THE COLLEGE OF ST. CATHERINE
The year that marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth seems an appropriate time for Kenneth Miller to spend a day at St. Kate’s.
Darwin, of course, is the English naturalist whose discoveries form the basis of modern evolutionary theory. Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University, is one of the country’s most visible advocates of evolution — who also happens to be Roman Catholic.
Miller discussed his 1999 book, Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution, when he delivered a lecture at St. Kate’s April 8. Declaring that evolution is an issue that “divides Americans,” he laid out the scientific rationale for evolution while declaring its “ultimate compatibility” with religious faith.
He also talked about his 2008 book, Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul.
But didn’t a federal judge’s ruling in 2005 barring the Dover, Pa., school district from inserting “intelligent design” in biology curriculum put an end to the battle over teaching evolution in U.S. public schools?
“Some people like to pretend that the Dover trial settled everything, but it didn’t,” said Miller — who was the lead expert witness for the plaintiffs in that trial — in a recent phone interview. “What’s really happened post-Dover is re-labeling and a change in strategy. There are big battles now on this issue in Florida, Louisiana and Texas.”
Intelligent design, Miller explained, has become a code term for creationism — the belief that an agent or power created all life forms with their “distinctive features already intact.” And yet he showed the audience of students, professors and staff how scientific discoveries of “transitional forms” of life prove that land animals evolved from primitive fish.
Fears about evolution
Miller’s lecture at St. Kate’s also touched on why the teaching of evolution bothers some people so much. The concern that evolution means “we aren’t moral beings” or aren’t created in the image of God is more prevalent in the United States, he said, than in all other developed nations, save for Turkey.
“People are afraid, and the fear is at two levels,” Miller said. “There’s a concern among some people that the natural history of the planet undermines the authority of Scripture and the creation story in Genesis.”
A bigger fear for some religious people, Miller added, is that evolution means “we’re just a mistake of nature and that our existence doesn’t mean anything.”
These fears are unfounded, maintains Miller, himself a man of faith. The argument that belief in evolution is antithetical to belief in God or the dignity of humankind is a “false choice,” he says.
Miller’s assertion that God and prayer can coexist with evolution set him apart from Darwin defenders who don’t believe in a divine creator — such as atheist author Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything).
He’s just one of many with whom Miller has squared off in his advocacy of evolution and faith.
A national profile
In 2005, Miller joined other scientists in publicly asking Pope Benedict to clarify the Church’s stance on evolution following a New York Times op/ed written by Cardinal Christoph Schonbörn of Vienna that seemed to dispute previous Vatican messages that evolution is compatible with Catholic doctrine (The Vatican continues to support evolution).
Miller was launched into the national spotlight in 1997, when he appeared with three other evolutionists on the public affairs television program Firing Line hosted by the late William F. Buckley, Jr.
Since then, he has appeared on everything from the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) program Nova to Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report. He’s also an advisor to the science unit of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and was recently honored with the 2008 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Award for Public Understanding of Science and Technology.
Additionally, Miller has written numerous articles, essays and editorials for scientific and popular publications. And, of course, his books and current lecture series are other ways he speaks out for teaching evolution.
With all these activities on his resume, it’s easy to forget that Miller is a professor of biology who spends a good deal of his life in the classroom. He’s also written college textbooks on biology and is co-author, with Joe Levine, of the widely used high school biology textbook Biology, published by Prentice Hall.
The centrality of evolution in his chosen field is one reason Miller is so passionate about the subject. Another is his belief that nothing less than the future of science is at stake in the battle over teaching evolution.
“If [anti-evolutionists] prevail, we will raise a whole generation of young people who’ve been taught to be suspicious and hostile to science and that to enter a career in science means turning your back on your faith,” he said. “Then we’ll give up our leadership in science, which would be terrible for this country — and the world.”
Miller contends that scientists and science educators themselves are partly to blame for the current situation.
“To the extent that the scientific community is reticent to explain to Americans in everyday language what we do and why we do it, we contribute to the climate of suspicion and hostility,” he said. “We in science need to do a better job of getting out and explaining to Americans why science is important.”
The lecture was co-sponsored by the President’s Office, Student Senate and the College’s Myser Initiative on Catholic Identity and was hosted by Endowed Professor in the Sciences Cynthia Norton, Ph.D.
*For more on this issue, visit the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
Mary Vitcenda is a St. Paul freelance writer-editor and communications consultant.