on 8 August 2008
"Only A Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul" is all we have come to expect from noted Brown University cell biologist Kenneth R. Miller in the course of his many public debates against creationists; a sterling blend of ample wit and elegant prose coupled with his passionate sincerity in defending genuine science's methodology and data from those intellectual Vandals seeking to replace it with their delusional notion of pseudoscientific mendacious intellectual pornography known as Intelligent Design. Here, in this succinctly-worded, quite magnificent, book, Miller has rendered an elegantly stated, magisterial refutation not only of Intelligent Design's pathetic pretense of being genuine science, but of its ongoing - and regrettably still successful - effort to claim America's "scientific soul" as he has defined it, and thus, to pose a dire threat to American scientific and technological supremacy. Fanatical skeptics like Discovery Institute mendacious intellectual pornographers ("Fellows" and "Senior Fellows") Michael Behe, William Dembski, David Klinghoffer, Paul Nelson, and Jonathan Wells, among others, will scoff at Ken Miller's assertions, and accuse him of being "possessed" or "enslaved" by his "atheistic, liberal Darwinist" agenda. However, unlike them, Miller has consistently staked out views recognizing that science and religion must remain separated - despite his own devoutly held Roman Catholic religious convictions - and indeed, his cogent remarks are rather quite persuasive, and, happily, harbor the glimmerings of some hope despite their dire alarmist nature. Without question "Only A Theory" ought to serve as a clarion call to those willing to be persuaded by Miller's arguments, because the emotional, intellectual and political stakes for America's future are quite high, and among these include the survival of a vibrant, American science as a rational enterprise totally devoid of supernatural considerations (For these reasons alone, "Only A Theory" demands a wide readership, extending well beyond the battle lines of contested school districts like Dover, Pennsylvania's to the very halls of Congress, even if there are many, in Washington, D. C., unlikely to listen to Miller's warning.). Not only evolutionary biology, but geology, chemistry, and physics too would be twisted beyond recognition by the Discovery Institute's zealous band of mendacious intellectual pornographers seeking a more expansive "definition" of science that allows "research" into supernatural phenomena; a nonsensical definition endorsed by Behe, having admitted under oath at the 2005 Kitzmiller vs. Dover trial, that astrology could be accepted as science.
What is America's "scientific soul" and why its survival remains in jeopardy from Intelligent Design's ongoing, vigorous - or perhaps more accurately, fanatical - assault, are among the most important, most compelling, themes examined by Miller in his elegant, terse tome. As Miller eloquently notes in the opening chapter, his recognition of a "battle for America's scientific soul" is one he has discerned only recently, in the aftermath of recent legal battles against Intelligent Design and other creationist foes. And, regrettably, it is a battle that goes well beyond shaping the future course of American secondary school science education. Miller passionately believes that our "scientific soul" is exactly the very essence that makes us Americans; a healthy disdain for authority, but one which does respect pragmatism, and demands results, in short, the very cultural environment that has been embraced, and sustained by mainstream science for centuries. A cultural environment whose revolutionary nature arose in little more than a decade during the American Revolution, according to Miller's distinguished Brown University colleague, eminent American historian Gordon Wood, when Americans transformed their society from "one little different from the hierarchal societies of European monarchies to one that took up the truly radical notion that individuals were both the source of a government's legitimacy and its greatest hope for progress."
In many respects, not only is Intelligent Design an idea that is "un-American", since its very principles are antithetical to America's defining cultural values of practicality, pragmatism and disrespect of authority, but, in its key objective of "overthrowing methodological naturalism", Intelligent Design, argues Miller, is a far more serious and dangerous threat to mainstream science than traditional creationism, since it is a revolutionary assault against the very fabric of scientific methodology ("methodological naturalism", or rather, what is commonly recognized as the scientific method comprised of hypothesis generation and testing) employed by science for centuries, transforming science into an unrecognizable entity that is as rife with relativism as the leftist-leaning social sciences criticized by philosopher Allan Bloom in his landmark tome, "The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Impoverished America's Young and Failed Its Students". Indeed Miller observes astutely that Bloom's analysis was not a conservative-leaning attack on leftist Academia, but instead, one warning how a relativistic "openness" - an uncritical embrace of all ideas - was detrimental to the survival of rational thought on college and university campuses, and, not surprisingly, Bloom contended that the sciences were the only realm of Academia unaffected by the politics of openness. However, if Intelligent Design successfully gains further acceptance amongst a sympathetic American populace, then, Miller warns, American science would be susceptible too to the same political plagues affecting the arts, humanities and social sciences (Ironically the same plagues that have been the subjects of ample discourse, mostly hysterical ridicule, from leading Intelligent Design advocates like Philip Johnson, David Klinghoffer, and Ann Coulter.). This is a warning which should be heeded by anyone who reads or hears of Miller's message, since the very essence, the very future, of American science is at stake.
