Only a Theory by Kenneth Miller
18 August 2008
His premise is simple: if you want to replace evolution, you have to be able to do at least as good a job as evolution does at explaining our natural world
Know thy self, know thy enemy. A thousand battles, a thousand victories.” So said Sun Tzu the great (although probably apocryphal) Chinese general in 500 BCE. In The Art of War, Sun Tzu exhorts would-be leaders: understand your strengths and use them, identify your weaknesses and rectify them. Then, if you know your enemy as well as yourself, victory is guaranteed.
When I was in graduate school in rural Pennsylvania, my local church was Reformed Presbyterian. “Reformed” means they adhered strictly to the inerrancy of the Bible and its teachings. For example, the great majority of my brethren shared the core belief of direct and literal translation of the Bible. This, of course, means they were also creationists, believing that God made the earth and heavens, quite literally, in 6 days and all about 6000 years ago. So what was I, a geneticist no less, doing in such a den of religious conservatism? Well, I was being a scientist.
Since leaving home at age eighteen I had gradually drifted away from the comfort of my Roman Catholic upbringing, and was feeling spiritually bereft. I suppose I could be best described as agnostic, but that term stuck in my throat. It seemed like a cop-out – a lazy way to avoid having to make a difficult decision. So I did the only thing I knew how to do: I studied. I bought books on Christian theology, primers on Hinduism and Islam, Buddhism and meta-physics. And I read. But, like a good junior scientist, I knew that I couldn’t get everything I needed out of a book. True empirical science demands rigorous, controlled experimentation, so I went back to church. I favored a Judeo-Christian interpretation of my faith, and I had already been to “liberal” Episcopalian and Anglican churches, so I decided to find a good old fashioned blood-and-thunder, evangelical missionary church to attend.
And boy did I find one.
I wasn’t the only academic to attend Cedarhills, but I was the only biologist. There were a few engineers, the odd physicist or two, but the majority were just Joe Public in all his guises. Not long after becoming a member of the church I was invited along to the “men’s prayer luncheon”, an often animated meeting held weekly at one of the university dining halls. The prayer part was almost perfunctory, with a quick Grace before the meal, and then the fireworks would start. A couple of the guys were brilliant antagonists and enjoyed baiting some of our more radical members when they made silly comments about how they were going to sue the TV cable company because they were “forced” to get some TV stations that carried content they felt was sinful, like The Howard Stern Show.
My favorite game was trying to engage the guys in debate about their creationist beliefs. In retrospect, I was fairly naïve in my approach and there are two books I wish I’d had the opportunity to read back then. One is the Intelligent Design (ID) “bible”, Darwin’s Black Box by Michael Behe, the notorious pro-ID scientist. The other is Ken Miller’s latest book, Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul. Reading Behe’s book would have given me a solid grounding in the pseudoscience underlying ID and would have left me less open to some of the attacks I received from the more well-read members of the congregation. Miller’s would have given me the understanding necessary to carefully undermine their arguments. More importantly it would have identified the real threat to “America’s scientific soul”: creationism masquerading as liberal academic free thinking.
At these meetings, some of the discussions about evolution were quite memorable, and I certainly enjoyed them. Often the issue was just a fundamental lack of understanding about how the accumulation of mutations leads to speciation over (usually) enormous amounts of time. To some, arguments like these will be familiar: “So if evolution is real, why don’t we see foxes turning into wolves and stuff?” In situations like this I would often give brief explanations and then follow up with lengthy email discussions. Not everyone was convinced, but I don’t think it’s possible to convince everyone. Sometimes I just got nonsensical screed about how radiocarbon dating was inherently flawed and unreliable, or about how Noah really did build an ark (“then where did he get the armadillos from?” I would ask. “Oh they were made afterwards…right. How convenient.”).
In some cases one just cannot penetrate the shield of the creationist mythos. An irrational belief in a young universe despite all the evidence to the contrary betrays, I think, an underlying weakness of faith and an associated fear of exposure. For them to question too deeply their behavior, or to truly study and rationalize their faith would risk destroying the absolute morality guiding their existence. It allows them to be able to blindly deny all the evidence to the contrary, to be able to simply say, “because God said so,” whenever questioned about something they don’t understand, or to just say “Don’t question that. It’s God’s will” whenever faced with uncomfortable truths. This creates a conservative ego that will blindly carry on doing what it’s told, relying on the safety of irrational ill-education and misplaced belief to put all the responsibility for life and change on the shoulders of leaders, and finally God. It shirks personal accountability absolutely.
