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Faith, science, and evolution: A conversation with Dr. Kenneth R. Miller

The author of Finding Darwin’s God says he doesn’t think the Church should have “an official position on science, because science is constantly changing; science is dynamic, but faith is eternal.”

Dr. Kenneth R. Miller is an American cell biologist and molecular biologist, and author of "Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution". (Images: Wikipedia, findingdarwinsgod.com)

Kenneth R. Miller is Professor of Biology and Royce Family Professor for Teaching Excellence at Brown University. He is the co-author (with Joseph Levine) of Biology, published by Pearson, the most widely used high school biology textbook in the United States. He has published numerous books in defense of evolution and on the relationship between evolution and religion, including Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution; Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul; and The Human Instinct: How We Evolved to Have Reason, Consciousness, and Free Will.

Dr. Miller recently responded to some questions from CWR about Finding Darwin’s God, evolutionary theory and Christianity, the intelligent design movement, and the relationship between science and faith.

CWR: This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the publication of your book Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution. How has it been received by the scientific community and by religious people?

Dr. Kenneth R. Miller: I’m fairly well-known in the cell biology research community, but up until the publication of my book I hadn’t come out of the closet, so to speak, as a person of faith or as a Roman Catholic. At cell biology meetings during the year after it had been published, a whole bunch of my scientific colleagues and occasionally people whom I’d never met before came up to me and said they’d read the book and wanted to let me know as scientists how much they appreciated it. For the first couple years, I didn’t get a single negative comment face-to-face from other scientists. Often they would say they were Christians or persons of faith, too, and they appreciated my articulating the way in which a scientist could have religious beliefs. Just as often, my fellow scientists would say that they were atheists or agnostics, but they appreciated the way I had articulated how people who do believe ought to embrace science and thanked me.

In the religious community, the people who criticized the book were largely coming from what you might call the young earth creationist and intelligent design community. Within the larger community of believers, though, there was an overwhelmingly positive reaction, and I certainly found that within the Catholic Church.

CWR: Has there been a difference between how Catholics and Protestants, particularly Evangelicals, approach evolution?

Dr. Miller: Going back to the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, Christians have been somewhat suspicious of evolution. It’s worth pointing out, though, that the Catholic Church’s official position, if there is one, is pro-evolution and has been for a really long time. The first pope to speak favorably about evolution was Pius XII, who in his 1950 encyclical Humani generis wrote that you can believe in evolution and still be a Christian.

The most profound acceptance came in a letter to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1996 from John Paul II, in which he talks about the remarkable scientific evidence for evolution coming from multiple disciplines: paleontology, genetics, morphology, molecular biology… Pope Benedict has also been explicit in saying there is no conflict between Christianity and evolution. Most recently, Pope Francis, a former scientist trained as a chemist before entering seminary, has said that God is not a magician with a magic wand and so Christians can accept evolution or the big bang theory.

It’s important to point out, though, that the Church is a big tent and has no official position on science. As a scientist, I don’t think it should have one, because science is constantly changing; science is dynamic, but faith is eternal. Within that big tent, there is room for people like Michael Behe, who is a very devout Catholic and I respect the sincerity of his faith. He is probably the most prominent scientist in the intelligent design movement. I’ve publicly debated him about ten times on this issue. I like Mike and I hope he likes me; we have a good interpersonal relationship, but boy, do we disagree on intelligent design.

CWR: Why are you an opponent of the intelligent design movement?

Dr. Miller: Intelligent design has been tested many times, and it is simply wrong. When you read the intelligent design literature, what the argument boils down to is that living things are composed of complex, multi-part systems. That’s true, but that claim goes further, saying that those systems can only function when every part is assembled and interconnected; individual parts have no function on their own. Therefore, evolution, which works one step at a time, could not have produced these complex, multi-part systems. Examples that were given in 1996 in Michael Behe’s book, Darwin’s Black Box, include the bacterial flagella, blood clotting, and the vertebrate immune system.

The interesting thing is that none of these arguments claim to have detected design work. They simply use the claim of “irreducible complexity” to claim they couldn’t have evolved. If they hadn’t evolved, how could they have gotten there? Enter intelligent design. That’s an argument by negative. Imagine I argued that the moon was composed of granite, but you argued it was made of green cheese. The astronauts go to the moon, bring back rocks, and it turns out they’re not granite. Therefore, you are right; the moon is composed of green cheese!

