An expert witness for evolution discusses collapse of “intelligent design”

Kenneth MillerBrown University biologist Kenneth Miller was lead witness for the prosecution in the 2005 case of Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District, the Pennsylvania evolution trial that led directly to the collapse of “intelligent design” theory. That event and its aftermath became the subject of “Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial,” an episode of the PBS series NOVA that debuted Nov. 13. Two days after that first broadcast, Miller spoke at SMU on “Science and Faith in America: What Does the Collapse of ‘Intelligent Design’ Mean?” Read more.

Miller coauthors high school and college biology textbooks used by millions, including Texans, and serves as life sciences adviser to “PBS NewsHour.” Named the 2007 Science Educator of the Year, he also holds a 2006 Public Service Award and a 2005 Presidential Citation for distinguished contributions. He is the author of Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution, now in its 25th printing in paperback.

Below, Miller talks about evolution as a political wedge issue, how the “intelligent design” strategy may affect Texas, and “the ultimate compatibility of science and religion.”

Evolution has been a politically fraught issue for many years. What’s your take on the current environment?

I think the best way to set this in the context of our times is to take an example from just a couple of months ago. You may remember that in a recent presidential debate, a wiseguy moderator decided it would be funny to ask the candidates if any of them did not believe in evolution. And as you may also remember, three hands went up. Those three hands belonged to Sam Brownback, Tom Tancredo and Mike Huckabee. Later on, every one of them wrote op-ed pieces explaining why they raised their hands, but the one that caught my eye was by Governor Huckabee. He said, “If anybody else wants to believe that they are the descendants of a primate, they certainly are welcome to do it.”

The thing is, human beings are primates. You are descended from primates whether you like it or not. And the person who first classified humans as primates was not Charles Darwin, but Carl von Linné. He’s more widely known as Carolus Linnaeus, he’s the father of modern biological classification, and he was also a creationist. Whether or not you believe in evolution has nothing to do with it – you are a primate, and you are descended from primates.

One of the things that is clear is that evolution remains a controversial topic. TIME magazine did a very good cover article two years ago called “The Evolution Wars,” which pointed out that depending on how you ask the question, most Americans reject the theory of evolution. It’s controversial all over the country. And our president has taken a position that’s not always helpful, in my point of view.

You’ve seen several aspects of that controversy up close. Can you give us your take on what it looks like?

To illustrate just how controversial an issue this is, in the past three years I’ve testified in federal trials on evolution in Georgia and Pennsylvania. You may also know that in the 2006 election, evolution was the issue in two other states, Kansas and Ohio. You might wonder: When evolution is the issue in a state election, what does the campaign look like? I want to show you what the level of discourse was like in Ohio. This is how a Cleveland talk-show host boiled down the election for the state Board of Education: “If you believe in God, creation and true science, vote for [Deborah Owens Fink]. If you believe in evolution, abortion and sin, vote for her opponent [Tom Sawyer].”

You might also wonder how the election turned out, with a pitch like that. I’ve seen a lot of analysis of the 2006 election, but never any that broke down the sin vote. It turns out that at least in Ohio, the sin vote was triumphant, because the pro-evolution candidates swept the state Board of Education. And it’s worth noting that in Kansas, the other state where this was an issue, the same thing happened.

So why is evolution still under attack?

It’s not because evolution is not good science. The very people who attack it most strongly say that it’s in fact a powerful and persuasive idea. An organization called Answers in Genesis has just spent $27 million to build a creation museum in northern Kentucky – and when you go to their website, you can find more of the reasons why evolution is under attack. They consider evolution to be the root of everything they consider to be wrong with society. Lawlessness, homosexuality, pornography, abortion – all, apparently, are built on evolution. That’s what the stakes of the battle are, in the eyes of those who oppose evolution.

It’s not a scientific argument. If you think that evolution is responsible for all sorts of bad stuff, then there is no fossil, no experiment, no DNA sequence that will ever convince you. This is as much a cultural war as anything else, and that’s a message I try to get across to my colleagues in the scientific community.

Why the opposition to teaching intelligent design in schools? Shouldn’t students just decide for themselves which ideas they believe?

Let me tell you what happened when an anti-evolution majority got control of the school board in Kansas in 2004. You might think they’d ban evolution outright – what they did instead was to rewrite the entire definition not just of biology, but of science itself. The definition of science in the Kansas standard had been, “Science is the human activity of seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us.” It seems really innocent, straightforward and obvious. The new school board didn’t like that, and what they particularly didn’t like was that word “natural.” So they changed it to read, “Science is a method of continuing investigation that uses observation, hypothesis, measurement, experimentation and theory-building to lead to more adequate explanations.”

