Book Review: Only a Theory by Kenneth Miller

Book Review: Only a Theory by Kenneth Miller

As I mentioned in last week’s post, I’ve been wrapping up another book, and this week I finally finished it! I read Kenneth Miller’s Only A Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul, which arose from the 2006 court case Selman v. Cobb County School District.

This dispute began innocently, with textbook publisher Prentice Hall and a run-of-the-mill biology textbook. Frustratingly, but not surprisingly, the religious climate in Georgia at the time made teaching honest biology harder than it should be. The Cobb County School District included with every biology textbook a sticker:

This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.

Kenneth Miller is the author of this textbook, and Only a Theory is his story.

After the summary of this court case, Miller gushes with pride for America’s scientific soul. New ideas are always emerging, and they’re not held back by the credentials of he or she who proposes them; a good scientific idea will hold up on its own merit. For as long as anyone can remember, science has existed with an attitude to challenge old, established ideas; in many cases, the underdog proposes a new idea, and he or she often sounds crazy at first, but this is how many widely held theories emerge.

Miller then says that in this century, intelligent design “scientists” are trying to do what these past scientific revolutionaries have done. They’re challenging the established idea of the day, evolution by natural selection, and they’re trying to boost up the scientific underdog, intelligent design. Although you can probably guess what biology professor Miller thinks of this, he’s a fair guy, and he says, “Okay, well if intelligent design can hold up as a scientific idea, on its own merit, then it should be rightfully challenging evolution, and maybe it will be the next big idea.”

After his overview of the arguments for intelligent design, most notably irreducible complexity, Miller supposes that intelligent design is true, and in the next chapter, he tests it out and tries to see how well it answers every question that evolution answers better than evolution does. According to Miller, the only way to really know if intelligent design is viable is to take it seriously. He says,

If design really is the key to the complexity of living things, we ought to be eager to do a lot more than merely say, ‘Well, that means there must be a designer.’ We should be embracing design as a central principle of earth history, biological development, genetics, and genome organization. Design should be the tool we use to understand fossils, to develop new drugs, and to classify organisms. After all, that’s how we use evolution now, and if design is to replace Darwinian evolution, it should do all of those things—and it should do them a whole lot better.

Kenneth Miller, Only a Theory, p. 45

If there is an honest, objective scientific reason to believe in intelligent design, then we should believe in it. (I wonder if anyone will ever take this quote from me out of context? Fortunately, I don’t think I’m popular enough for that yet!)

One example of biological phenomena that has been best explained by the theory of evolution is that of horse species and extinctions. In short, in the past 55 million years, there have been hundreds of species and dozens of genera of horses, but now we have only about ten species (horses, donkeys, zebras, etc), all from one single genus. Evolution clearly explains this using what intelligent design proponents would call microevolution and macroevolution, where horses evolved into hundreds of varying species and genera, only for all but a handful to die out. Unfortunately for the horses, extinction is a massive part of evolution, and almost all of them already met their fate that way. But how would intelligent design describe this phenomenon?

Sure, it would be possible. A designer who creates every living thing ever could do anything he or she wants. So he or she could make hundreds of unrelated horse species, each one mysteriously appearing after the last one disappeared in a puff of smoke. Eventually, after millions of years of trial and error, this creator would finally have the perfect horse species to keep around. Although this could be the case, I guess, I can’t help but wonder why he or she couldn’t have just started out with this perfect horse to begin with?

Following this example, Miller applies his method to the famous ID concept of irreducible complexity by using the analogy of the mousetrap and a personal testimony to how one really can deconstruct a mousetrap and use the individual parts for plenty of non-vermin-related crafts. He brings it back by showing that the biological components of so-called irreducibly complex systems are similarly useful for other processes, and it really has been shown that these components arose separately before coming together into systems like the bacterial flagellum and the blood-clotting mechanism.

As you might have guessed, in the end, intelligent design didn’t hold up for Miller half as well as evolution could. Not surprisingly, the next chapter is dedicated to evidence for evolution, specifically that which is found in fossils and in human DNA. After that comes the story of how the term “intelligent design” came about, famously replacing the word “creationism” in the book Of Pandas and People, a copy of which I recently got for myself out of great curiosity.

Next, Miller discusses one of intelligent design’s strongest points, which is that it supposedly gives its followers hope and a purpose, that they were specially created for a reason. What can the spiritually vapid theory of evolution offer us in terms of hope? In the end, a lot of people don’t care so much about irreducible complexity or the evidence for horse evolution, so long as what they believe makes them feel special. But for Miller, evolution does this as well as design does.