The second point, which was part of my testimony in the Kitzmiller vs. Dover trial, is that, according to Behe, individual parts of, say, the bacterial flagellum all have to be assembled before it becomes useful and could be favored by natural selection. That is demonstrably wrong. About ten proteins of the bacterial flagellum don’t have flagella. What are those ten parts doing? They’re part of the type three-secretion system, which is perfectly functional. The ID argument is that all parts have to be assembled to function. Once someone discovers that a subset is perfectly functional, the argument is disproven.

The same goes for other systems, like the vertebrate immune system. There is plenty of evidence for the evolution of the immune system and scientific literature on the matter, which was presented to Michael Behe during the Kitzmiller trial. The same goes for the blood clotting system, one of his favorite examples. Depending on the organism, it consists of thirteen or fourteen individual protein parts. According to Dr. Behe, if you’re missing any of them, blood does not clot and you will die. There’s a scientist, Russell Doolittle, who has spent his entire life studying the vertebrate immune system. We do know step by step how these various parts were assembled, how they were functional before the entire system came together, and how evolution produced it.

CWR: You mentioned receiving an award named after Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics, and the big bang theory, which was first proposed by Georges Lemaître, a Catholic priest from Belgium. In previous centuries, most great scientists – Copernicus, Newton, and even Galileo, sentenced to house arrest by the Inquisition – were men of faith. However, more recent famous scientists like James Watson and Francis Crick and Stephen Hawking frequently have been atheists. The National Academy of Scientists has shown that American scientists are much less likely to believe in God than the rest of society. Why is this so?

Dr. Miller: One more recent recipient of the Gregor Mendel Medal is Brian Kobilka, who has demonstrated how G Protein Coupled Receptors work. They enable our cells to respond to hormones, stimuli, and all sorts of signals; more than half of all therapeutic drugs work through G Protein Coupled Receptors. For this work on this, Kobilka received the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology. I could mention a few recent Nobel Laureates, physicists and a few biologists, who are people of faith.

You are right about the National Academy of Scientists’ survey, though; only about ten percent of its members are professed believers in God. One reason is that Western society in general has become more secular, and so scientists follow the general social trend.

Quite frankly, a second reason is that as they are trained many scientists see loud, influential portions of the religious community that are actively hostile to science. In the United States today, the main obstacle to the teaching of science in public schools comes from religiously motivated people who oppose the teaching of evolution and don’t believe in climate change. Some of this unbelief is reflexive hostility.

There are also major developments in science that have made people, in their own minds, not need God. Hawking argued this in his last book co-written with another author. In it, he argued that science has proven that the theologians’ trump card – where the universe has come from and why is there something rather than nothing – had been solved. Hawking was a great scientist, but he was wrong on this count; many people have pointed out that this problem has not been solved.


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About Filip Mazurczak 44 Articles
Filip Mazurczak is a journalist, translator, and historian. His writing has appeared in the National Catholic Register, First Things, Tygodnik Powszechny, and other publications.

15 Comments

  1. So, where are God and the human soul in all of this?

    Karl Marx, roughly at the same time as Darwin, did not actually deny something we call “spiritual,” but maintained that the spiritual is simply [simplistically!] the product of material processes–not categorically distinct or in any way higher.

    Miller, instead, refers generally to John Paul II’s statement to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (1996) wherein we can read of an “ONTOLOGICAL LEAP” as “a moment of transition to the spiritual” and as a DISCONTINUITY that is not incompatible with the “physical continuity which seems to be the main thread of research into evolution in the field of physics and chemistry.”

    Bearing on the specialized and bounded focus of the scientific method, John Paul II adds:

    “The MOMENT of transition to the spiritual CANNOT be the object of this kind of observation, which nevertheless can discover at the experimental level a series of very valuable signs indicating what is specific to the human being. But the experience of metaphysical knowledge, of self-awareness and self-reflection, of moral conscience, freedom, or again of aesthetic and religious experience, fall within the competence of philosophical analysis and reflection, while theology brings out its ultimate meaning according to the Creator’s plans.”

    (Possible translation: human souls do not fossilize!)

    The International Theological Commission then adds (recall Marx, above) that EACH person “carries within him the seed of eternity, which cannot be reduced to matter alone . . . .” (Communion and Stewardship, 2004). The PRECISE MOMENT of emergence as an integral and irreducible human person is again termed the “ontological leap.” The earlier Second Vatican Council noticed that EACH body and soul person is created “for its own sake” (Gaudium et Spes, 24) in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:27-29).

