Only a Theory

I just finished Ken Miller's Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul. Miller is the author of one of the most widely used high school biology text book, and the lead expert witness for the Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District case. The book, however, was not as much focused on the trial as on the ideas behind intelligence design (ID) and evolution, and some comments by Miller on the intelligent design movement.

Being rather familiar with the arguments of ID, I found the first half of the book a little dull. However, I do think Miller does a good job of taking ID arguments seriously, and analyze those ideas from the scientific perspective. Having heard him lecture at Northwestern's Darwin celebration last year, his examples are not new to me either. But in a book, where he can afford to give longer descriptions of the history of life on Earth, I found myself draw into the subject. For a short moment I wondered what it would be like to see Earth 1 million, 100 million years ago. And then I realized that, although there might not have been skyscrapers or monkeys or ants, there was still rain, and volcanoes, and oceans. And the idea that science can prove all these things did exist so long ago is rather amazing.

Personally, the more interesting part of the book was where Miller explained why he thought ID has become what it is, and what we (as scientists) can do about it. Miller suggests that the ultimate motivation is philosophical and psychological. Quoting Max Ehrmann's poem Desiderata, he wrote,
"No doubt the universe is unfolding as it should" assures us that, however chaotic and disorderly the events of our lives may seem at the moment, we should take heart, for we were meant to be. And, in the eyes of many, that's exactly the problem with evolution - it says that we weren't meant to be and that the way of things are unfolding isn't part of anybody's plan or purpose. [...] The worry is that the universe is not "unfolding as it should" but, rather, that it's just unfolding.
My instinctive response is that, is it such a horrible thing for the universe to exist without purpose? Must your sense of direction in life be derived from some external source, and couldn't you create a direction yourself? This philosophical (in fact, existentialist) argument also applies to the claim that evolution "doesn't put a moral demand" on us, as ex-senator Rick Santorum suggested. But this has nothing to do with evolution.

Miller's reply to the worry is different. He brought up the idea of convergence - that evolution will keep on returning to good ideas. In particular, even if humans as a species might not have evolved, it is almost certain that the niche of an intelligent species capable of changing their environment would be filled. That is, despite the process of evolution being probabilistic, we - as intelligent beings - are in fact guaranteed. This is, the certainty that evolution would have led to something like us, would help quell the worries.

I want to voice another idea though. This quote comes from the video game Max Payne 2, and is more about predestination. Applied to evolution though, it would mean that we are indeed very special:
There are no choices. Nothing but a straight line. The illusion comes afterwards, when you ask 'Why me?' and 'What if?' When you look back, see the branches, like a pruned bonsai tree, or a forked lightning. If you had done something differently, it wouldn't be you, it would be someone else looking back, asking a different set of questions.
The last idea I found intriguing in Miller's book was him mention Allan Bloom's book, The Closing of the American Mind (which I wrote about briefly). Miller quoted Bloom writing:
Openness used to be the virtue that permitted us to seek the good by using reason. It now means accepting everything and denying reason's power. The unrestrained and thoughtless pursuit of openness [...] has rendered openness meaningless. [...] The danger [students] have been taught to fear is not error but intolerance. [...] The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right, rather it is not to think you are right at all.
Miller compares this to the calls for "balance" and "openness" to get ID in public school curriculum. Although that's not the declared goal of the ID movement, "once the supernatural becomes a valid element in scientific inquiry, science will cease to be an empirical search for the truth of the natural world. Like faith itself, "theistic science" will be a subjective window on the world that reflects the innermost convictions of its adherents and not of the outer reality of nature."

This whole affair of injecting supernatural causes into science reminds me of Ellsworth Toohey in The Fountainhead: "Set up standards of achievement open to all, to the least, to the most inept—and you stop the impetus to effort in all men, great or small. You stop all incentive to improvement, to excellence, to perfection."

Without having clear boundaries of what science accepts, science itself suffers. People no longer need to discover the cause and cure of AIDS, when a simple "it's divine punishment" will suffice. Our understanding of the world grinds to a halt, as does our technological advancement - which depends on the rigorous quest for cause and effect. The "Designer" did not create the iPod, nor the internet, nor any of modern technology. All of it is done by men, relying and exploiting our scientific knowledge of the world. Without science, none of that would be possible.

And that is why I truly fear what the ID movement can do to the world.


  1. Anonymous26/1/10 03:12

    honestly... can you think of anyone you know who both
    1. believes in ID
    2. believes people don't need to discover the cause and cure of AIDS, because a simple "it's divine punishment" will suffice.

