Review of Kenneth Miller’s “Finding Darwin’s God”

Review of Kenneth Miller’s “Finding Darwin’s God”

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I have only met Ken Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University, the once.  This was when we together appeared on one of William Buckley’s Firing Line television debates, part of the side arguing for evolution against a group of critics, those whom I label the “New Creationists.”  I should say that on those sorts of occasions I like to give full vent to my own ego, hogging as much of the air time as I possibly can, crackling jokes and making dramatic pleas for understanding and tolerance, and trying always to give the impression of the most deeply sincere person since Martin Luther – or at least since Stephen Jay Gould, who does just what I do only rather better.

This time I came away realizing that I was not the star of the show and that I was altogether overshadowed by another.  Miller was simply brilliant, taking on the likes of Buckley himself, David Berlinski (a mathematician who had written an article trashing Darwinism), Michael Behe (author of the biochemical attack on Darwinism, Darwin’s Black Box), and Phillip Johnson (Berkeley law professor and author of Darwin on Trial).  Brown knew the science, he knew how to communicate (his teaching ratings must be out of sight), and he knew how to take an example and make of it a dramatic point of confirmation.  (To be fair, this is the great strength of Behe too.  He likewise can take an example and make of it a point of great significance, and he too can explain the complex in terms of the simple.  I am sure that he is also a great teacher.)

Most effective in our debate was Ken Miller’s attack on Behe’s notion of “irreducible complexity.”  According to Behe, some biological entities are so complex that they simply could not have come about through the slow natural process of natural selection.  Or by any natural process for that matter.  They must therefore have come through “intelligent design.”  By way of example, Behe instanced the mousetrap: a contraption for killing small rodents, and something made of five separate parts (the base, the spring, etc.).  Take any one of these parts away and the trap fails to function, argued Behe.  It must therefore have been planned and put together at one point in time, and started life right out as fully functioning for its intended purpose.  (It was not for instance a door stopper adapted for another end.)

Miller turned up for our debate with a mousetrap, or rather with two mousetraps.  One in its original five-part form and one with a piece missing but the other parts bent so that it still functioned.  With great effect, at a crucial point in the debate — just after Behe had given an exposition of his thinking — Miller whipped out his mousetraps, original and modified version, and showed just how lethal for Mickey and Minnie his modified trap could be.  Of course, the New Creationists fought back, but really we all knew that that was the end of that line of argument.  And more.  Since the mousetrap example had been shown so obviously fallacious, strong doubts were now seeded about the worth of the other parts of the Creationist case.  Miller was terrific, and we all knew it.

It is good news, therefore, that Miller, who is already an accomplished text book writer, would now have turned his hand to writing a book for the general reader on and about the attacks which have been launched against evolutionary thought in the past three or four decades – and which, as the State of Kansas shows only too well, are not about to go away for some time yet.  What makes one’s anticipation of this book particularly keen is that Brown is not only a deeply committed evolutionist, he is also a deeply committed Christian, a practicing Roman Catholic no less.  He wants to have his cake and eat it too.  He wants to argue for evolution – for Darwinian evolution making natural selection central – and yet argue for a strong, Jesus-Christ-as-the-son-of-God-who-came-down-to-earth-to-die-for-our-sins, religious faith also.  And this indeed is what Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution is all about.

Cutting to the quick, how successful is Ken Miller in his endeavours?  I would say that in his defense of evolution and critique of Creationism, he is extremely successful.  Indeed, I think he offers some of the best material I have ever seen on the subject.  I find his treatment of Christianity in the face of science and other objections rather less successful.  You might object that you could have forecast that this would be my opinion before either of us had read Miller’s book.  I am an ardent Darwinian and a non-believer – a philosopher to boot.  What would you expect of me?  And perhaps your reaction is well taken.  But judge for yourself on the basis of the comments I shall now make.

As far as the science is concerned, the first part of the book, we do indeed get a simply super introduction to the whole topic.  In a style which is warm and friendly almost to the point of being folksy – again the comparison with Behe comes to mind – Miller shows us what is involved in a belief in evolution.  He shows why he himself is a Darwinian, natural selection and all, even though when as a teenager he first encountered Darwin he (Miller) found the Origin of Species all rather boring.  Then in three devastatingly critical chapters, Miller takes us through the various belief systems of the Creationists, starting with the more extreme and moving to the more moderate (if that is the right term).

