A review of Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul by Kenneth Miller
Viking Penguin, New York, 2008
On the outer jacket of this book, Miller is praised as a brilliant and original thinker. To the contrary: Miller is simply dusting off and repackaging the same old straw-man arguments against creationists of decades ago and reusing them against ID.1
Even the title is a straw man: creationists have long advised against saying that evolution is ‘only a theory’, since the evidence is far too weak to dignify it with the term ‘theory’. Rather, it is just a conjecture or hypothesis.2
Throughout this book, the reader is constantly treated to the ‘only naturalism is science’ hubris. There are so many absurdities and non sequiturs in Miller’s book that it is hard to decide what to write about in this brief review. The technicalities of Miller’s contentions (e.g. regarding Behe, irreducible complexity, the immune system, etc.) have already been refuted by ID proponents, and will not be repeated here.
In an obvious attempt to mollify the usually-theistic reader, Francis Collins, on the outer jacket, says that Miller’s book is no atheistic screed, and that Miller is a devout believer. This is a smokescreen. Miller’s views on the origins of the universe and of life are, theological rhetoric aside, indistinguishable from those of the hardcore atheist.3 But Collins has long been shown to be just as confused as Miller is,4 just not as obsessively and viciously anticreationist.
Interestingly, Miller provides a table of nations and their rates of popular acceptance of evolution
(p. 214). Besides secular Japan, the nations with the highest rates of the acceptance of evolution are the highly-secularized western European ones. Obviously, the enlightened secularists, no less than those big, bad, dumb American fundamentalists, reject the sugar-coated fluff, coming from the clergy of most religious bodies, which insist that God and evolution are compatible, or even apologize to Darwin.5
Miller’s comments on the horse series, transitional forms, convergence of living things, human evolution, shared human-simian similarities, etc, even if correct, are relevant to creation-vs-evolution questions, but are completely irrelevant to ID. The issue is not why there are different horses at different stratigraphic levels, but why there were/are horses or any kind at all in existence. Pointedly, ID, unlike creationism, allows for geologic periods, the possibility of a considerable amount of common descent, etc. Is Miller so abysmally ignorant of ID that he doesn’t know this, or is he intentionally misrepresenting the ID movement? Miller also commits the fallacy of composition by insinuating that, since some ID members are creationists, therefore all of ID is nothing more than re-labelled creationism.
The example of the Antarctic fish with its antifreeze is misrepresented as some kind of example of a modern complex feature arising by non-teleological processes. Yet antifreeze protein is not complex, unlike the machinery of living organisms. All an antifreeze protein has to do is stick to tiny ice crystals to prevent them growing. So, if machinery can be compared to the manmade Hoover Dam, the antifreeze protein can be compared with random pieces of debris that might block a stream or drain.6
Humans have 46 chromosomes and chimps have 48. Miller cites this as an example of the elegance of the predictive powers of evolution, which anticipated the (inferred) fusion of chromosomes in humans. But what if the missing chromosomes had not been accounted for? Would evolution have been abandoned? I rather doubt it. Some other explanation would have been concocted.
Besides, the whole issue begs the question whether the fusing of the chromosomes occurred as a result of an unplanned mutation during the course of the non-teleological evolutionary process, or if it happened intentionally according to the will of a Designer. The arrangement is unique to humans, but fusion of pre-existing chromosomes would have reduced fertility. Some evolutionary researchers pointed out:
Miller discusses the non-starting of his car, and how he would try to find an explanation in terms of a frozen gas line, empty gas tank, etc., not a supernatural explanation. Unbelievable! How can a well-understood process like the function of a car be equated with the decidedly not-understood mysteries of the origin of living things, and of the universe? Also, his reasoning begs the question in that it assumes that processes by which the universe functions are identical to the processes which brought it into being! He may as well look for naturalistic causes of his car coming into existence without any intelligent maker.
When it comes to the fine-tuning of the universe, Miller brings up the old saw about us not being here to discuss it were it not so. But this only repeats the fact; it doesn’t explain it. It’s like handling a piece of dynamite, not getting blown up, and noting that one would not be here to realize this fact had it in fact exploded. This simply restates the fact—it doesn’t explain why it didn’t explode in the first place! Also, explanations involving infinite universes are vacuous. They’re like saying that, since there are innumerable numbers of beaches on innumerable numbers of planets within an innumerable number of universes, a non-designed watch on one of them is inevitable. And, had we not in fact encountered it, we wouldn’t be talking about it.
