News, Science & Research

Kenneth Miller ’70 dissects free will in new book

Defender of evolution education strives to bridge gap between religious faith, modern science

By
Senior Staff Writer
Friday, April 20, 2018

What began as a debate in 1981 between Professor of Biology Kenneth Miller ’70 and scientific creationist Henry Morris has evolved into the publication of a biology textbook, appearances on television programs, involvement in court cases and the publication of books such as “Finding Darwin’s God” and, most recently, “The Human Instinct: How We Evolved to Have Reason, Consciousness, and Free Will.” Following the book’s release, Miller spoke at the Brown Bookstore Thursday evening to discuss the material of his book and its implications.

At the event, Miller quoted excerpts from his book while explaining the prevailing topics. “The Human Instinct” aims to explain the presence of free will and consciousness and how evolution is not a degradation of human significance, but rather evidence to support humans’ true nature and importance. “Of all the creatures of all the forms of life, … only the human creature seeks answers to questions in the stars,” Miller said, quoting his book. On free will, Miller maintains that a purely deterministic approach would oppose the human choices that define the scientific process.

Though Miller’s academic work is more focused on cellular biology, he has become a notable spokesperson for the teaching of evolution, serving as an expert witness in two federal court cases regarding the use of his textbook in school districts. Additionally, his writings advocate for connecting religious faith and evolutionary principles. “I wanted to convince other people that you can look at the evolutionary history of our species and use that evolutionary history to confirm the special place and the special responsibility that human beings have,” Miller said.

During the event, Miller mentioned notable names as inspirations for his work, including Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking and Marilynne Robinson ’66, a novelist. Miller identified Robinson’s work as one of the inspirations for his treatment of “bigger picture issues,” he said.

“This woman is not a science denier, and yet, she fnds these Darwinian implications to be, as she put it, ‘chilling,’” Miller said. Robinson’s work, which includes “Absence of Mind” and “The Death of Adam,” speaks to the issues with a purely evolutionary foundation of thought. “Natural selection produced a species … that was capable of transcending the mere demands of survival and reproduction,” he said. “From that transcendence, we derive the great characteristics of civilization.”

In attendance were friends, family and colleagues anxious to hear about Miller’s newest work.

Clare Grossman ’21, a student in Miller’s biology course, attended to support her professor and because of her general interest in science. “It’s very important work to reconcile the theory of evolution with the belief that so many Americans hold, because evolution is such an important part of understanding science,” she said.

Following his talk at the bookstore, Miller plans to attend a plethora of events  in the coming months and hopes that his book will further the discussion of scientific inquiry as complementary to religious faith, he said. He also said he hopes the book serves as a “pep talk for the human race” and generates “a sense of optimism about human nature, about the capabilities of the human species and a sense, also, that evolution … doesn’t limit and define what human beings are capable.”

“We really do have a special place, not just on this planet, but even in the universe itself,” Miller said. “This book attempts to provide scientific support for that.”