Kenneth Miller and the fight for evolution in schools
18 August 2008
I’m not at all interested in being a superhero. In biology I’ve found something that I love doing, and I simply want to keep on doing it as well as I can
Editor’s note: Kenneth Miller is Professor of Biology at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island and co-author of several highly successful textbooks, as well as author of Finding Darwin's God (A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution). In 2005 he was a star witness for the prosecution in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District legal battle to keep Intelligent Design out of American high school classrooms. Here, he discusses Intelligent Design and describes his experiences in the trial in his new book Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Scientific Soul.
The beginning of the book outlines your idea of scientific America and the notion of "America's Soul". Can you explain that a little for our readers?
America is the greatest scientific nation in the world, and I think there is a reason for that. Specifically, I argue that the American tradition of rebellious individualism lends itself especially to the scientific process. To become an effective scientist, one has to be willing to go against the mold, to rebel against common wisdom. While such characteristics are frowned upon in more hierarchal societies, in ours they are celebrated. In addition, our culture celebrates practical skill and achievement far more than social position. You are what you can do, not where you came from – it’s the reason we’ve so welcoming of immigrants, and why immigrants form such a large part of our scientific workforce.
These characteristics combine to what I’ve referred to as the scientific “soul” of our country. I fear that our current squabbles over evolution are a sign that this soul may be in danger from the efforts of the “Intelligent Design” (ID) movement. Specifically, they have borrowed arguments and tactics from the academic left that depict science as a culturally driven enterprise rather than as a search for the truth about nature. Even if they fail in their goal to displace evolution from American schools, they may ultimately convince our youth that science is a politically and culturally tinged fraud that isn’t worth their time or trouble. That would be a prescription for the loss of our scientific “soul.”
Is it really just an American phenomenon?
Well, the ID movement was certainly born and bred in the US as a new strategy to conceal the creationist aims of its advocates. However, I believe that ultimately it springs from a reaction against the threats of scientific modernism and, as such, it will appeal to people in other nations as well. We have already seen significant inroads by the ID movement in Europe, and I suspect these are only the beginning.
The book is quite revealing, and you describe it as a personal journey. Can you explain more about this? Was there a defining moment that caused you to choose now as a time for reflection and analysis?
I will certainly admit that I write about my experiences in a personal way – it’s just the way I tell stories. When the Dover trial was over, I decided that it was time to write a new book on evolution, but not one focused on the trial itself – that’s a job for a reporter, and several people have done that very well indeed (most notably Lauri Lebo in her book, The Devil in Dover). Rather, I asked myself what was behind the motivations of those who produced the Dover case. I wanted to ask why they found evolution so threatening, and to explore their motivations. I also wanted to ask what such controversies mean for the future of American science.
Some of the great proponents of Intelligent Design are scientists, like Michael Behe. Given that the efforts of your fellow scientists ensure that this issue keeps going to trial, how do you not get exasperated?
I just don’t get exasperated very easily. I’ve met Michael in debate many times, and I deal with his arguments in the way one should always do with bad scientific ideas – by showing how and why they are mistaken. I think that the best strategy we in the scientific community can adopt is to be open and clear as to why the ID arguments are incorrect. If we explain this in clear and understandable ways, we’ll win the argument.
You talk about the ease of tackling “Creation Scientists” because they reject all relevant scientific knowledge. But then along came ID with a pernicious and carefully crafted message of “irreducible complexity”. What’s next for their movement?
Well, I think that “irreducible complexity” has been thoroughly debunked. It was a loser for ID during the Dover trial, and even its great advocate, Michael Behe, pretty much abandoned it in his latest book. But we don’t have to speculate about the next tactic of the ID movement, because it’s already being played out in states like Florida, Texas and Louisiana. It’s an appeal to “fairness” by legislating rules that use the language of academic freedom to ensure that “alternate” teaching materials and theories can be brought into the classroom. What they seek to do, of course, is to gain special protection for ID ideas that haven’t been able to gain any credibility within the scientific community.