Miller resurrects the tired argument that teleological thinking discourages scientific curiosity and thereby delays scientific discoveries. Just the opposite: dysteleological thinking does. How much has our understanding of physiology (not to mention medicine) been delayed by the evolutionistic belief in vestigial organs, and, in more recent times, how much has our understanding of the genome been delayed by the evolutionistic belief in junk DNA? Geneticist John Mattick, although an evolutionist, said:
The familiar argument about no designer being necessary for the origin of the eye, owing to the fact that the eye occurs at different levels of sophistication in nature, is repeated. That’s like saying that, since airplanes (from the paper airplane to the Wright Brothers’ biplane through the Boeing 747) occur at different levels of sophistication, therefore no intelligent designer is needed to account for the existence of airplanes.
Not surprisingly, Miller is forced to argue out of both corners of his mouth. In common with so many other evolutionists, he simultaneously complains that ID contentions are unscientific because they are not falsifiable, and then turns around and says that they have been in fact falsified (e.g. allegedly Behe on the immune system).
Miller complains that a design explanation is not a good one, because the design process is finished and therefore unable to be studied. But this begs the question about origins, as it tacitly supposes that any valid explanation must involve an ongoing process—that is, a non-design one.
We also hear the same old ‘design explanations are too sweeping’ argument. But exactly the same can be said about evolutionary theory. It simultaneously purports to explain the long neck of the giraffe and the short neck of the rhino; the existence of selfishness in nature and the existence of altruism in nature. A few relatively trivial counter-examples (e.g. the immune system) do not change this basic picture. Most evolutionary explanations are clearly post hoc and ad hoc.
We hear the old rhetoric that only evolution explains things, makes predictions and is testable. Oh really? How many times has evolutionary theory been modified ad hoc in the face of contrary evidence, and then continued on as if nothing had happened? Anyone with even a cursory familiarity with ID knows that it makes testable predictions. Let’s make a simple example. A fragment of a spacecraft, with English-language alphanumeric printing on it, is found by extraterrestrials. One of them suggests that the markings are the products of intelligent design, and makes the prediction that they cannot ever be satisfactorily explained by ordinary cosmic processes. The other one suggests the absence of design, and makes the opposite prediction.
Science is supposed to be a disinterested search for truth. What kind of science is this that determines, in advance, which explanations are acceptable and which are not? If the extraterrestrials, in the example above, decided a priori that design explanations are off limits, how would they ever discover the fact that the markings were made by intelligent beings? Ditto for the study of the origins of life, and of living things, by scientists.
Miller also contends that, since the designer putatively can make anything, ID has no explanatory power. This is completely bogus. The fact that humans can make so many different things in no way disqualifies them as originators of the markings. More fundamentally, Miller’s ‘designer can make anything’ contention, whether putatively true or false, is totally irrelevant to the question whether the markings on the spacecraft originated from design or non-design processes.
Then we hear the old ‘design explanations are lazy and ignorant ones, invoked only because we don’t understand the process that formed something’ argument. This begs the question about origins, as it tacitly assumes that only non-design explanations are ultimately the correct ones. Were the extraterrestrials in the example above, after conducting many futile experiments to recreate the markings by cosmic processes, to give up on non-teleological explanations in favour of a teleological one, should we conclude that they have grown lazy, and become satisfied with their ignorance? Only if we already assume that the non-design explanation is in fact the correct one!
In bringing up pseudogenes, and besides not being up-to-date, Miller drags out the old chestnut that makes ‘poor design’ synonymous with no design. This non sequitur confuses the issue, which is not whether the design is ‘poor’ or not (according to someone’s opinion) but whether or not it exists at all. (Certainly IDer’s must explain the origins of pseudogenes in terms of their paradigm, but that is a separate issue. Proven functions of many have undermined the evolutionary case.9)
Consider the extraterrestrial who, in the earlier example, says:
This extraterrestrial’s dys-teleological pile-on continues:
What are we to make of this fictional discourse? The extraterrestrial, like Miller, is allowing his preconceptions, even if hypothetically valid, to confuse the actual issue: do the markings require a designer for explanation, or not? Also, why is Miller’s proposed ‘God who used evolution’ any less a ‘bungling creator’ for using such a wasteful, inefficient and cruel process as evolution?
