Most newsmakers are found on the extreme poles of one argument or another. Nancy Pelosi and Newt Gingrich, for example. Or Charles Darwin and God.
But Kenneth Miller is filling campus auditoriums across the country talking with equal reverence about evolution and the divine.
“Polarization is the product of misunderstanding on both sides,” Miller is saying on his current lecture tour, which missed the Twin Cities but swung through western Wisconsin.
Miller hasn’t gone soft on science. He’s an Ivy League professor who co-wrote one of the most commonly used high-school biology textbooks in the United States. But in the dispute between evolution and creation, Miller isn’t a mere observer. You could say he’s deeply involved because it’s in his DNA — as a cell biologist and a Roman Catholic.
He’s also not neutral. Miller is known for his opposition to creationism and its evolutionary cousin, intelligent design. That’s actually his point.
“My colleagues are under the mistaken impression that this debate is about science,” says Miller, of Brown University. “Why is evolution under attack? It’s not because it’s a shaky scientific theory.”
Instead, he says, it’s about conservative religionists repackaging creationism as “intelligent design” and using pseudo-science to attack evolution. Otherwise, “Why not take out cell biology, or physiology, or, for God’s sake, organic chemistry?” he asks in jest at an address at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
Miller’s quest for coherence is evident in the title of his 2000 book, “Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution.” (You can check out his evolution page, which includes a link to Miller’s appearance on “The Colbert Report,” “where I got to explain evolution in 30 seconds,” Miller said.)
“I underestimated the hunger for dialogue on this issue,” Miller says. “The book is in its 25th printing.”
Proponents of intelligent design such as biochemist Michael Behe argue that the complexities of life — the protein reactions that allow blood to clot, for example — defy evolutionary explanation and must be the hand of an intelligent designer.
Miller disputes Behe on scientific grounds. (Admit it: You didn’t know the blood of puffer fish clots, did you? Miller says that is evidence that the relationship of necessary proteins did evolve.) But where Miller differs even from many of his colleagues is by arguing that evolution and belief in God aren’t mutually exclusive.
“The presumption of conflict between science and religion assumes the Bible is a biology textbook,” says Miller, who instead believes Scripture should be considered the source of spiritual and moral truths, not scientific ones.
People of good faith will disagree with Miller’s religious view, unwilling to concede the Bible’s literal authority in all things, including the story of creation.
But Miller’s rapt audiences reveal that many people are seeking concord rather than combativeness between science and religion. Philip Hefner, editor of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, has argued that religion typically emphasizes what creatures ought to become, while biology concentrates on how we got to be the creatures we are. That sounds like a good question on which to ground the discussion.
To learn more
“Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial,” airs Tuesday, Nov. 13, on PBS’ “Nova” (7 p.m. CST)