Thus “God the Charlatan” takes on the traditional extreme literalists who think that the Bible must be accepted in every word, even though this means that the earth can be no more than (at a maximum) ten thousand years old and that everything (or near everything) was once destroyed by a world-wide flood.  Miller’s particular focus of attack here is Genesis Flood by biblical scholar John Whitcomb and hydraulic engineer Henry Morris, and on the basis of modern science (particularly some of the brilliant work of geologist Brent Dalrymple) he shows just how far reached and silly are the claims of these people.  Truly no independent person can conclude other than that such Creationists have no real interest in science, wanting merely to dress up their religion in clothing sufficiently respectable to get around the U S Constitution’s separation of church and state.

“God the Magician” has in its sights my good friend Phillip Johnson, author of Darwin on Trial and other noted works which have sold two orders of magnitude more than any book by Michael Ruse.  Here Miller takes up the perpetual cry about the inadequacy of the fossil record, showing how it is today far more supportive of evolutionism than the contrary.  I would say that here I do have one point of criticism, namely that the picture is rather clouded by Miller’s hostility to the punctuated equilibria reading of the fossil record – evolution by jumps rather than evolution by gradual change – of Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge.  I myself am no less hostile to punk eek than Miller, but I think it would have been better to kept separate the critique of evolutionists by evolutionists and the critique of evolutionists by non-evolutionists.

“God the Mechanic” criticizes Michael Behe author of Darwin’s Black Box.  As I have said, this is a truly magnificent piece of writing – on its own, well worth the cost of the book.  Behe is no crude Creationist, believing rather (as we saw above) in something he calls “intelligent design” a response to so-called “irreducible complexity.”  He thinks that parts of the living world, particularly the microscopic world, are so complex and intricate that no evolutionary background can possibly explain their existence.  Something more, or rather SOMETHING MORE, is demanded.  Miller takes this claim apart, molecule by molecule.  I liked particularly his treatment of Behe’s claim that the vertebrate blood clotting system is too complex for evolution.  By the time Miller has finished, Behe’s seductive claims lie in tatters and his knowledge of evolution is shown to be somewhere between the inadequate and the pathetic.  This is must reading for everyone who is interested in the science/religion relationship.

Now, we come to the religion and Miller’s defence of his faith.  If I say that Miller does not strike me as a particularly sophisticated student of Christian theology, I do not intend this as a criticism as such – he is a biologist not a theologian so why should he be that sophisticated?  But if you write a book on the subject, then you do lay yourself open to criticism, and so let me raise a number of points.  Although, in passing note that I shall here say little about what strikes me as one of the most troubling points with Miller’s discussion: he avoids mention of some of the most difficult issues, particularly those pertaining to human souls and their origin, not to mention their contamination with original sin.  (Are we as evolutionists to think that at some point in time, God miraculously inserted souls, and if He did, in what sense are these different from our evolved intelligences?  And are we to think that there was an Adam and Eve who ate the apple in direct disobedience to God and if not how then are we sinful needing the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross to wash away our transgressions?)

Problem one: Miller thinks that free will is important (and so of course do we all) and he thinks that quantum mechanics solves the problem of how such a will can exist in a world of law.  It (quantum mechanics) introduces a level of indeterminacy which protects us from being rigidly locked into our actions without any choice.  However, I confess that I myself fail entirely to see what quantum mechanics has to do with the matter.  With David Hume, I think that unless the laws of nature rule supreme, free will in any meaningful sense is impossible.  Suppose I am Hitler on August 31, 1939, about to enter Poland.  I think Hitler freely chose to enter Poland, and the reason is that he had made decisions to do so.  (He was autonomous, unlike someone bound, say by being forced to allow the invasion on pain of death.)  If you want to say that the decision to enter Poland was made possible by quantum mechanics, consider what you are saying.  An electron flies off in one of two ways, unpredictable as to which way.  Hitler One inhabits the world where the electron flies off in direction A, thus leading to the invasion.  Hitler Two inhabits the alternate world where the electron flies off in direction B, thus leading to a back off.  Why is Hitler One free, in the sense that my Hitler is not?  I would say that Hitler One is a wanton, making no decision for himself but being rather at the mercy of uncontrollable forces.