Along those lines, do you think this is a battle that can be won? You point out that after the Kansas School Board ousted the IDers, they were back again after the next election.
Yes, I think the case for science can be made effectively, and I think the public struggle for hearts and minds can be won. When the IDers took over the Kansas Board in 2004, pro-science forces just weren’t paying attention. In 2006 they were, and pro-evolution candidates won the elections for state boards in Kansas and Ohio.
But increasingly it seems that people say they don't "believe" in evolution, at least where human beings are concerned.
I don’t think they are winning – but I do think the scientific community has been notoriously bad in taking its case to the public square. That’s why I give so many lectures on these issues, why I wrote Only a Theory, and why I urge my colleagues to help take back the public square. If that means doing things like going on The Colbert Report (which I’ve now done twice), we should do it.
What can those of us in the wider academic community do to help? Or is this a battle best left to the experts?
There are no experts in doing this, and it would be a mistake of the first order for the academic community to leave the battle to others. Our first responsibility in a democratic society is to act as citizens, and that means speaking up for science in our schools, our communities and our individual states.
But do people really listen when you try to make your case?
You’d be surprised how much attention and respect you will command at a local school board meeting once you identify yourself as a scientist.
What do you think has been your most difficult or most painful moment in this long struggle?
The most painful experience for me was meeting the Dover plaintiffs immediately before the start of the trial, and hearing them explain how difficult it had been for them to bring the case. They faced outright hostility from many of their friends and neighbors, and it took exceptional courage for them to stand and fight as they did. However, meeting them had a galvanizing effect on the other participants in the trial, myself included.
We became more determined than ever to win the case when we realized the extraordinary personal sacrifices they had made to stand up for science and for their Constitutional rights.
What about your favorite or most rewarding moment?
My favorite moments come when I get letters or emails from people who tell me that my lectures or writings have affected their lives. At first I didn’t know what to make of that, but I’ve gradually come to realize just how important evolution is in shaping one’s personal view of existence. My all-time favorite moment, however, came when I wasn’t even there. One of my daughters was flying back from a semester of study in Ireland when a total stranger in the seat next to her asked if she wanted to read a really good book. “Of course,” was her answer, and the stranger then plopped a copy of Finding Darwin’s God in her lap.
So, how much of your time is devoted to fighting the enemies of evolution?
Much less than you might think. Most of my time this summer has actually been devoted to writing a new high school biology textbook, and my coauthor Joe Levine is the one who writes the evolution sections. I write a few articles and give a score of talks on the subject every year, but mostly my time is spent on other pursuits, especially my teaching at Brown University and my family.
Would it be easier, do you think, if it came with super-powers and a cool outfit?
Heck, I’d like to be a little bit taller, stronger, and smarter – but wouldn’t we all? I’m not at all interested in being a superhero. In the science of biology I’ve found something that I love doing, and I simply want to keep on doing it as well as I can for as long as I can.
When you get time off from fighting IDers, what do you do to unwind? Do you have any hobbies or outside interests?
My wife and I live on a small farm, so much of my unwinding time is spent cleaning stalls and fixing fences. I was a competitive swimmer in high school and college, and continue to swim regularly. I also umpire high school and college fast-pitch softball, which provides a great release from my daily routine, not to mention real-life lessons in conflict resolution with almost every game!
Finally, who is your favorite scientist character in fiction and why?
It’s Martin Arrowsmith, the title character of the Sinclair Lewis novel. Arrowsmith is a medical student who is lured into basic research by an inspiring professor, and then becomes the co-discoverer (in the novel) of the bacteriophage. Arrowsmith is tempted by the rewards of wealth, prestige and academic position, but in every case he rejects them for the more personal satisfactions that come with basic research. It may be the first novel that successfully explored the culture of science, but I think it is still one of the best.