Science & Research

Biology professor wins prestigious Catholic award

Kenneth Miller ’70 P’02 is a practicing Catholic and a proponent of teaching the theory of evolution

By
Science and Research Editor
Monday, March 31, 2014

Professor of Biology Kenneth Miller ’70 P’02 will receive the 2014 Laetare Medal, widely regarded as the most prestigious honor for an American Catholic, the University of Notre Dame announced yesterday.

The medal, given by Notre Dame and established in 1883, is awarded annually to one person “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity,” according to the Notre Dame announcement.

The award has previously been given to President John F. Kennedy, Union Civil War General William Rosecrans and American journalist Dorothy Day, among many others.

 

‘Absolutely amazed’

Miller, who has been a professor at Brown for 34 years, researches the structure and function of biological membranes and is well-known for teaching the introductory biology course, BIOL 0200: “The Foundations of Living Systems.”

A practicing Catholic, Miller publicly opposes creationism and the intelligent design movement and has worked to protect the teaching of the theory of evolution in schools.

“As an accomplished biologist and an articulate believer, he pursues two distinct but harmonious vocations and illustrates how science and faith can mutually flourish,” President of Notre Dame John Jenkins said in the Notre Dame announcement.

Miller found out about the award three weeks ago through a phone call that he said left him “absolutely amazed.”

The award usually goes to people active in social life and rarely is won by scientists, Miller said. When he found out, he added, he was left questioning, “Are you sure you have the right guy?”

 

Melding science and faith

Receiving the medal is “a statement by Notre Dame about the value of defending the importance and the integrity of science,” Miller said.

The recognition shows “Notre Dame is open-minded enough and intelligent enough to recognize that the work that (Miller) does is not inconsistent with religion,” said Associate Dean of Biological Sciences Marjorie Thompson, a colleague and friend of Miller’s.

While science is often viewed as a “godless, impersonal thing,” Notre Dame’s choice of Miller shows science can be regarded as a “friend” to religion rather than a “threat,” Thompson said.

Miller shows science can be taken as evidence or support of God, said Professor of Biology and Biochemistry Susan Gerbi, a colleague of Miller’s who originally recruited him to the University.

Science and religion can “beautifully coexist,” she added.

Miller not only maintains both his religious and academic lives, but also said he feels the two influence each other.

Addressing his faith, Miller said truth is the “first article” he takes from Catholicism, adding that scientists also value truth.

“My own religious faith validates the scientific enterprise,” Miller said.

Miller’s academic work has also influenced him religiously.

Raised as a Catholic, Miller was taught that God has a plan for everyone and a person’s job is to find it, he said.

“Its been clear to me that academic science is exactly what I was cut out for,” Miller said. “I’m very glad that I found that one thing.”

But Miller said he does not think being Catholic makes him work any differently than any other scientists.

Science is “the closest thing we have on this planet to a universal culture,” Miller said, adding that he could sit down with a group of scientists of different religions and cultures and they would all “speak the same language.”

‘Doubting and questioning’

Miller has been criticized and questioned for both his religion and his profession, often being told he is too religious to be a scientist or too scientific to be religious.

Appearing on numerous television programs such as “The Colbert Report” and C-SPAN, Miller has publicly defended the teaching of evolution and discounted the intelligent design movement and creationism.

Miller is also known for his two books, “Finding Darwin’s God” and “Only a Theory,” both of which explore the relationship between evolution and religion.

Taking a strong position on an issue always attracts criticism, Miller said, noting one blog post entitled “Ken Miller — A Wasted Life?”

“I’m used to it and it comes with the territory,” he added.

Critics are not the only ones who question the balance between religion and science, Miller said, adding that not a day goes by when he does not question being both a scientist and a Catholic. But “doubting and questioning is part and parcel of being honest about faith,” he said.

“When one stops wondering, that’s also the time when you stop thinking,” he added.

Despite his questioning, Miller said he always reaches the same conclusion.

There is a “complementary balance” among faith, reason and science, he said, adding that he does not foresee a time in the near future when he will change his mind.

 

A prestigious award

Miller will receive the medal at Notre Dame’s Commencement ceremony May 18 and will also speak at the ceremony.

The recipient of the medal is announced every year on Laetare Sunday — the fourth Sunday of Lent — also known as Rose Sunday.

Faculty members at Notre Dame nominate candidates for the award, and two or three names are chosen to be voted on by the officers of the university.

The recipient must be a practicing American Catholic and make a contribution that is related to Catholicism.

Miller said he has not decided what he will say to students at Notre Dame’s commencement yet, though he plans to say something different from what is typically said.

“It still hasn’t sunk in,” Miller said. “It was so unexpected in every way.”