Of Darwin, Dover And (Un)Intelligent Design

Scholar Says The Future Of Science – And Church-State Separation – Are At Stake In The Creationism/Evolution Conflict

Kenneth R. MillerKenneth R. Miller was one of the leading witnesses in a lawsuit challenging “intelligent design” creationism in Dover, Pa., public schools. In a sweeping defeat for the Religious Right, a federal district court ruled in Kitzmiller v. Dover in 2005 that teaching religion in science classes violates the Constitution. Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University, has now written Only A Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul (Viking/Penguin Group, 2008). The book looks at the ongoing drive to teach religious concepts in public school science classes and why that crusade must not succeed. Church & State recently asked him some questions.

Q. You were an expert witness in the lawsuit against “intelligent design” creationism in Dover, Pa., public schools. What did you think of the trial and its outcome?

A. Naturally, like everyone on the plaintiffs’ side of the Kitzmiller case, I was delighted with the outcome – and that wasn’t just because of the judge’s decision. I was especially impressed with the businesslike way in which the trial moved along. Both sides played by the rules and did their best to keep matters focused on the issues at hand. And the judge, John E. Jones III, did an extraordinary job of moving things along fairly and openly. At the end, I think that both sides had to admit that they had been given every opportunity to make their cases. The experience impressed me with the fairness and openness of the federal judicial procedure and renewed my confidence in our court system.

Q. What surprised you most about the trial?

A. Two things. First, the willingness of certain members of the school board to come into court and tell obvious lies. That might seem a little harsh, but that’s exactly how the judge put it too, even to the point of lecturing a witness in open court about contradictions in his testimony. The second surprising thing was the public collapse of intelligent design (ID) during the defense phase of the trial. While many scientists, myself included, have written about the scientific flaws of ID, it was genuinely shocking to see them exposed so clearly under cross-examination. By the end of the defense phase of the trial, any contention that ID formed a coherent scientific theory had vanished. At that point, it was clear to everyone in the courtroom that the verdict would favor the plaintiffs.

Q. There was a lot of press attention focused on the trial. What was the public reaction to your role in the case?

A. Well, it’s true that I received a handful of unsigned hate letters and critical emails following press reports of the opening days of the trial. However, these were swamped by scores of congratulatory messages, including a delightful one from Susan Epperson. She, of course, was the plaintiff in the landmark Epperson v. Arkansas case, the Supreme Court decision that threw out Scopes-era laws against the teaching of evolution in nearly a half dozen states. It was an unexpected honor to hear from her. And my scientific colleagues, as you might expect, were strongly supportive of my role in the case.

 Q. Religious Right activists would have us believe that all evolutionists are atheists. Is this true?

A. Of course not. Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the great evolutionary geneticists of the 20th century, was a professing Christian, as are scientists like Francis Collins, who directed the Human Genome Project. The tired stereotype of science vs. religion is often used as a weapon against the teaching of evolution in our schools, but it makes no logical sense. A recent survey of the members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the largest scientific organization in the United States, showed that fully 40 percent believed in a God to whom one could pray, expecting an answer.

Q. As a Christian, do you ever find there is a conflict between your religious beliefs and your scientific work?

A. Certainly not in my own work. If faith and reason are both gifts from God, they should complement each other, not provoke conflict. To a person of faith, science is the activity of applying human reason to explore the work of God, and religion should support it completely.

Q. How did you come to be involved in the controversy over how science should be taught in the schools?

A. How much time have you got? To make a very long story short, I was first drawn into this issue by a group of students during my first year teaching at Brown University. They managed to lure me into a public debate with Henry Morris, then president of the Institute for Creation Research, and a young-earth creationist. After debating Morris and several other creationists, I “retired” from the fray, feeling that their arguments had been answered and that court cases like Edwards v. Aguillard had settled the issue. However, in the meantime, a former student named Joe Levine had talked me into trying my hand at writing a high school biology textbook with him. By the time our first books appeared, the ID movement was just getting off the ground. With their strong, scientific treatment of evolution, our books were natural targets for them.

Q. Many scientists refuse to debate creationists. You feel differently. Why do you believe it is important to take such public stands?

A. Well, I don’t believe in debating anyone, anywhere, any time. It’s a fact that the one-on-one debate format often plays into the hands of the creationist, because it implies that there are two sides to the issue, each with equal standing. So, I actually don’t debate very often… in fact, the last live debate I participated in was with Paul Nelson of the Discovery Institute in October of 2005, while the Dover trial was still taking place. However, I do think that it’s important not to leave the public square vacant for creationists and IDers to fill. Science, in a democracy like ours, depends crucially upon public support, and it’s important that their arguments not be left unopposed. I know that some of my colleagues think that the opponents of scientific reason are best ignored, but I think that’s a dangerous and self-destructive impulse. I’m always willing to debate when I think that the situation warrants it, and especially when I see scientific misrepresentations and distortions being taken seriously by the general public.  

Q. Evolution opponents often deride evolution as “only a theory.” In your book, you mention hearing this term a lot. What’s the best way to deal with this tactic?

A. Evolution is a theory, of course, and we would do well to emphasize that point. It’s a theory just like the atomic theory of matter or the heliocentric theory of the solar system. But we need to emphasize that scientific theories are built upon fact, not guesswork. In reality, a scientific “theory” actually represents a higher level of understanding than a “fact.” Facts are isolated observations or experimental results. You can accumulate hundreds or thousands of facts without really developing an understanding of the phenomenon you’re trying to study. What theories do is to place those facts into an explanatory framework that makes sense of them. More importantly, theories provide a pathway for further work.