    The specialized scientific method does not vindicate the kind of REDUCTIONISM presumed by broad-brush, atheist scientistic minds.

    And as for the scientist Charles Darwin himself on the higher question of Creation, he said at least this: “I feel most deeply that this whole question of Creation is too profound for human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton! Let each man hope and believe what he can” (Cited in Elbert Hubbard’s Scrapbook).

    Perhaps, like the Incarnation, each unique human person IS an irreducible (and more-than-a-complexity) Intelligent Design….

  2. Was the rejection of Aristotelian final causality (since Galileo) a scientific or a philosophical rejection?

    As far as Darwin and evolution, for me it’s not whether a Catholic can accept evolution or not ( a Catholic can) but whether or not the theory of evolution really explains the development of life on this planet.

    There are also scientists who do not believe in evolution for scientific and mathematical reasons:

    https://www.claremont.org/crb/article/giving-up-darwin/

    See Stephen Miller’s book Darwin’s Doubt (2013).

  3. Mr Mazurczak did not do his homework, very unfortunate. He lets a huge elephant in the room go completely unmentioned; it is the recent article “Giving Up Darwin”, by David Gelernter, an information scientist at MIT. (Gerlenter is a non-believer, and has no biblical axe to grind.)
    https://www.claremont.org/crb/article/giving-up-darwin/

    Mazurczak and Prof Miller seem unaware that the “ID” argument against neo-darwinism has moved beyond Behe and “irreducible complexity.”

    In brief, DNA encodes information, and information presupposes intelligence, since information of modest complexity cannot arise randomly without ENORMOUS amounts of time. Given the age of life in the universe, or the time span of the “Cambrian Explosion” which is very brief in evolutionary terms, there is simply not enough time for random variation to produce information of sufficient complexity to construct the proteins in simple organisms.

    Here is Gerlenter: “In other words: immense is so big, and tiny is so small, that neo-Darwinian evolution is—so far—a dead loss. Try to mutate your way from 150 (amino acid chain) links of gibberish to a working, useful protein and you are guaranteed to fail. Try it with ten mutations, a thousand, a million—you fail. The odds bury you. It can’t be done.'” …. there is simply not enough time.

    As for Prof. Miller, he is a fine biologist, but he does not understand the problem of time in simple probability.

  4. “The same goes for other systems, like the vertebrate immune system. There is plenty of evidence for the evolution of the immune system and scientific literature on the matter, which was presented to Michael Behe during the Kitzmiller trial.”

    As James Tour, Phd. states, it’s “the immune system” that gets frequently cited to support evolution….perhaps the most frequently. He is NOT a supporter of intelligent design BTW. Simply a scientist/chemist who does not see evolution as an adequate account (at this time) for macroevolution in particular.

    https://www.jmtour.com/personal-topics/evolution-creation/

    That Kitzmiller trial’s main purpose? To demonstrate (to the ACLU’s satisfaction) that “intelligent design” is a RELIGIOUS viewpoint essentially.

    For a start, the theory of evolution has itself evolved; randomness and natural selection themselves are no longer THE way to be Darwinian…

    It should be noted that there are “loud, influential portions” in the political left and in academia.

  5. As a cell biologist, I’m surprised Dr Miller does not mention the work of Stephen Meyer. A reading of one of his books, “The Signature in the Cell” makes ID not as easily dismissed as he suggests. Listen to him discuss it on YouTube .

  6. A strange, partial interview to produce here.

    The ‘successful’ answer to Behe seems awfully incomplete to claim total victory.

    I’ve read Miller on the evolution of consciousness and the rest and it’s not that convincing.

  7. “Most recently, Pope Francis, a former scientist trained as a chemist before entering seminary…”. Still pushing the charade that Francis was a “scientist”. Good grief.

  8. Why do so many young people enter institutions of higher learning believers and then lose their faith shortly thereafter? One major factor is that Darwinism as understood by Richard Dawkins is often taught in these institutions:

    Although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. … It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).
    – Richard Dawkins

    Is it really stupid and evil not to believe in that which makes it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist? Or is there some kind of bias in operation at such institutions of higher learning? It seems so:

    Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.
    – Richard Lewontin (Harvard professor. Evolutionary biologist, mathematician, geneticist, and social commentator

    It is a dogma of the Catholic Church that God “can be known with certainty from the things that have been made, by the natural light of human reason.”

