Only a Theory -- Review

ONLY A THEORY: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul. By Kenneth R. Miller. New York: Viking, 2008. xi + 244 pages.

There is a battle afoot, and it’s a battle for America’s scientific soul. Biologist Kenneth Miller puts the current debate over intelligent design and evolution in the starkest of terms. It is a battle that could have strong implications for America’s future, because the Intelligent Design movement has as its ultimate objective the redefinition of science. Ironically, it is doing this by introducing relativism into the conversation.

Miller is a devout Catholic, so his is not an antireligious rant or a defense of liberalism secularism. What it is ultimately, is a defense of America’s long standing commitment to the sciences. Science, we’re told is especially suited for the American people.

“Disrespect – that’s the key. It’s the reason that our country has embraced science so thoroughly, and why America has served as a beacon to scientists from all over the world. A healthy disrespect for authority is part of the American character, and it permeates our institutions, including the institution of science.” (p. 11).

As a people, Americans are pragmatic, practical, and willing to question commonly held understandings. From the earliest days of our history, we’ve been pushing boundaries, asking questions, probing the unknown. That is our identity, and it’s the reason why America is the greatest scientific country in the world.

Although Americans have had a high regard for science and for scientists themselves, that is changing. This is true in large part because of efforts by anti-evolution forces to undermine one of the basic tenets of science, the theory of evolution. Miller repeats information that has been shared widely, that nowhere else in the Western World is evolution held in such disrepute as in America. All of this is a threat to America’s scientific soul.

If the scientific soul of America is in danger, what is its primary threat? One could suggest that the culprit is creationism, but creationism is too rooted in fundamentalism to be a true threat. It is true that Americans have long been uncomfortable with Charles Darwin and his theories, but for the most part this has had to do with human origins than anything. Creationism was ultimately not a scientific threat because it wasn’t serious science. It was simply an attempt to replace modern science with the Bible. Then along came Philip Johnson and the Intelligent Design movement. This movement has taken a totally new and different tactic. It has drawn its support from many of the supporters of creationism, but it has sought to posit itself as a scientific alternative, not a religious one. This movement has sought to tap into unease with evolution to recast science.

Miller writes as a central participant in the give and take between the “scientific establishment” and its Intelligent Design detractors. He has spoken across the country, including in Kansas (one of the battleground states) and was a featured witness at the Dover, PA trial that unmasked Intelligent Design’s religious foundations. Part of his effort here is to ground the scientific claims for evolution – suggesting that it is a mistake to claim that evolution is “only a theory.” It is a theory, but it is more than a theory, it is the foundation of modern biology and integral to modern science. While the theory is undergoing constant reevaluation and updating the basic principles remain unchallenged – those principles include common descent and natural selection.

When it comes to explaining the natural world, Miller contrasts Evolutionary theory with Intelligent Design, and finds that Intelligent Design comes up short. Even its vaunted theory of Irreducible Complexity is ultimately a failure. But not only is this theory of Irreducible Complexity a failure as a scientific theory, it is a threat to the scientific method. Michael Behe’s theory, which is illustrated by a mouse trap, insists that the eye, for instance, is so intricate and complex, that the only explanation for it must be a designer. So complex is it that there’s no reason to continue working on a solution – just accept the fact that we need a designer. Miller, however, shows how scientists have pushed this “problem” further and have found solutions and explanations – solutions and explanations that make sense of the data, but which Behe suggested couldn’t be found. The problem with Intelligent Design as a scientific explanation, is that it ultimately short-circuits the scientific enterprise.

If Intelligent Design fails as science – Miller makes a compelling case for this conclusion – why has it drawn the attention of so many? Miller puts his finger on the central issue. By and large most Americans are not concerned about the ancestry and descent of the animal kingdom. They’re not all that concerned about the age of the earth – unless they’re biblical literalists. What they are concerned about is the meaning and purpose of human life. If humans share common ancestry with the animals, then it might be supposed that we are merely animals. No more and no less – accidents of evolution. This is where things get difficult and where ID has grabbed people’s attention. By challenging Darwin, they believe they can rescue the meaning and purpose of human life.

“Such notions of accidentality, of randomness, are much more than a rhetorical device intended to put evolution at odds with the notion of divine purpose. They are instead an attempt to argue, by careful use of terminology, that our own lives will become pointless, disconnected, and meaningless if we dare to accept what scientists have been telling us about evolution, and that society as a whole will fall apart as a result” (p. 140).

The degradation of human society, it’s loss of moral foundations, can be traced, it is argued, to the teaching of evolution in our schools.

In response to this challenge, Miller suggests that things may not be as accidental as we’ve been led to believe. There are, he suggests, constraints built into the system by nature. Evolution is a contingent process – when change happens it is the result of other factors – not mere randomness. But it is not merely contingency that drives evolution, there is also convergence. Here Miller introduces us to adaptive space. Although we can say that the evolutionary scenario won’t run the same way twice, by taking into consideration adaptive space we can see that as evolution explores adaptive space it will produce organisms that fit that space. To give an example, after each extinction there have been new kinds of beings produced, but each time we have seen them fill the same niches. The environment itself produces the constraints on development. A more contemporary example is Australia. Australia’s native mammals are marsupials. Interestingly enough, marsupials have filled all of the adaptive spaces, including hunter-predators (dingos), burrowing animals, and tree climbers. The key to understanding evolution is this: while the details might not be predictable, the general outcome is. Ultimately the question that begs to be answered concerns whether “the appearance of humans, or something like them, was a certainly once the evolutionary process got going” (p. 151). Miller suggests that given all that we know, it is certainly likely that our niche would eventually be filled. It might be different in details, but not necessarily in outcome.