    I can't. I think that's quite a bit of an exaggeration.

    Believing that there may have been a creator behind life on earth doesn't equate to a complete rejection of technology and scientific discovery. There's no way you can say that they are equivalent. Yes, there may be some correlation between the two, but not equivalence.

    The belief that there is a God is not a contradiction of science in itself. (Yes, yes, I realize it doesn't stem from science either).

    ~ak :)

  2. You're right, I definitely exaggerated. But I don't think by that much. Pat Robertson, for example, thinks that the ACLU is partially responsible for 9/11, that Katrina was divine punishment for abortion, and that the Haiti earthquake is because the Haitians made a pact with the Devil.

    These beliefs have no relation to ID, but if that is what everyone believes, will people really bother to find the real (natural) cause of these events?

    I also agree with you that the believe in God does not run contradictory to science (as I have written about here). My problem is with it interfering with science, in this case by trying to allow supernatural causes. ID does not only claim that there is a creator, but that "various forms of life began abruptly... with their distinctive features already intact - fish with fins and scales, birds with feathers, beaks, and wings, etc". That is at least partially a scientific claim, and could and should be tested as such.

  3. Anonymous28/1/10 05:12

    I don't think Pat Robertson reflects the average american who believes in God. At least, I hope not.

    I think it's interesting that you say that the hypothesis that "various forms of life began abruptly... with their distinctive features already intact - fish with fins and scales, birds with feathers, beaks, and wings, etc" *should* be tested a a scientific claim.
    How many scientists would actually be willing to test something that may support the ID theory?
    Not many. I'm pretty sure that they would get laughed at and certainly would have a hard time finding funding for their research.

    Maybe the fact that scientists absolutely refuse to run any tests on hypotheses that may support ID is detrimental to overall scientific knowledge too.

    No, I don't have any specific examples of this in mind and I don't know how likely my statement is to be true. It's just a thought.


  4. That's a standard argument, actually. The question is then, what kind of evidence would prove, and what kind of evidence would reject, that hypothesis?

    Ultimately, science is not a subject, but a method. Forming a hypothesis, testing it (or otherwise finding evidence both for and against), then revising as necessary; that's what defines whether something is a science. But we can't find objective evidence both for or against a creator. If there is one, evidence points to them using evolution as the mechanism. Therefore, evolution is within the purviews of science, but science cannot say anything about whether a creator exists.

    And that's why creators should be left out of the science classroom.

  5. I primarily dislike discussion of ID in a learning setting because it indicates entitlement. As in, we were made to be the leaders and rulers of the land, hence we have a right to use it however which way we want, regardless of any other living thing. Not only is it very small minded but it also does not bode well for the long term survival of our species.

    I agree that there is no scientific way to prove or disprove ID. These days evidence of evolution of species looks primarily at DNA and similarity between genetic sequences over time. Ie, two species probably shared a common ancestor if a large percentage of their genes are identical. If ID were playing a hand in designing those sequences, well, all science would be able to say is that these two species don't share much genetic similarity. Unfortunately, this could also indicate an alternative hypothesis that the two species were not evolutionarily related and thus the evidence is inconclusive either way. That's obviously a very simplified version of all the possible conclusions, but you see the problem.

  6. Anonymous14/2/10 04:15

    I don't know of any experiments that would prove or disprove the creation hypothesis.

    Also, I realize that the actual existence of God cannot be tested scientifically, so I agree it should not be taught as science. That just doesn't make sense.

    I just wanted to say that not everyone who believes in God has ridiculous views about science :)

    In response to the other comment:
    ID does NOT indicate entitlement! I'm going to look at this from a Christianity point of view, because that may be where your thought stems from... I realize that in Genesis it basically says that humans are rulers of the earth/sea/animals. But (I believe) that isn't said with the intention of us destroying nature, but rather the idea that we are simply able to cultivate the land, domesticate animals, etc.

    The Bible also talks about us taking care of the land in addition to "ruling" it. One example:

    Jeremiah 2:7 "I brought you into a fertile land to eat its fruit and rich produce. But you came and defiled my land and made my inheritance detestable."

    And I believe there are other examples of things like this too.

    But, either way, teaching ID isn't the same as teaching people to destroy the planet if they wish.

    I just don't think that's a good argument against kids hearing about intelligent design.

