Kenneth R. Miller. Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul. New York: Viking, 2008. See here to buy the book.
Kenneth Miller teaches biology at Brown University, and he has been a prominent figure in debates about evolution and Intelligent Design. I first heard of him when I was a student at Harvard Divinity School. I was taking a class about religion and American education, and, for my final project, I decided to create a curriculum that would teach about evolution and Intelligent Design. I talked with my professor, and one of the sources that she recommended to me was Kenneth Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God, in which Miller attempts to reconcile evolution with a theistic belief system (or such is my understanding of his goal in that book). I did not read the entirety of Finding Darwin’s God, but I found what I did read of it to be entertaining, lucid, and informative. Miller told personal stories, and he also explained how things in nature that ID proponents claim needed a designer could have had a natural cause. I also read a debate between Miller and Phillip Johnson about evolution, and I thought that Miller made the stronger case for his position.
I saw Only a Theory in the library in 2009, but I did not check it out at that time. It still caught my attention and stayed in my mind, though. I recently decided to read the book because I read a book not long ago that was against evolution, and I was curious to learn more about the evidence for evolution.
Here are some thoughts about Only a Theory. My treatment of this book is not comprehensive, but I talk about what particularly interested me. You’ll probably pick up really quickly that I am not a scientist, but I am interacting with the book from where I am sitting, as I do with a number of books.
- Miller talks about the many species of horses in the fossil record, and he wonders how ID would account for them. He says that ID would posit that the designer designed each species separately. I wondered if that was an accurate representation of the ID position. I remember watching William Dempski on C-Span a while back, and I vaguely recall him expressing an openness to macroevolution, or at least saying that macroevolution is not inconsistent with Intelligent Design. I had read that Michael Behe believed in macroevolution and acknowledged that species had a common descent (see here). My impression was that they may accept macroevolution, but that they did not think that evolution, chance, and natural causes by themselves were sufficient to account for the existence and complexity of life, implying that there had to be some designer starting the process, guiding it, or tinkering with it. On the other hand, I had also read ID-proponents who questioned evolution. Phillip Johnson wrote a book entitled Darwin on Trial, and I recalled him saying in his debate with Miller that a lot of mutations are harmful, a common creationist argument that I have heard against evolution. Years ago in a class, I read an essay by David Berlinski in Commentary Magazine, and Berlinski seemed to endorse Genesis 1’s picture of God creating different kinds of animals separately. Does Intelligent Design believe in evolution or not? I did a search on this yesterday, and I found a Q and A page of the Discovery Institute, which supports Intelligent Design. On the one hand, the article says, “If one simply means [by evolution] ‘change over time,’ or even that living things are related by common ancestry, then there is no inherent conflict between evolutionary theory and intelligent design theory.” On the other hand, the article later takes potshots at evolution.
- Miller, a good teacher, tells personal stories to set the stage for his scientific explanations. I think of the stories about the mousetrap, and the two students who cheated. Let’s start with the mousetrap. Michael Behe, a scientist who advocates for Intelligent Design, likens certain aspects of nature to a mousetrap: they need all of their parts simultaneously in order to work, and thus it makes more sense to believe that a designer designed them whole, than to say that they evolved on their own through unworkable stages. Miller, however, tells his own story about a mousetrap: back when he was a high school student in study hall, some students would use parts of a mousetrap to launch spitballs at students in the balcony. In this situation, the mousetrap did not need all of its parts simultaneously to perform some function. Behe believes that something similar is going on with some of the aspects of nature that ID proponents appeal to. I only vaguely understand what Miller is getting at here. Let me use “mousetrap” as a code-word for these aspects of nature: Is Miller suggesting that a mousetrap originally had only two parts but was used for another function besides catching mice, but that it later evolved that third part that made it able to catch mice? But what if “catching mice” is, in some cases, a code-term for supporting life, or making life possible? Does Behe’s point remain on the table? I hope that I am clear in where my problem lies.
- Onto Miller’s story about the two cheating students! Miller tells a story about when he caught two of his students cheating on an exam, as one student was looking at the essay of the other. Miller called the two students into his office, and they said that they studied together, and that was why their essays were similar. Miller responded that the reason that he thinks they were cheating was that both essays made the same spelling mistakes—-out of all of the spelling mistakes that could be made, why do these essays make the same particular spelling mistakes? The students admitted defeat! Miller compares this with certain features of nature. We share with the primates that are our closest evolutionary relatives some “mistakes,” if you will. We and these primates need vitamin C, for example, whereas a number of other creatures have bodies that do not need vitamin C. One can respond, “Well, God just decided to make us and these primates with bodies that needed vitamin C!” Miller finds that problematic, however, and the reason is that we and the primates do have that same feature that the animals that do not need vitamin C have, but it is broken within us and those primates. Why would a designer design us this way? For Miller, evolution explains this, and similar, phenomena. I found this part of the book to be particularly convincing.