The best theories, like evolution, have predictive value, which helps to guide scientific exploration, and allows those theories to be tested. The predictive value of evolution has been shown again and again in a century and a half of scientific study. When a scientific theory stands that long – and survives so many inspired efforts to disprove it – it’s worth paying attention to.

Q. After Dover, Religious Right forces have now moved to a new tactic. They want laws and science standards requiring that the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution be taught in science classes. What’s wrong with that?

A. That’s actually not a new tactic. Science standards in Texas, well before the Dover trial, required students to learn the “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theories and hypotheses. In principle, there’s nothing wrong with that. But the curious thing, which was very clear in battles over curriculum and textbooks in that state, was that there was only one scientific theory that anyone wanted to see the “weaknesses” of, and that was evolution. The problem, of course, is that by singling out just one theory for special treatment, they hope to imply to students that evolution is especially shaky, that it’s just a “theory” and not a “fact.” The goal is to produce fertile ground in the minds of students for scientifically discredited ideas like special creation and intelligent design. There is, in fact, no legitimate reason for singling out evolution for such treatment.

Q. In your book, you cite opinion polls showing large number of Americans rejecting evolution. We lag far behind almost all the countries of Europe and barely ahead of Turkey. What can be done to rectify this situation?

A. Better textbooks, better teacher training, better standards, you name it. I also think that the scientific community in the United States has done an absolutely shameful job of popularizing the excitement and the value of its own work. The reluctance of scientists and science educators to engage their communities and to speak to the popular media has produced a situation in which there are far too few voices speaking up for science. I’d like to see that change in a big way.

Q. Many creationist groups are in fact overtly fundamentalist ministries, but the Discovery Institute – the driving force behind intelligent design – denies having any ties to religion. Based on your dealings with this group, what do you think is its agenda?

A. The Discovery Institute’s overtly non-religious character is an important part of its strategy. Institute leaders are quite conscious of the fact that they will have the support of certain religious groups even without an obvious religious affiliation, and that aids in their legal efforts to portray intelligent design as legitimate science. But there is no doubt that their primary motivation is to restore what they regard as the traditional religious character of social and intellectual life in western culture.

This is made quite clear in the opening sentence of the so-called “Wedge” document, which lays out the essential tenets of the ID movement: “The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built.” As the document explains, that civilization has been “infected” by a “materialistic conception of reality” of which evolution is an essential part. The document explains that they seek “nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies.” That means evolution, of course, but it also means all other aspects of “materialist” science and culture.

Q. In your book, you assert that the outcome of this battle will determine the very future of science in America. Why is that?

A. Science in America is built, from the ground up, on the character of the American people. Historians emphasize the practical character of American society, in which what you can do matters a lot more than where you came from or who your parents were. That’s certainly true in science, and it’s one of the reasons why we’ve attracted so many talented scientists from other countries who have come to America and made their careers here. But that culture of support for science is fragile, and I believe that it is increasingly threatened. If we raise a generation of young people who have learned that the scientific process is not to be trusted, who have been taught that scientists falsify data and concoct phony theories in support of political agendas, in short, who have been systematically educated to make them suspicious of science, then I don’t think American science will remain a world leader for very long. I think we’re at a tipping point where we can renew or reject our historical commitment to scientific rationality, and I think that which way we go will determine, to no small measure, our country’s future.

Q. Are you optimistic that this battle can be won?

A. If I wasn’t an optimist, I wouldn’t be a scientist. Science is built around hope and faith – the hope that new discoveries and new ways of understanding are possible, and the faith that the world will be a better place as a result of that. If we apply those values to politics and popular culture, I am convinced that the American people will choose science every time. The outcomes of recent elections in states like Ohio and Kansas convince me that we can win the contest for public opinion – but only if we take our case directly to the people.

Q. What can ordinary Americans do to help in the battle?

A. For all of our faults and flaws, this really is a democracy, especially at the local level. As a result, there is no substitute for citizen involvement in support of quality science education for our kids, and that begins at everyone’s front door. And it’s not just a matter of pushing back against the sorts of anti-science measures that have inspired court cases and public controversies. If we are to compete as a nation in the 21st century, we need strong grassroots support for science education in our public schools.

A. Feb. 12 marks Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday. What would he think about the decades of debate over his theory?

A. First of all, I think he’d be stunned at the way in which entirely new scientific fields, such as genetics, molecular biology and genomics, have opened up the study of life. I also think he’d be delighted at the way in which the broad outlines of his ideas have made it possible to draw these fields together into a common explanatory framework that gets stronger every day. He’d be especially curious about the discovery of radioactivity, which came just after his death, and what it might reveal about the ages of rocks and fossils.

When he learned that radiometric dating techniques have shown that our planet is even older, much older, than he thought, I suspect he’d break out into a broad grin. As a scientist, the debates you speak of might puzzle him. Given the mountain of new evidence supporting evolution and common descent, he might ask why this wouldn’t be sufficient to produce public consensus. But another part of Charles Darwin, the one that hesitated nearly two decades before publishing his theory, would understand completely. He knew full well that the origin of species, which he once called the mystery of mysteries, was at the very heart of how we understand ourselves. The central message of evolution is that we are part of the natural world, and that we emerged through natural processes. For many people, that will always be hard to take, and I think Darwin would have understood the difficulties of that message as well as anyone.

Q. Are there any points you’d like to add?

A. Only that the hard work and assistance of Americans United was critical in winning the Dover case. [AU Assistant Legal Director] Richard Katskee played a key role in developing legal strategy in the case, and all of us who worked together on Kitzmiller v. Dover will never forget the teamwork and camaraderie that made a successful outcome possible.