To answer this question of meaning, Miller proposes an “evolutionary cosmology,” an attempt to view the universe and understand our place in it.

We may be one among many, but we are the only one that can actually catalog and value diversity, and the only one that can act in a way that will directly and consciously affect the future of this planet. This is an awesome responsibility, and it infuses every human life with meaning and value” (p. 155).

Evolution is not a threat to human meaning. Nor, does Miller believe that it is anti-God. The problems with God emerge when we insist that Genesis teaches science. But, that is not necessary, as John Paul II and St. Augustine both have suggested. Indeed, Augustine spoke of a universe that wasn’t fully formed and underwent a process of self-transformation (evolution?). If we follow the lead of Augustine, then we can have a broader understanding of the universe and God’s place in it, an understanding that allows both God and evolution to exist.

We must return to the central thesis of the book. Science is close to the center of the American soul. It has thrived in America because it is rooted in America’s practical and pragmatic character. Until recently science has been immune from politics, in part because the issues where it has been involved have had to do with application of science and not its methodology. This has changed in recent years. The Intelligent Design proponents have attempted to redefine science by introducing relativism into what seemed like a fairly straightforward enterprise. Borrowing from Alan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, Miller suggests that the same principles introduced to the humanities by the academic left have been introduced to the sciences by the religious right. Bloom had believed that the sciences would be immune from this problem, but Miller suggests otherwise.

Intelligent Design may not have produced any scientific theories, but it has raised questions in the American mind about the “objectivity” of science. Philip Johnson and his partisans have charged that science is beholden to an antireligious rationalist philosophy. Ultimately what it has done is challenge the Enlightenment foundations of modern science. Thus science must be redefined so that it no longer poses a threat. The problem is that if theistic science, which is what ID is, should win then empirical science would give way to something very subjective, one that abandon’s the basic principle of science, which is seeking natural explanations for natural phenomenon. Indeed, William Dembski suggested that the rainbow might just be the gift of a whimsical designer, to which he replies: “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?” (P. 197). What is the problem with this approach? Ultimately, if we accept as suitable explanations for natural phenomenon, supernatural intervention, then there would be little reason to continue the “empirical search for the truth of the natural world” (p. 197).

As one who embraces the idea that we are living in a post-modern age, Miller’s book might seem like a last gasp of modernism. In some ways, his book stands as a rejection of some tenets of post-modern understandings. That being said, his is an important warning to all of us, inside science and out. If we settle for easy answers, then we will not continue the pursuit of truth. Instead of “fixing” science, Intelligent Design could destroy it. How? By undermining our trust in science, by introducing politics into the scientific process, and by changing the nature of science itself. He sees Dover, PA as Intelligent Design’s Gettysburg. It pushed the scientific community to the edge of defeat, but in the end, it failed to achieve its goals. It couldn’t demonstrate its scientific foundations and was revealed to be inherently religious. It was essentially unmasked.

Miller wants to take Intelligent Design seriously, and does so by trying to apply its theories to scientific questions. Finding that to be a dead end, he raises the question of why ID has done so well. Its selling point is simple – it has, in the minds of many, made sense of why we are here. They have given comfort to those seeking meaning in life. The problem is that “it cannot tell us why our bodies are ‘designed’ the way they are, and it has no explanation for the patterns of the fossil record or our similarities to other organisms – except to claim that that was simply the way the designer chose to make us” (p. 220). In the end, evolution, not ID has the data to explain how we got here.

As a Christian and a pastor, I affirm the Creator. I do not, however, look to scripture for my science. Science and scripture offer two different stories that cover the same phenomenon. One tells me why, the other how. Both take some faith, especially if one wishes to keep them together. Because of my desire to keep these two together, I signed the Clergy Letter and observe Evolution Sunday (Weekend). I do this because I have come to believe that not only is ID bad for science, it's bad for Christianity. I find in Miller's book to be a challenge to people of faith to pursue truth to its final end. If we're to do this we mustn't short circuit that task in the name of faith. America’s scientific soul depends on this, as does our spiritual health.

Miller’s book is essential reading. In part, because it completely in my mind destroys the challenge of Intelligent Design without seeking to destroy one’s faith. He is, after all, a person of faith himself. But, as a scientist he understands that we must pursue natural explanations for natural events. Augustine would be pleased!


Anonymous said…
"Augustine would be pleased" asserts Bob. But Eric counters that Socrates would not be pleased. Soc caused a mental revolution by setting aside the quest for scientific inquiry. He said nature (physis) was much less interesting than soul. He pursued the perfecting of the soul for a lifetime; and western civilization hatched from his project.

Anyone interested in science cannot escape the fact that science is a belief system which requires consciousness (soul/mind/geist). There must be seen here a unity. To this end I urge honest inquirers to pick up a copy of Nick Herbert's book, Elemental Mind. Therein is the physics of the big question of consciousness laid out for all to see.

Those who assert a science separate from faith have cut the baby in half.

Robert Cornwall said…

I appreciate the comments, but I need to push here on the definition of science. Miller does affirm that science involves faith, it involves faith because science involves risk. But the point that he makes clearly is that if you take up ID and posit a designer whenever you come up with a seeming barrier, you won't pursue the truth. You need to read his treatment of Behe's eye analogy. He demonstrates clearly that this is not irreducible complexity.
Anonymous said…
Bob, thanks for the reading assignment "tit-for-tat."
I've ordered Only a Theory from the public library, for a look at Behe's eye analogy. I hope you enjoy Nick Herbert's book.

Regarding your definition of science: I ask that you ponder whether we would even have Aristotle (the "father of science") without Socrates (and the 'perfecting of the soul.') We've got a synergy here, not unlike that between Athens and Jerusalem. You simply can't do science without the tool of consciousness (belief).


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