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only a theory

20 february 2010

When I started reading Kenneth Miller's book Only a Theory, I went looking for an image of the dust jacket to post on Facebook. Several of the first Google image results were from religious or conservative blogs, including Ponderings on a Faith Journey and Little Green Footballs. Judging the book only by its cover and a couple of trackbacks, I got a little worried.

Now, having read both Only a Theory and various reviews, I'm the more impressed by Miller's achievement. Pastor Bob Cornwall of Ponderings loves the book because it "destroys the challenge of Intelligent Design without seeking to destroy one's faith"; no reactionary he. LGF calls Miller "one of the best advocates for evolutionary science." When a book on the evolution wars draws unprovoked praise from segments of the right and Christian pastors, as well as the more usual suspects, it's doing something good.

Good intellectually if not necessarily commercially; I bought Only a Theory remaindered from a bargain-basement mail-order catalog. There may be such a thing in the Darwin-wars business as too judiciously thoughtful. Richard Dawkins seems to make a mint with full-bore attacks on religion and the right; Miller, with a profoundly different sense of the worth of both religion and science, seems to have made much less of a mint, a splash, or for that matter a phalanx of enemies.

But that is not to say that Miller is unimpassioned. In fact, he waxes eloquent indeed when contemplating the disingenuousness of the Intelligent Design movement. Miller connects ID tactics to a rhetorical relativizing of the natural sciences. Ironically, Miller notes, such relativism was just what Allan Bloom complained about in the humanities and social sciences. If any aesthetic, belief, or cultural practice is as good as any other, Bloom feared, then we could reach no certainty in the human disciplines. But at least we could always reach certainty in science.

ID advocates, however, insist, with considerable rhetorical effectiveness, that educators must take a relativist approach to biology. Evolution is a theory. Design is a theory. They're diametrically opposed. Shouldn't we hear both sides?

Americans, of course, love to hear both sides. "Balanced coverage" is our national obsession, even when the balance is between realism and fantasy. As Cracked.com, of all places, puts it:

We can't just disregard their opinions, can we? Yes. Yes we can. If you're going to weigh in on a scientific matter, you need to bring data, gathered by people who know what the fuck they're talking about. If the subject is medicinal marijuana, we're not going to quote a stoner who has suddenly realized his hands can talk.
In the case of evolution vs. design, however, hordes of parents, politicians, and school board members have decided to give equal time to folks who believe their hands can talk.

One of Miller's most intriguing insights is to notice the discrepancy between the preferred paleontological theory of the American right (Intelligent Design) and their preferred economic theory (savagely competitive classical laissez-faire markets). "In a certain sense Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is unadulterated Adam Smith translated into the language of biology" (204). People who begin to foam at the mouth at the suggestion that commerce should be regulated faint dead away at the idea that the biosphere might not be regulated.

Miller, like other scientists who see no necessary contradiction between faith and science (the late Stephen Jay Gould was another, not to mention Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton), finds the world as it is, structured by the fabulously intricate interaction of DNA with myriad habitats, to be proof of something far grander than a tinkering, ad hoc Designer. Science and faith operate in parallel realms. Miller quotes John Paul II, hardly a radical materialist: "The Bible . . . does not wish to teach how heaven was made but how one goes to heaven" (160).

If the world's most famous Polish Catholic was happy to let science investigate cytology while he looked to anagogy, one might think that Protestant Americans would be even happier. Of course we're not. Miller reprints a notorious bar graph showing that in all the developed world, only Turkish citizens disbelieve in human descent from other animals at a higher rate than Americans.

Why? We are ignorant, I've suggested, but it's a circle: we're ignorant because we disbelieve, and in our ignorance we become more entrenched in disbelief. The skepticism of anti-evolutionists craves not intellectual engagement but increased withdrawal from science itself: and that's Miller's greatest fear.

Americans, as Miller notes, are particularly inclined to reject Darwin when human ancestry is involved. I wonder (as Miller does not, but others probably have) whether American contentions over race are part of this rejection. Insistence that Africans were virtually separate species underpinned the "scientific racism" of slavery. To see Europeans and Africans as descendants of the same clan (and not very long-separated descendants, at that) is anathema to many Americans, to some whites and some blacks as well.

Not that racism creeps anywhere near the discussion nowadays. Intelligent-design advocates are insidiously bland; they breathe no creationist fire, and Miller fears their rhetoric all the more for its anodyne qualities. Using the salutary notion that all sides of a debate should be subjected to critical thinking, ID rhetoricians aim to keep facts perpetually off the table and out of the discussion.

Miller, Kenneth R. Only a Theory: Evolution and the battle for America's soul. New York: Viking, 2008.