This was the really surprising part for me. It’s clear as day throughout this book that Miller not only fervently disagrees with creationism (or whatever newfangled word you want to call it), but he really might hate it, and he hates what it is doing to the scientific community. This is why I could hardly believe that Miller is a Christian. Obviously it’s normal for a Christian to also be a proponent of evolution, but I don’t think I’ve yet seen a Christian in the battle between evolution and creationism that was so deeply entrenched on the side of evolution. We first find this out halfway through the book, in Chapter 6: “The World Knew We Were Coming.”

In this chapter, he ties in his belief in God and how the theory of evolution increases his overall sense of grandeur. He argues that it is a testament to God’s power and meticulousness that everything in the history of the universe led to us. It was like the fine-tuning argument, but more for inspiration’s sake rather than for argument’s sake. Ultimately, this argument was to win over those who are held back from accepting evolution only by their sense of meaninglessness that they think will accompany it. So in more than one way, this chapter wasn’t really meant for me, an atheist who already accepts evolution purely on evidence and not on feelings, but I think it was important nonetheless.

The main point of the book is made in Chapter 7: “Closing the American Scientific Mind.” Miller recalls a book he read in the 80’s by Allan Bloom called The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Impoverished America’s Young and Failed Its Students. Miller recalls,

To Bloom, the great tragedy of modern intellectual life is that the ‘openness’ found in America’s universities is actually an unwillingness to apply reason to solve human problems.

Kenneth Miller, Only a Theory, p. 172

Basically, students and professors were allowing their personal politics, biases, and feelings influence what should have been objective and straightforward solutions to the problems of their disciplines. Back then, though, science was the one safe haven which was untouched by subjectivity, thanks to the reigning power of objective reasoning and the scientific method. What is so unsettling for Miller, and for me as an observer of the scientific community, is that more recently, this soul of science is being tainted by intelligent design and its religious biases.

Intelligent design, says Miller, will only survive by turning science on its head and completely redefining what it is. Before, ideas could flourish by their own merit, because they were testable, no matter how crazy they initially sounded. But since intelligent design is not a true, naturalistic scientific theory, it clearly cannot be tested.

I’ve heard more than once that “atheistic scientists are close-minded because they don’t consider supernatural phenomena as the answers to their questions,” and intelligent design’s fans like best to apply this to the creation of the universe itself. As it goes, we don’t know how the universe began, so one hypothesis is that it was created. We’re all used to hearing this in this situation, but if we are being fair, accepting supernatural causes as scientific will rot the soul of science itself if it is accepted as a legitimate answer for every question.

What would happen to science if we used “God did it” as an answer to an everyday scientific question, like “Why does this ball fall to the ground instead of flying up in the air when I let go of it?” or “Why do I bleed when you cut me?” This would answer nothing at all, and human curiosity would crumble for it. To quote Miller, “Why worry about the physics of light when the mystery of the rainbow can be solved by easy reference to the personality of the creator?”

In the end, Cobb County School District lost the court case and had to remove the “only a theory” stickers from their biology textbooks. Christians can do as they please and continue to teach intelligent design in Sunday school or their private Christian schools as the religious idea that it is, but true naturalistic science simply loses its identity and its integrity if it is compromised with supernatural ideas.

0 thoughts on “Book Review: Only a Theory by Kenneth Miller

  • March 31, 2019 at 9:56 am

    Good review. I will add this book to my list. Proponents of ID seem to think that the purpose of ‘evolution’ is to disprove the existence of their God. Consequently, they use ID as evidence of God and defense of their fundamentalist beliefs. When I believed in a god, I also believed evolution and natural selection were the ‘how’ of the ‘what’ regarding God’s work. I still have no problem with reconciling the two. I just don’t hand it God any longer. But both are possible.

    • April 1, 2019 at 1:54 pm

      yep, same here. It never occurred to me that it might not exist. And as I recall, evolution and/or ID was never an issue with Catholics, in any form.

      • April 1, 2019 at 4:22 pm

        It was not for this one and many others. I agree.

  • March 31, 2019 at 6:53 pm

    Great review. I’ve mostly blindly believed in evolution and never doubted it. Recently, I’ve come across theories on 3D holographic universe and multiple dimensions. I do not have anywhere near enough knowledge to expand on this topic…I mean…zero…I shouldn’t even write this comment. But it makes me wonder if ‘God’ is merely a computer programmer in another dimension that made a copy and programmed it to be self aware, self replicating with evolution guiding intelligence higher and higher…over and over. Hmm..anyway, scientists are taking the idea of a holographic universe seriously.

  • April 1, 2019 at 11:56 am

    Sounds like a great book, and a good review of it.
    One thing occurred to me while reading your review–now I understand why Intelligent Design falls short for us: it is the equivalent of looking at a horse and imagining the vehicle we think he should be attached to, even there is no hint that he was ever even near the carriage, or wagon, or plow.
    Or looking at a man and making ponderous Sherlock Holmesian statements about his past, his family, and his spouse.


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