  7. Entitlement means to me a sense of ownership which does not necessarily include complete and total destruction. I think it means more of a right to control, but I do not believe that humans have the right to cultivate whatever square inch of fertile land they want or domesticate whatever animal seems most tasty or useful. Yet these things appear to be indicated by religious texts like the Bible because humans are singled out as God's most loved/important/intelligent/moral creations, etc. Hence, though the Bible may not state humans should allowed to destroy the land left and right, as it shouldn’t, it does in a sense give them a right to disturb what may have previously been a perfectly sustainable habitat for many other species, not all of which may continue living there due to human intervention.

    Science on the other hand says to me that all species are essentially equal because none of them are evidently favored by a divine being and thus have just the same right to exist however they please. Cultivation and domestication may seem like quite a good thing to do to the land and animals, but that is only if you are looking at it from a very narrow perspective. How did the crop land come about? What had to be cleared? How many animals lost their habitats? How many other living things had to be killed or displaced because of grazing pastures, ranches and farms? It may all look full of green things and farm life afterward, but what it was before may have been perfectly fine, too. Science says that there should be no entitlement, no right to control. If we do something to the land, it is because we want to, and not because someone else said we are allowed to.

  8. You guys are having a great debate. I just want to point out that science does not "say that there should be no entitlement, no right to control." I agree that science says all species are equal evolutionarily. The problem of entitlement and right to control, however, is a problem of ethics. While science may be used to show certain negative effects, science itself cannot say that those effects are negative. It is therefore more correct to say that science doesn't endorse the abuse of land. Of course, it doesn't argue against it either.

  9. From where I stand, equality necessarily excludes entitlement.

    And from my studies the common methods of agriculture tend to increase the chance of disease in crop populations. There are also the environmental impacts of agriculture, from over-irrigation and water logging to mineral leeching, fertilizer run-offs... the list goes on. Perhaps I am putting my own moral spin on all this, but science does seem to say that these problems are pretty bad for everyone involved. Maybe science can't technically say anything, since its a subject and thus has no vocal chords, but the logical conclusion a scientist would make based on the evidence is that human effects are often negative.

  10. Anonymous18/2/10 23:47

    I would like to think of our "entitlement" as more of a "responsible entitlement."

    Justin knows I'm more of an environmentalist than many people :)

    I think it is necessary to first get a more full view on what the Bible says on this

    matter before debating much further. I'll keep it short, so I'll put references you

    can look up if you would like rather than putting a bunch of quotes from the Bible.

    So... the (more) full (Biblical) picture:
    1. The earth ultimately belongs to God (Psalm 24:1, Psalm 89:11)
    2. God puts value on all of nature (Psalm 145:16-17)
    3. We are in charge in the sense that we're higher than other species, but

    destruction of the earth is not within our rights.

    So being allowed to cultivate the land doesn't mean we should cultivate every bit of

    it that we want. And doing so would in fact be inconsistent with the fact that God

    values His planet. There are certain things that I think we should take into account

    when doing things like farming. It is wrong to take more than what we need. It would

    be ridiculous to decide to plop a farm right where you knew a particularly

    endangered species has a large popluation when you could have an almost equally as

    effective farm several miles away. I think Biblically that's wrong!

    Looking at it from a creationist point of view - I feel like God would have just put

    a lot less species on this earth if He wanted us to just turn it ALL into farms and

    land for raising livestock. Really, why would He even have bothered creating all of

    the species that we've driven into extinction with our inconsiderate ways of

    treating the earth? It seems like a complete waste. There are a lot of things on

    this earth that don't necessarily even serve humans. A simple example is penguins in

    Antarctica. It's a species that we didn't even come into contact for a long part of

    our existence on this earth, and they don't serve much purpose for us (yes, I'm

    aware that them eating fish might cause some degree of species control, but I think

    the southern ocean could still be a balanced ecosystem without them... maybe a

    slightly different ecosystem, but still balanced). If God didn't create everything

    for humans to exploit, He must have thought these things were valuable anyway, even

    if they were useless to us.

  11. Anonymous18/2/10 23:49

    I am completely aware of the fact that land for crops and houses and grazing DOES come at a cost to the planet, and I don't take a narrow perspective that all farms and domestication are good and pretty and green. I think these things should come about responsibly, taking the drawbacks into serious consideration. But I cannot say that I think that all cultivation is bad. There are quite a lot of benefits that we draw from it.

    I certainly agree with you that humans are singled out as the most valuable beings and that from a scientific standpoint we're kind of equal to other species. And, I
    do agree that unfortunately people can (and probably do) take this out of context for their own benefit: using it as a means to selfishly treat nature. But that isn't what God wants us to do.