    If the Universe and everything within it came into existence through the Word(1), and continues to exist through the Word(2), and His providential care of it is “concrete and immediate” right down to the very “least things,” including the activity of each and every subatomic particle, such that He has “absolute sovereignty over the course of events,”(3) including acting upon that which He brought into being not just indirectly through “secondary causes,” but sometimes in a direct way that demonstrates His personal “primacy and absolute Lordship” over it all(4), then Catholics ought to agree with atheist Richard Dawkins that “the doctrine of creation requires a Divine Tinkerer.” Although we wouldn’t put it quite that way, Dawkins’ point is well taken. God holds the Universe in existence from instant to instant and manages it in a “concrete and immediate” way that sometimes includes His direct, supernatural intervention.

    If atheists who are intelligent enough to investigate the world “have no excuse” for failing to find its Author, and failing to see that it is the work of a supremely intelligent Master Artificer(5), then Catholics ought to be able to explain why they find belief in God utterly reasonable. We should be a light to those with the “darkened” minds of which St. Paul spoke.(6) The Universe and the life within it shout to those who will but listen that that they were intelligently designed by the ultimate Master Craftsman and Artist Who reveals Himself to us through His works. This is the belief of orthodox Catholics.(7)(8)

    (1) … the Word was God. … Through him all things came into being, not one thing came into being except through him.
    — John 1:1,3

    (2) God created the universe and keeps it in existence by his Word, the Son “upholding the universe by his word of power” (Heb 1:3), and by his Creator Spirit, the giver of life.
    — Catechism of the Catholic Church, #320

    (3) The witness of Scripture is unanimous that the solicitude of divine providence is concrete and immediate; God cares for all, from the least things to the great events of the world and its history. The sacred books powerfully affirm God’s absolute sovereignty over the course of events …
    — Catechism of the Catholic Church, #303

    (4) And so we see the Holy Spirit, the principal author of Sacred Scripture, often attributing actions to God without mentioning any secondary causes. This is not a “primitive mode of speech,” but a profound way of recalling God’s primacy and absolute Lordship over history and the world …
    — Catechism of the Catholic Church, #304

    (5) Yes, naturally stupid are all who are unaware of God, and who, from good things seen, have not been able to discover Him-who-is, or, by studying the works, have not recognized the Artificer. … let them know how much the Master of these excels them, since He was the very source of beauty that created them. And if they have been impressed by their power and energy, let them deduce from these how much mightier is He that has formed them, since through the grandeur and beauty of the creatures we may, by analogy, contemplate their Author. … they have no excuse: if they are capable of acquiring enough knowledge to be able to investigate the world, how have they been so slow to find its Master?
    — Wisdom 13:1,3-5,8-9 (Jerusalem Bible)

    (6) For what can be known about God is perfectly plain to them, since God has made it plain to them: ever since the creation of the world, the invisible existence of God and his everlasting power have been clearly seen by the mind’s understanding of created things. And so these people have no excuse: they knew God and yet they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but their arguments became futile and their uncomprehending minds were darkened. While they claimed to be wise, in fact they were growing so stupid …
    — Romans 1:19-22 (Jerusalem Bible)

    (7) If anyone says that the one, true God, our creator and lord, cannot be known with certainty from the things that have been made, by the natural light of human reason: let him be anathema.
    — Vatican Council I, can. 2 § I

    (8) … The existence of God the Creator can be known with certainty through his works, by the light of human reason … (Cf. Vatican Council I, can. 2 § I)
    — Catechism of the Catholic Church, #286

