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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