These sorts of people are legion. And they scare the living Bejeesus out of me.
These are the people who say man has no influence on climate change. God made us stewards of the earth, so we can do what we want, when we want. These are also the people who got elected to school boards around the country and pushed to have “alternative” theories of evolution taught in high school. The keynote case was the Tammy Kitzmiller, et al. v. Dover Area School District trial in 2005, and this is the underlying thesis for Miller’s latest book.
Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, was a lead witness for the prosecution in the now infamous Dover ID Trial (read LabLit.com's accompanying interview here). Miller’s testimony at the trial is credited with publicly destroying Intelligent Design as a credible scientific alternative to the theory of evolution via natural selection. In his book Only a Theory, Miller discusses his role in the case and his personal motivations behind his actions. Using a gentle, persuasive and Socratic style of argument, Miller gives ID a surprisingly fair deal. His premise is simple: if you want to replace evolution, you have to be able to do at least as good a job as evolution does at explaining our natural world. Your audience are scientists, so if you can show us something works better than the old model, then by definition we’ll embrace it: that’s how science works. So, ID is put through its paces in a fair race against evolutionary theory. With a good eye for humor, Miller leaves ID gasping for breath at the first hurdle while evolution disappears towards the horizon. A common argument put forth by pro-ID apologists is that they deserve a fair chance to be heard. Well, Miller does that, and they are found wanting.
But this raises the second of Miller’s theses. With the slow, choking death rattle of ID ringing in their ears, its creators, such as the Seattle-based Christian think-tank The Discovery Institute, are already arming up for the next battle. And the threat to our modern rationalistic world is significant. At first I felt Miller was being alarmist in his arguments against ultra-liberal free thinking. After all, I know plenty of humanities students who can’t argue a point for toffee, yet I don’t fear them taking over my world and plunging us back in to a medieval scientific Dark Age. But Miller slowly exposes the insidious methodology underlying their proposition: an attack on the so-called elite establishment of science itself.
What do I mean by this? First, an observation: good journalism demands presentation of both sides of an argument, allowing the public to make up its own mind. But science is necessarily far less egalitarian. In order to be successful a theory must withstand scrutiny and repeated testing; this is the basis of the scientific method and has been understood by its practitioners for centuries. Importantly, one doesn’t give all theories an equal chance and allow scientists to pick their favorites. However, the great minds behind ID and its earlier incarnation, Creation Science, are aiming to do just that by promoting their argument of fairness, by having us admit that all competing theories have equal weight and all deserve to be taught. This argument sounds reasonable to the untrained ear; is it not, after all, just a liberal academic approach to teaching? But the failure of the scientific establishment to counter-argue this has already lead to the US ranking almost last in polls of the acceptance of evolution. America, Miller argues, is the greatest scientific nation on earth because to question authority is a natural American trait. So we must embrace this quality and use it to our advantage – not just in America, but everywhere. We, as scientists, do hold a position of civic authority that we often fail to acknowledge. It is up to us to fight back against the pernicious erosion of scientific freedom though teaching and direct counter-attack.
Only a Theory is not only a gripping account of the battle for reason in the Dover ID trial, but also serves as a warning that if we adopt a business-as-usual approach and assume that people will believe us just because we say something is true, we are sadly and dangerously mistaken. The time is right for the pro-evolutionary counter-argument. I started this article with a quote from Sun Tzu. Hopefully my point is now clear. We need to engage people in this fight for reason. Read Miller’s book; hell, even read Behe’s if you can borrow a copy. If possible, I’d even suggest understanding the scripture behind all this too. A lot of arguments stem from religious convictions and simply dismissing them out of hand, like Dawkins or Grayling, does nothing but raise the hackles of the faithful. We must understand our opponents and take the battle to them. Attend school board meetings and parent-teacher meetings; talk to people and spread the word. If we don’t then we have only ourselves to blame when the modern scientific enterprise comes to a juddering halt.
You can purchase Miller's latest book Only a Theory from Amazon.