  9. Blessed Feast of Presentation of Bl.Mother , at the temple – she who is the ‘seat of wisdom ‘ , being brought to a temple erected at first by the ‘wisest ‘ ever ( in the wisdom of the world ) – King Solomon , whose heart fell after idols through his foolish wives, to end up having a fool for a son !
    Such are the intricacies of human affairs and wisdom too may be .
    As to the question of evolution per se , we can trust the wisdom of The Church , leaving room for the interplay of even fallen powers having affected / afflicted what we observe , in the fossils and such , thus possibly distorting some of the readings on the age etc : as well .
    There are the writings based on visions of Bl.Emmerich that describe the beauty and majesty of our First Parents , clothed in light , not naked as such .The mention too of the non carnal aspect of what Immaculate Conception is about , a plan that was for each of us too, if not for The Fall ; possibly , atleast some of the first generation of the children of Adam and Eve too could have been brought forth in that manner as well .
    A few such basics , once firmly taken in , then all the other nitty gritty about evolution can be passed over , for the foundational views on these topics by most persons, just as not needing to focus much, unless one desires to , on the complex building of the temple of Solomon .
    https://dwightlongenecker.com/the-dark-beast-of-resentment/ – good to have come across this too , on the dark beast of despair that is ever at work to make us doubt the goodness of The Father ..
    Roots of such may be far reaching as well, as in the case of King David , on his death bed , asking Solomon, to take revenge.. was that seed enough to set in motion , the failures in the life of the latter alter on ..
    unlike our Lord ( and His Mother ) in the midst of the cruel tortures , had the wisdom and power of The Cross , of trusting in the Father’s love , to forgive, to bless us each too , to help us too, to be set free , from the dark and abominable beast of desolation..
    Would it be that , there are many , who are unaware of its presence, in the depth of our hearts , thus even seeing same instead ,in the wrong places and persons – just as in the time of our Lord Himself , who was tragically seen in an almost similar
    manner , by a people who was all the while , expecting the Messiah !
    Good to be able to see the Holy Father set out to bring the warmth of the Father’s love through the Mother and being warmly welcomed by a people who trusts in what he stands for and a world of science and progress making it possible to see the fruits of faith and goodness , brought to the comforts of our homes , in a marvelous harmony of His wisdom that is in things natural and super natural !
    Glory be !

  10. We now know that life at the cellular level is ultra-sophisticated, self-replicating, digital information-driven(1) nanotechnology the functional complexity of which is light years beyond anything modern science knows how to build from scratch. If, due to its massive functional complexity, one has no idea how to construct a given phenomenon intentionally, one is in no position to insist that it came about mindlessly and accidentally. One must understand what is required for its construction before one can even begin to explain how that might have happened mindlessly and accidentally. Atheists have absolutely no basis for insisting that life emerged on planet Earth mindlessly and accidentally except that they desperately want that to be the case. That’s it. That’s all they’ve got.

    We know of no instances whatsoever of digital information-driven, significant functional complexity coming about mindless and accidentally, nor do we have any plausible explanation of how that might happen. So how could any rational person think that life — the most functionally complex phenomenon known to us, and being digital information-driven as well — was a mindless accident? One can’t and remain rational. One has to have the huge, irrational, blind faith of an atheist to reach that conclusion.

    And not only is it irrational to assume that the nanotechnology of that first digital information-driven, single-celled, self-replicating life form emerged on planet Earth mindlessly and accidentally, but once it is admitted that couldn’t have been a mindless accident, it is not like we know each selectable mutation required, and exactly how each of those will in some way enhance the survivability of sightless creatures as the massive functional complexity required for vision is slowly, incrementally being established one tiny, advantageous, selectable step at a time — but before the actual selectable advantage of some kind of crude vision is arrived at. This lack of knowledge is understandable, but is required if one is going to assert that evolution is a fact and deride those who doubt the plausibility of the notion that vision came about mindlessly and accidentally.

    There is a reason we don’t know the list of required mutations and the advantage each one provided for the steadily increasing functional complexity that was required to arrive at life’s massively complex subsystems mindlessly and accidentally; it is because it is virtually impossible for that to happen. Random modifications to significant functional complexity always degrade its functionality as opposed to enhancing it. This is because the extremely rare, luckily advantageous modifications or additions are overwhelmed by deleterious ones. For example, it would be a miracle if randomly generated changes to a software application’s binary code enhanced its functionality such that it added new features to it instead of destroying it – even if, to simulate natural selection, every 100 “mutations” one could purposefully and thoughtfully insert an advantageous modification. It is the same with the functional complexity of life or any digital information-driven instance of significant functional complexity.

    (1) Some people mistakenly think digital information must be stored in binary, and therefore mistakenly think that the information in DNA is not digital information. The fact is that digital information consists of a small set of discrete values in each unit of memory, which is often “zero” and “one” but can be in base 4 (as in DNA’s A, C, G or T value in each unit of memory). If there were 8 discrete values it would be octal, 16 would be hex. Being in binary is not what makes it digital information. A small set of discrete values, one such value in each unit of memory, is what makes it digital.

    • “This lack of knowledge is understandable, but is required if one is going to assert …”

      Should have been

      “This lack of knowledge is understandable, but such knowledge is required if one is going to assert …”

  11. The most any evolutionist can even attempt to explain is how an eye can come from an eye and a wing from a wing. It is simply the case that natural selection has not and cannot explain why a wing came from a non-wing or an eye from a non-eye. There are no intermediate steps that can be explained. Evolution has no explanation for the existence of the cell. Miller is a sophist and ideologue.

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