Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul

  • Kenneth R. Miller
Viking: 2008. 256 pp. $25.95 067001883X 9780670018833 | ISBN: 0-670-01883-X

The United States has a big problem: although we maintain a strong scientific establishment, competitive with the rest of the world in many fields, we also have some of the most backwards proponents of superstitious nonsense in both our electorate and at the highest levels of politics. It is an embarrassment to host laboratories that are at the forefront of scientific research in the same country where presidential candidates are discussing whether Earth is really 6,000 years old as some Bible scholars say, or whether they believe in evolution.

Science and evolution have an advocate in Kenneth Miller, one of North America's eminent knights-errant, a scientist who is active in defending evolutionary theory in the conflict between evolution and creationism. He has been at the centre of many recent debates about science education, most prominently testifying against intelligent design creationism in Pennsylvania's Dover trial, which decided that intelligent design was a religious concept that should not be taught in public schools. He is also a popular speaker, offering the public a grass-roots defence of good science education. Miller's new book Only a Theory is a tour of creationist misconceptions about evolution, such as the one referred to in the book's subtitle — a creationist predicted an inevitable victory in the Dover trial because evolution is “only a theory”. The book is also a celebration of the power of evolutionary theory to explain our existence.

Miller is a fine writer who sharply addresses the details of the arguments about intelligent design creationism. When tackling old chestnuts such as the “only a theory” complaint, or Michael Behe's argument for a maximum limit for the number of genetic mutations, or William Dembski's rehash of William Paley's watchmaker argument for complexity, Miller discusses the contemporary biological explanations while refuting the errors.

Miller is sympathetic to the creationists' perspective but opposes them uncompromisingly. The book does not try to place the blame for creationism on ignorance, stupidity or malice, but suggests that the ideas are rooted in traditions and values that biologists share. He admires the clever rhetorical trick of appropriating the term 'design' for creationism, thereby implying that scientists favour the opposite and believe that human life is meaningless and without purpose. He recognizes that the concept of intelligent design creationism taps effectively into human desires and prejudices. Miller does not confuse sympathy for the intent of creationists with sympathy for its effects. The conflict has wider consequences than the teaching of one discipline in US public schools — the creationists aim to revise what science means, discarding rationalism, naturalism, materialism and other Enlightenment values to incorporate the supernatural and loosen the rigour of all sciences.

Only a Theory deals poorly with one central aspect of this battle: why this problem is so much greater in the United States than elsewhere. Miller's rationalizations are sometimes painful to read. Europe's relative freedom from the scourge of creationism is explained with a condescending anecdote: a British colleague offers that any outbreak of such nonsense is rapidly quashed by “dispatch[ing] a couple of dons from Oxford or Cambridge” to overawe the locals with their prestigious degrees, to which the populace will defer. The popularity of creationism in the United States is ascribed to independence and rebelliousness rather than religiosity, which, as someone who has dealt with many creationists, I find disingenuous. The hallmark of almost any creationist argument is the tireless bleating of the same points we have rebutted since the trial of teacher John Scopes in Tennessee in 1925, which tested the law on teaching Darwinian evolutionary theory; the only twists come from new creationist authorities that enter the fray. An equivalent US variant of Miller's British anecdote is that the enemies of science need only dispatch Dembski or Behe from the Discovery Institute in Seattle, Washington, to stir up more doctrinaire creationism among school boards and in elections and churches. To call US citizens more independent-minded than European citizens flatters the creationists too much and demeans Europeans.

If Miller is on shaky ground in his explanations of the origins of creationism, he is rock-solid on where the creationists want to take us: “To the intelligent design movement, the rationalism of the Age of Enlightenment, which gave rise to science as we know it, is the true enemy ... science will be first redefined, and then the 'bankrupt ideologies' of scientific rationalism can be overthrown once and for all.” Although his own religious leanings blind him to conflict between faith and science, they also give him insight into both sides of the struggle. Only a Theory is a useful overview of a perilous political attack on the nature of science.