Problem two: Miller is enamored with the anthropic principle.  If the laws of nature are not as they are, then we would not have been around.  Such exactitude in nature could not have come by chance.  Strike one up for God.  In response, let me allow that I have commented before on the anthropic principle.  One of the things I have commented is that folk like me, who are not physicists or up on the trade, ought to be very careful about running in and making declarative statements, however suspicious we may be of the principle.  But one factor which has always struck me is that I really do not see why the existence of our world rules out the existence of other worlds, with laws very different.  It may well be that these other worlds are highly unstable and that only a world like ours can sustain life.  But that is another matter.  The important fact is that given such worlds, the fact that we do have life here is hardly that surprising or God-demanding.  I am interested to note that the possibility of other worlds is now entertained seriously by physicists.  Steven Weinberg in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books makes this point, and Miller himself looks at a similar claim which is reported on by Daniel Dennett in his very pro-Darwin, anti-God book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.  Miller’s response is that Dennett’s suggestion (which refers to an idea by physicist Hugh Everett), which involves not just a few but many, many alternative universes (at least in creation if not in persistence), may work as physics but “fails the more basic test of common sense” [p.230].  But is this an adequate response?  Quantum mechanics fails my basic test of common sense.  The Trinity fails my basic test of common sense.  But I would hardly presume to think that this means that either is false.

Problem three: the problem of evil.  Miller mentions it but seems to think that mentioning it and recognizing its gravity is an answer in itself.  But it really is not, you know.  Miller writes: “Evolution cannot be a cruel concept if all it does is reflect the realities of nature, including birth, struggle, life, and death” [p. 246].  But why on earth not?  This is the very point made by Richard Dawkins in his recent writings (especially Climbing Mount Improbable and River Out of Eden).  Evolution is cruel and miserable and you cannot get away from the fact.  It may nevertheless be possible to square this with the Christian God, but this is not something that Miller does and it is no reason to dismiss Dawkins just because he is such a violent atheist and so distasteful to the Christian.  (Not to mince matters, Dawkins is bloody rude, talking of softening of the intellect and hypocrisy and more – although, I gather that on at least one occasion, he like Steve Weinberg has taken Templeton money!)

Problem four: human contingency.  Miller is right to point to Steve Gould’s insipid defense of the science-and-religion-in-harmony relationship, noting correctly that Gould gets his ends only by gutting religion of anything its supporters find worthwhile.  In particular, Miller is right to point to the fact that if human existence is as contingent a phenomenon as Gould insists – we evolved purely by chance, not the least because the dinos were wiped out by a comet – then the Christian is in trouble.  If nothing else, the Christian must insist that the arrival of creatures in the image of God cannot be contingent – they are a necessary part of God’s plan.  But I am not at all sure that Miller digs himself out of this problem.  After some circling around, Miller rather suggests that something human-like must have evolved somewhere in the universe and that is enough for God – the creatures in his image did not necessarily have to be Homo sapiens.  But surely Gould can respond that contingent is as contingent does.  There are no guarantees of human-like life forms in the universe, which modern physics tells us may well not be infinite in duration.  Can we really be sure that humans will evolve?  I am not sure that we can, at least on the evidence that Miller offers us.  (Interestingly, Gould of all people seems willing to entertain the idea that other human-like forms may have evolved elsewhere in the universe.  The idea that culture is a domain waiting to be conquered – like water, earth, and air before – is an attractive one.  But is it true?)

These then are some of my worries about Miller’s theological speculations.  I do not want to be entirely negative.  He points out that quantum mechanics does make you wonder about the ultimate nature of the universe and how far we humans might be from grasping it.  I think there may be a point here – I am always quoting J. B. S. Haldane to the effect that middle-range primates with adaptations to come down from the trees and move onto the plains do not necessarily have the abilities to peer into life’s ultimate mysteries and that the world in fact may be a very queer place – much queerer than we can grasp.  But as Miller himself rather admits, this does not prove the existence of the Christian God.  At most, I think a healthy scepticism is warranted.  Because we cannot understand what is “really” going on – because our physics is now designed to stop us from asking such awkward questions – it does not mean that God is lurking.  It could just be the same blind forces as always.  Indeed, the reasonable assumption is that it is the same blind forces as always.  So perhaps nothing very much rests on any of this.

All in all therefore my reaction to Finding Darwin’s God is that it is a rather mixed bag.  Some of it is really good.  Darwin’s Black Box is opened right up and it is shown to be as empty as are Michael Behe’s arguments.  Some of it is less compelling.  The theological sections tend to be a bit amateurish.  But the book is really well written, it never flags, and as this review shows even when you disagree you are stimulated to respond and think the issues through for yourself.  What more could you ask?!