We hear the old saw that Darwin discredited Paley. He did no such thing. Proposing non-teleological explanations for complex systems is not the same as explaining their origin without a designer. Furthermore, Miller commits the fallacy of hasty generalization, and makes yet another non sequitur, when he contends that, since some intelligent-design theories (e.g. Behe on the immune system) have (supposedly) been discredited, therefore all intelligent-design contentions are discredited.
To illustrate: imagine the extraterrestrial, from the previous examples, who conducted research on the markings engraved by dust-sized meteoroids on solid surfaces. He finds that these markings often resemble (l) and sometimes (X) and (x). ‘Aha!’, he triumphantly tells his teleologically-inclined extraterrestrial colleague.
Decades ago, we were warned that creationism was a grave danger to science and reason. Modern creationism has now been around for nearly 50 years, yet science and reason are doing just fine. Now Miller is repeating the same sky-is-falling warning concerning ID.
Is science really so fragile that it would collapse with the admission of a Designer? If acceptance of design is so toxic to science, why did modern science originate, and make so many important discoveries, in the centuries before the Darwinian revolution, when design and a Designer were not only tolerated but actively welcomed in science, and were in fact the ruling paradigm/worldview? Nor did pre-Darwinian scientists merely hold their teleological beliefs at arms length from their scientific activities: the two were intertwined. For example, Linnaeus built his system of taxonomy, still used by biologists to this day, explicitly guided by his belief that living things had been specially created, and that the biological limits of these creations could be discovered in nature.
Miller engages in silly alarmism as he elaborates on his warning about the dangers of ID. He alleges that rejection of evolution means that we are likely to ignore such things as environmental concerns, the emergence of new strains of pathogenic bacteria, etc. What nonsense! None of these concerns has anything to do with molecules-to-man evolution, much less whether things originated by design or not.
Biblical literalism, though irrelevant to the fundamental design/non-design issue, is briefly brought up. Indeed, it is a straw man even with creationists, who accept the grammatical-historical approach, not a ‘literalistic’ one, i.e. interpret history as history, poetry as poetry etc.10 We get the same old song-and-dance about Genesis having been written in a prescientific age, and intended to lead us to God but not tell us how the universe came to be, etc. Says who?
Miller dwells on how the general American public considers evolution repugnant, and rejects it for this reason. How about rejecting evolution because it is repugnant and, especially, because it is also unconvincing? After all, most people are reasonable, and will accept a repugnant truth if it is truly well-supported (I would). But, repugnant or not, this issue, once again, is totally irrelevant to the fundamental question of whether living things originated from design or non-design processes.
What about randomness? Miller tries to mollify concerns about our ostensible origin by non-design processes by alleging that our lives are already governed by many random (actually, unpredictable) events. One obvious example is our parents meeting each other, and which particular sperm combined with which particular egg to form us. This is disingenuous. For the Christian theist, at least, nothing is random or unplanned in God’s eyes—not even the falling of a sparrow to the ground. Ditto for contingent events.
Miller suggests that, despite the ostensible fact of non-design evolutionary origins, we can frame our own meaning of life, and enjoy the wonders of nature. So can the atheist.
Decades ago, creationists were accused of bypassing the scientific process in favour of pushing their agenda through legislation and direct appeals to the uninformed public. Now Miller is dusting off this old chestnut and accusing ID of the same, focusing on a few local cases like Dover. Indeed, there are glaring double standards here: quite a number of evolutionists have appealed to the ruling of judges about whether ID is science, although the judges lack any qualifications in science.
Whatever merit these arguments had long ago, they have been superseded by the considerable amount of research done by creationists and ID proponents—considering their limited resources (i.e. they must persuade people to support them, while evolutionists often make use of money coerced from taxpayers). Miller is also protesting too much, in view of the ways that evolutionists have gone far beyond the evidence to make slick presentations to the public—something which has been included under the rubrics of ‘junk science’ and ‘The Carl Saganization of science.’
In conclusion, Miller’s book is nothing new. It tells us more about his rationalistic preconceptions than about ID.