phenomenon, “Clouds have to be cirrus, at least four miles in the air, with just the right amount of ice crystals; and the sun has to hit the clouds at 58 degrees”? That doesn’t sound like someone willing to ignore science in favor of elevating all physical phenomena to miracles of God.
Miller further ignores the rich history of science wherein investigators who believed themselves to be discovering God’s designs were motivated — not hindered — by that belief. At one point Miller mentions Isaac Newton as a man who believed in God but didn’t rely on Him to explain science. That’s good as far as it goes, but it ignores the important fact that Newton proposed that God needed to step in from time to time to correct the irregularities in the orbits of planets he observed. Eventually a natural explanation was found, but Newton’s willingness to employ divine intervention did not invalidate his science.
The proponents of ID may very well be wrong — and Miller takes on their claims adeptly — but they are by no means the dangers to progress he makes them out to be.
And that leads into the main weakness of his book: his apparent blindness to the dangers of the “evolutionist” movement. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a high school biology teacher who uses Miller’s impressive biology textbook from Prentice-Hall as my primary text for instructing students. I can attest that Miller’s concern about scientific ignorance is entirely valid. I’ve actually had students ask me, “Since the Bible tells us how God did it, why do we need to study science?”
But in identifying that problem, Miller ignores the far greater danger of evolutionism, as represented by the likes of Richard Dawkins — the harrowing realization of Dostoyevsky’s Ivan Karamazov: If there is no God, then anything is possible. His argument that evolution need not be an anti-religious theory is certainly true, but it nevertheless continues to be the primary weapon atheists use to attack religious faith. Advising religious believers that they shouldn’t fear evolution is like telling Jews they shouldn’t fear the swastika — it may be strictly true, but one can hardly blame them for being suspicious.
Instead of joining arms to defend evolution with those who use it as a cudgel against faith, Miller might stake out his own niche and turn his polemic against those who use science to attack religion.