Noted Brown University biologist and slayer of windmills, Kenneth Miller, came to Birmingham, Alabama, on Thursday November 5. The room was packed with what seemed to be about 200 (mostly students and some faculty). Overall, Miller displayed the affable but subliminally arrogant attitude I’ve come to expect in some academics. Miller began by giving a long list of his publications interspersed along with some obligatory self-deprecating humor, the apparent take-home message being “look at what a smart and prolific boy I am.” He then launched into Kitzmiller v. Dover and said (whether out of genuine misinformation or outright disingenuousness I cannot say) that the Discovery Institute “put them [the school board] up to it.” After giving a wholly inaccurate definition of ID as the idea that “design in the form of outside intelligent intervention is required to account for the origin of living things,” he launched into the bulk of his lecture most of which simply gave examples of common descent as “proof” of Darwinian evolution. I must say that I was surprised by the degree to which Miller absolutely savaged ID. It’s not that he simply disagrees with ID, the substance of his message was that ID is a creationist group (no one was mentioned by name) with the Discovery Institute as its front organization working (in his words) “against scientific rationality.” The thrust of his ID comments were wholly denigrating and dismissive. Miller later admitted that evolution was the product of “design in nature” in search of “adaptive spaces.” His discussion of design was frankly bizarre; at times he almost sounded like a Gaia proponent—I couldn’t figure out if by design he meant just some sort of unfolding or self-direction or if “design” was somehow synonymous with natural selection. The entire presentation in this regard was quite fuzzy. There was a lot of conflation of concepts—my personal favorite being his conflation of evolution, genetics, and Gregor Mendel. Anyone listening to Miller on this would have thought that Mendel was simply carrying Darwin’s ideas forward; he did not, of course, point out that Darwin’s adherence to pangenesis and the notion of inheritance of acquired characteristics was quite different from that of Mendel. The rest was pretty predictable.
I finally did get to ask Miller a question. It was the second to last one, and Miller was pretty euphoric having hit a series of Q & A home runs from softballs pitched at T-ball speeds mostly by students. The good thing was that by the time I got to pose my question a lot of questioners had prefaced their questions with comments (mostly “thank you, thank you, for supporting theism and science,” “oh what an important struggle we have before us promoting good science, your presentation was marvelous,” etc., etc.). I started by saying that I sincerely wished that this country could get away from this overly simplistic “evolution versus creation” discourse as unhistorical and unhelpful. We talk about evolution as though Wallace and Mivart never existed. Then I said, “Dr. Miller, as you well know, Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of natural selection, broke with Darwin over the role of natural selection in creating the human mind. Wallace didn’t think it could account for it; Mivart agreed. Now these objections are still with us today. They haven’t gone away. Surely you’re familiar with the April issue of Nature in which Bolhuis and Wynne asked, ‘Can evolution explain how minds work?’. Don’t we have an educational obligation to give the WHOLE story of evolution? I mean we talk about evolution as if it was simply the story of Darwin and science on the march when, if fact, many of the original objections raised to his theory remain today. This is Whiggish history of the worst kind! How can we get past this and tell the more complete and accurate story of evolution? ” Miller replied by nodding in apparent approval, which seemed inappropriate given his presentation, but then simply didn’t answer the question. The upshot of his reply was to utter some vague generalizations about the Templeton Foundation and that he was working with them on this very thing. Huh??
Well that’s my report. I must say Miller is an engaging and powerful speaker. His points are persuasive to the uninformed and although I have no objection to his having his say in a free markeplace of ideas, I suspect that he does considerable intellectual damage where ever he goes.