    But from the scientific point of view: science doesn't say anything moral. It does say no species is divinely favored, but that's it. It can tell us that certain farming practices can hurt the planet, but that's still not telling us anything morally. As human beings all we can do with science is use it to collect data, then we can analyze the data and use this information how we want. It can be very useful to realize scientifically that a certain farming practice has negative effects on X, Y and Z... but making the decision to do these things or not still comes down to humans picking and choosing if they should or should not do certain things with the planet.
    You can't say that science says problems like leeching and fertilizer run-offs are "bad." Science only tells us the effects that these things have on other things... and that's the end of the line. We're the ones who put words like "bad" to these things.

    I'm not belittling science. It's a very good and useful tool, and I think the the scientific analysis of a lot of things that humans do to the planet can be great for making decisions about what land to preserve vs. what land to use.

    There might be a flip side to your argument. If science puts no particular importance on any species, why should we try to preserve nature if it does nothing
    for us? Each species is just a fluke thing that evolved. If driving it into extinction does not harm us, why should we care? Why is it even important?
    From the Christian point of view, if God values all of His species, then that IS a reason to care.

  12. Responsible entitlement, justified by divine right or not, is still entitlement. According to science, since every individual is evolutionarily equal, there is no evidence to support the existence of this entitlement. I personally believe that entitlement exists only in the mind of the entitled. Moreover, I believe that the clear cutting of a field should be realized for what it is, and that is the loss of many non-human lives. As humans, it is easy for us to justify this loss because the land can then be used to support our survival. This is the point I have been trying to get across; that this trade-off only seems justified to us because we are at the receiving end of it. Religion reinforces this trade-off with a divine sense of entitlement, one that I do not believe should be taught because it distracts from the ugly but ultimately obvious truth.

    So it is not a matter of one field or a million fields being clear cut to make way for cultivation, it is the fact that fields are clear cut for cultivation. It is done by us and for us and at the cost of others, so to teach it in any other way would frankly be irresponsible and unfair.

    As for penguins, I believe that every species and individual has an intrinsic value no matter their use to humans. Penguins may appear to some as utterly useless, but to me, and I believe to most people educated in the biological sciences, they play an important part of the ecosystem in the various parts of the world where they live. They have developed unique combinations of feeding techniques, mating rituals, child rearing practices, nest architecture and even modes of travel. More impressive yet are their migration patterns, their ability to survive extremely harsh climates, and conquer both land and water. They thrive in complex food webs involving everything from tiny plankton to the largest whales. Yes, fish are also in there, but penguins play a much more complicated role than just fish control. They are prey as well, and to several different animals. And those animals serve as a food source for others, and so on. That is the complexity and beauty of a food web. Behind that behavior and ecological impact is a whole wealth of cellular and physiological traits that enable them to live as they do, from their genetic predisposition for laying the hardiest yet still hatchable eggs to their water resistant insulating feathers. All of these things, that is their value, for simply being what they are: penguins. In addition, I personally find them adorable. They make me happy. I don’t know what kind of person I would be without Happy Feet or a visual comparison for fat men in fancy tuxes.

    I hope I have made it abundantly clear that while God may be a reason to care, God is by no means even a necessary reason to care. There are already so many powerful, beautiful and complex reasons out there. Better yet, these reasons can very easily be found by anyone willing to look.

  13. Anonymous5/3/10 04:45

    I do agree with you that it is easy to justify lives lost when we clear a field for farming because we're doing it for survival. Every living thing eats other living things to survive. I think it would be unreasonable not to farm, but we should be responsible in how we do it.

    I'm sorry, but I'm reallllly struggling to understand your point. Is it that you think we should not farm or eat animals at all? Do you think that we have no right to do this? Or do you agree with me - that we should still do this stuff, but do it responsibly?

    Why do you think Christianity does not teach us to be aware of the cost when killing animals or clearing land? I've already said that I believe that it does, it tells us to value other lives and not destroy the planet!

    "As for penguins, I believe that every species and individual has an intrinsic value no matter their use to humans."
    Yes - that's exactly the point I was trying to make. I was saying that from a Christian standpoint, if God created penguins even though they don't really benefit humans, it must show that God values creatures that we can't, i don't know... eat or anything. I think that's a good argument that God places value on all creatures or else He would not have bothered.