It doesn’t sound that different. But why would they change “natural explanations” to “more adequate explanations”? Well, the people who did this explained that they wanted to “open science up.” They thought science was being too restrictive by limiting itself to naturalistic explanations. They wanted to open it up to non-naturalistic explanations. Every time I heard that, I thought, “What exactly is a non-naturalistic explanation?” And the only conclusion I could come to was that it was a supernatural explanation.

Now, scientists don’t necessarily think supernatural explanations are wrong. They just think they’re not scientific. “Not scientific” means we can’t test them, and testability is the essence of science. It took about a year for people to realize what had happened. And then all the people who did physical science, earth science, chemistry – who thought they were immune – said, “Wait a minute, our definition of science is under attack as well.” They brought their appreciation of this to the electorate, and what happened in 2006 is that evolution triumphed in the Kansas election. A pro-evolution majority now sits on the State Board of Education, and that old definition of science has now been restored.

How could this controversy affect Texas?

In many respects, Texas is the single most open and democratic state in the way it builds its school curriculum and selects textbooks. In many states, curriculum is set administratively, textbook selection is done quietly, district by district – but not in Texas. In Texas, you elect your state Board of Education, the Board considers recommendations for the curriculum, the curriculum has to be set by the Legislature – that’s almost unique among states. Books are purchased by the Texas Education Agency, and individual districts select the books. It’s a more open process in this state than in many others.

What I’m worried about now is that this anti-evolution movement will try to do the same in other states as it did in Kansas – maybe even here in Texas. But the open, democratic nature of the process in Texas gives ordinary citizens, and especially rank-and-file teachers, an opportunity to exert their influence. And I certainly hope they do.

What does the collapse of intelligent design mean for faith?

You might as well ask, “Why does intelligent design act as though evolution and religion are always in conflict?” There are a lot of reasons for that, but part of it is an intentional aspect of the intelligent-design strategy. The originator is a Berkeley law professor named Phillip E. Johnson, who calls it “the wedge strategy.” His book is called The Wedge of Truth, and here’s what he says is the goal: “The objective of the intelligent-design strategy is to convince people that Darwinism is inherently atheistic. This will shift the debate from ‘creation versus evolution’ to ‘the existence of God’ versus ‘the nonexistence of God.’ Then we can introduce people to the truth of the Bible, the question of sin, and finally introduce them to Jesus.” Anyone who doubts that the goals of the movement are inherently religious: Read what its founder says. These are, in fact, religious goals.

I’m always amazed at how strong the presumption is that there’s a conflict between science and religion. This presumption is literally everywhere. I’m amazed at how often the conversation about evolution jumps, almost without us noticing, into a conversation about religion. God is the big question. It’s worth pointing out that some of the most famous names in the history of evolution actually have insisted that this is a moot question. Francis Collins – the head of the Human Genome Project, one of the most important scientists in the world, probably on the short list for the Nobel Prize – last summer released a wonderful book called The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. Francis is an uncompromising evolutionary biologist, but he also is a sincere and dedicated and committed evangelical Christian. For any of you who wonder how scientists reconcile these ideas, read Collins’ book. One of the things Francis says when he’s asked this question is, “If two ideas are not in conflict, they have no need of reconciliation.”

That being said, how successful can science really be at balancing questions of faith?

There’s a remarkable quotation from St. Augustine, one of the earliest and most influential of all Christian writers. And you can read this for yourself, but here’s my translation of what he tells his readers: “Even a nonbeliever can study geology, astronomy, zoology, botany and other scientific fields, and that nonbeliever can gain scientific knowledge from observation and experiment. The worst thing that could happen would be for that nonbeliever to hear a Christian, presumably explaining the meaning of the Bible, talking nonsense on these scientific topics. We have to do everything we can to prevent the embarrassment of nonbelievers showing up scientific ignorance in Christians and laughing it to scorn.”

Look at what Augustine is warning people to do. If you use the Bible to make scientific statements, and you’re wrong, the nonbeliever will disregard the real message of Scripture, which is the message of salvation. Therefore, it is an unwise thing to do.

So what kind of science do you get when you follow Augustinian precepts? Look at Father Gregor Mendel, the head of an Augustinian monastic order and the father of modern genetics. When he developed an interest in the scientific question of how plants pass on their characteristics, he went into the garden and conducted experiments. So the answer is, you get darned good science, and I think that’s as profound a statement as anyone can make about the ultimate compatibility of science and religion.

About Kathleen Tibbetts

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