- Miller talks about evolution that is actually observable, and he refers to a specific bacteria that became able to eat nylon. Creationists would probably respond to this with: “That’s adaptation, or microevolution, not macroevolution, which we cannot observe! It’s the same bacteria, only now it can eat nylon!” They would have a point: that by itself does not demonstrate macroevolution. One can appeal to other things, as Miller does, to support macroevolution: the fossil record, the no-longer-missing links, the genetic record, and the phenomena in nature that evolution can account for better than ID can. Still, the case of the nylon-eating bacteria does demonstrate that species change and mutate, and that these changes and mutations can be conducive to their survival. That is an essential basis for evolution, both micro and macro.
- On page 66, Miller says the following in response to Behe’s claim that blood-clotting shows that there had to be a designer: “A designer, of course, could have created the clotting pathway from scratch, which is exactly what the proponents of intelligent design claim. But if that were indeed the case, then why do we find the raw materials for clotting exactly where evolution tells us they should be, in the last group of organisms to split off from the vertebrates before blood clotting appeared?” I, as someone with little aptitude in the natural sciences, did not entirely follow Miller’s scientific discussion, but he looked to me like he was making a strong point here. Here are these creatures: they have the parts that are necessary for blood to clot, but their blood does not clot. Why would a designer design them this way? If they are in that evolutionary spot that precedes blood-clotting but is moving in that direction, however, this phenomenon would make sense.
- Miller disagrees with biologist Stephen Jay Gould on how random evolution is. Or that was my impression of the debate. Gould believed that things could have turned out differently, from an evolutionary perspective. Miller, however, believes that evolution works under certain constraints—-location, occurrences, evolutionary history, natural selection, etc.—-and thus it is not very random. (I am surprised that Gould disagreed with this, assuming that he did.) Miller seems to be arguing that things turned out as they did for a reason: that we, human beings, are not mere accidents. Miller elsewhere in the book speaks in support of fine-tuning and the anthropic principle. He asks why God would wait millions of years to create the earth and life, and Miller’s response is that the universe as it is—-with its age, its vastness, and its organization—-is how it needs to be for life to exist on earth. Miller also notes that nature produces a lot of positive mutations, which are essential for evolution to be successful, and Miller appears to find this worthy of wonder. What is Miller’s point in saying all this? Is this Miller’s way of defending the existence of God—-to say that some benevolent force made the universe and nature conducive to life, when things could have turned out otherwise? Part of Miller’s point is that God does not need to be continually interfering in the course of nature for things to turn out all right, for nature is doing a fine job on its own, thank you very much; still, does Miller believe that God started the process, while having in mind (or intending) the way things turned out, on some level? There is another consideration to note: Miller says near the end that evolution should make human being humble. We are not above nature, but we are related to it, and we are a part of it, and we can easily be replaced by another species in the future. Does that contradict, in some way, Miller’s view (if I understand it correctly) that humans are somehow a part of God’s plan, or intention?
- On page 234, Miller quotes a profound point that Phillip Johnson makes: “It seems to me that the peacock and peahen are just the kind of creatures a whimsical Creator might favor, but that an ‘uncaring mechanical process’ like natural selection would never permit to develop” (Darwin on Trial, 1995, pages 30-31). This inspires within me a question: When I see something beautiful in nature, should I see that as a special creation from God, or could it have come about naturally? I thought about this not long ago when I visited some waterfalls. Those waterfalls are very beautiful. Yet, I seriously doubt that even young-earth creationists would say that God made them through special creation, for they would probably acknowledge that they came about through geological developments after the Flood. Can randomness, or natural causes, result in beauty? Or maybe God guides the process, and I can still give God glory when I see the waterfalls!
- Miller seems to present the natural sciences as a “Just the facts, maam” sort of enterprise. They are free from political or ideological bias, as far as Miller is concerned. Miller believes that ID advocates, and also liberal relativists, are undermining this important principle. While I can see Miller’s point, I think that he should have mentioned, at least in passing, the issue of climate change. This is a scientific issue on which people on both sides (if there are two sides) claim that there is bias: one side accuses the other side of being beholden to the oil companies, and the other side claims that defenders of climate change being a human-caused reality are distorting the evidence to get more grants, or to pursue some liberal agenda.
- I identified with something that Miller said on page 219, about the times when he explains evolution to audiences, some of which disagree with him: “The crowds did not always like what I had to say, but they were transfixed by the subject. Americans love science, and they are fascinated even by a science that more of them reject than accept.” I found this to be true in my own life. When I was an undergraduate in college, I did not believe in evolution (at least in those first two years), but I was fascinated by the evidence for it. I read the Gish-Saladin debate, and what Saladin had to say intrigued me. I also read the lengthy article about evolution in the Encyclopedia Britannica. I am still interested in evolution—-the evidence for it, and how to make sense of it in light of religion—-even though I have much more to read about it.