If Intelligent Design is "un-American" in both its tone and temperment, then why is it gaining wider acceptance among Americans? Miller concludes one of his early chapters noting how biologists have failed to persuade the public of "the imperfections of biological design", implying that such imperfections are not, in of themselves, "proof" of evolution; an observation which Intelligent Design advocates have been quite persuasive. Moreover, by emphasizing the existence of biological design to the general public so they can ask "How come?" and noting the other "weaknesses" of evolutionary theory, Intelligent Design advocates are winning the public relations battle and, so far, the battle for America's scientific soul.
"Only A Theory" should not be viewed only as a concise, well-reasoned polemic on behalf of rational thought, and America's scientific future. It is as I have noted earlier, an elegant refutation of the mendacious intellectual pornography that is Intelligent Design. However, instead of simply refuting it, Miller examines it, asking us to look into the possibility that Intelligent Design is credible science, and therefore, a viable, truly better, alternative to contemporary evolutionary theory in explaining the structure and history of Planet Earth's biodiversity (In fairness to Miller, however, the very brevity of this book means that "Only A Theory" does not include ample discussion of issues ranging from understanding the tempo and mode of evolution, the relationship of sociobiology to contemporary theory, and the importance, if any, of neutral models of evolution; all of which have been cited by Intelligent Design advocates and creationists as solid "evidence" that evolutionary theory is an outmoded theory in "crisis", on an intellectual "death watch", awaiting its replacement by Intelligent Design. Of course, despite such delusional assertions, evolutionary theory remains a vigorous, unifying scientific theory of biology; a point Miller emphasizes in the book's conclusion.). Miller devotes much of Chapters Two and Three in reviewing the history of Intelligent Design, beginning with William Paley's work, and in explaining Behe's concept of Irreducible Complexity and Dembski's "mathematical" notion of Complex Specified Information. In evoking once more Behe's favorite mechanical mousetrap analogue as an "example" of Irreducibly Complex, Miller offers his most concise, but extensive, explanation why the mousetrap isn't, offering instead, some sly, and humorous, analogues of exaptation at work (While Miller doesn't refer specifically to the term exaptation as such - one that has gained widespread currency since the publication of a classic early 1980s paper co-authored by paleontologists Stephen Jay Gould and Elisabeth Vrba - anyone familiar with it should recognize the mousetrap as a mechanical analogue comparable to the evolution of feathers in theropod dinosaurs originally for thermoregulation, before assuming prominent roles in powered flight in avian dinosaurs and their closely related kin.). He follows up his elegant discussion of the mousetrap with one of a real biological exaptation, the evolution of a "poison pump" in some bacteria from the bacterial flagellum (Behe's real-life favorite example -which he asserts still - of Irreducible Complexity.).
If we were "Embracing Design" (Chapter Three), then how would Intelligent Design explain the history of Earth's biodiversity? Using as an elegant example, the evolutionary history of horses, Miller shows why Intelligent Design does a poor job of it, observing that an Intelligent Designer's only consistent pattern would be the constant replacement of "designed" species due to their extinctions (Unless, of course as Miller notes, that was indeed the "design" of the Intelligent Designer after all.). On the other hand, Miller notes how evolutionary theory explains the history of Earth's biodiversity in the succeeding two chapters, noting the so-called Cambrian "Explosion" (which, he reminds us, was instead a gradual diversification of marine metazoan taxa over the span of tens of millions of years) and human evolution. Moreover, he explains how evolutionary developmental biology (`evo devo") is yielding fascinating new insights from genomic data that confirm the robustness of Darwin's ideas on "descent with modification" at the molecular level; overwhelming data denying the implications of an "Intelligent Designer" "predicted" by William Dembski in his mathematically flawed conceptions of Complex Specified Information and his so-called "Law of Conservation of Information". And last, but not least, Miller explains why evolution is not a "random" process in "The World That Knew We Were Coming" (Chapter Seven), reminding us of the importance of convergence and contingency in influencing the history of life on Planet Earth.
Other books have emphasized the danger posed by Intelligent Design to America's scientific and technological future, most notably, Niles Eldredge's "The Triumph of Evolution and the Failure of Creationism", and Donald Prothero's "Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters". However, none have been as eloquent or as extensive in pointing out this danger as Miller has through his compelling and persuasive reasoning. Few have devoted as much space as Miller's admirable effort in "Only A Theory" in taking seriously the "scientific" claims posed by Intelligent Design advocates, if only to demonstrate why these are not merely "bad" science - or rather mendacious intellectual pornography as I would prefer to describe them - but how they would "impoverish" the very nature of science if they were ever recognized as science. While Miller closes "Only A Theory" on a potentially optimistic note, relying on his personal anecdotal evidence drawn from giving lectures around the United States to demonstrate Americans' keen current interest in science - even if they object strongly to contemporary evolutionary theory - he recognizes that the ongoing battle for America's scientific soul will be long and arduous. Recent interest in so-called "Academic Freedom" bills promoted by the Discovery Institute in several state legislatures and the Texas State Board of Education's sympathy towards emphasizing the "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories like contemporary evolutionary theory merely demonstrate just how difficult a struggle this battle shall be.
(EDITORIAL NOTE: As an undergraduate student, I assisted Ken in his very first debate against a creationist, which was held at our undergraduate alma mater, Brown University.)