    And I know they play a big part in their ecosystem. I was simply saying that they're not strictly necessary, so if you're looking at it from a creationist point of view you realize that they were created without being totally necessary and therefore their lives MUST be valuable for reasons other than humans.

    I never even tried to make the point that their lives didn't matter!!

    You're right that God isn't a necessary reason to care. He is, however, a sufficient reason to care. If He cares about His planet, so should we. I've already said this. Please tell me if/why you disagree with this??

    "There are already so many powerful, beautiful and complex reasons out there." - That's not science. That's your opinion. I mean, I agree that if you open your eyes and look around the earth is beautiful and there are so many beautiful creatures. But your argument isn't science.

  14. Hi, Jenn ranted to me about this post so I had to find it and read it for myself (hope you don't mind!). btw I'm a plant biologist.
    - Christine

    I think in the abovementioned argument (re: agriculture vs. conservation) it would be useful to go back to the concept of "openmindedness" Justin cited in the original post. That is, reasons and justifications are not black and white.

    On one hand you can say that humans are wantonly destroying the earth by mowing down rainforest for cattle grazing. On the other hand the humans that are farming the land are doing so to survive... I don't know if there are any farmers out there that decided to plant a bean field because God told him to. More likely, he was hungry. The concept behind evolution and the meaning life is given by evolution is that individuals live in order to propagate their genetic material, and this is what people are doing. Altruism is not generally a positive trait for a species. Given that humans are the ones with the power in this scenario (plants generally being passive beings), it only makes sense that humans will act selfishly first, and altruistically later. I cannot imagine that a farmer would halt his only known method of subsistence in order to save some weeds or bugs growing on his plot of land.

    (Here I am applying selfish and altruistic to species, not individuals, given the social constructs of human morality/ethics.)

    I think it's safe to say that the methods of agriculture are imperfect, and that there is much work to be done in that aspect to make our methods eco-friendly. But the reason for the current trend towards eco-friendliness is largely, again, selfish - so that humans won't run out of breathable air or resources in the long run. And also greedy capitalists now realize there is a new market for "green" products. I'm not sure where God comes into all of this - I'm not religious myself, though. It's too easy to get bogged down fighting over reasons WHY one wants to be eco-friendly, to the point where nothing gets done, rather than focus on the situation at hand. For me, one can believe whatever they like as long as they are doing good things for the planet :)

    Anyway I've wandered off the original topic, which was intelligent design. I've spoken to a lot of scientist friends, and some of them actually do believe in ID. It is all a matter of personal perspective. They think that the existence of such complicated life forms is reason enough to believe (how could something so structurally sound and powerful as DNA/RNA come into existence just by chance; how did such complex cellular mechanisms come into existence; etc. etc.). I opt to believe that evolution was just a chain of lucky mishaps.

    In schools, I think all information should be available for both camps, stating facts as facts and theories as theories, and that children should be able to make up their own decisions without someone else trying to steer them in one direction or another. Ha, fat chance of that happening anytime soon.

  15. Anonymous5/3/10 21:03

    Well, I know your names, so maybe I should introduce myself. My name is Amy... I do math.

    And I don't mind you stepping in and reading it at all!!
    Actually, I was glad to have another person post, because I was afraid our discussion was soon going to reach a point where it started going around in circles... and I didn't want that.

    The point I am trying to get across is that the concept of someone learning about ID isn't inherently dangerous. And neither is believing in it.

    You said you're not sure where God comes into all of this... it started in Jenn's first post when she said
    "I primarily dislike discussion of ID in a learning setting because it indicates entitlement. As in, we were made to be the leaders and rulers of the land" ..... "Not only is it very small minded but it also does not bode well for the long term survival of our species."

    And I don't agree with that statement, so I was trying to argue that, first of all, ID doesn't necessarily mean us thinking we have every right to destroy the planet, and also that science doesn't necessarily tell us to protect it! (although scientific information may lead humans to conclude that protecting the planet is a good idea).

    I'm not arguing for or against ID as the correct theory. But this post and some comments were indicating that it is a dangerous belief... and I don't think it is!!

    It drives me crazy when people associate those who believe in God with people some of the things mentioned in this post/comment. There are reasonable and intelligent people out there who believe in God too!

    I liked what you said about agriculture because it didn't try to bring emotional appeal into your arguments, and I agree with a lot of what you said. The problem is that many of Jenn's arguments seemed to be saying that science gives us more reason to care about our planet... but I felt like those arguments were largely opinion based, appealing to the beauty of nature, the fact that some animals make her happy, etc., rather than what science tells us.