Prof. Ken Miller: life as science’s media darling

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Ken Miller ’70 P’02 is a professor of biology at Brown and a nationally-recognized expert on evolution, having testified in the controversial 2005 trial, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, involving the teaching of intelligent design in public schools in Pennsylvania.

He has written numerous scientific articles on plant cells, a best-selling high school textbook and is the author of “Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution.” He is currently on sabbatical and plans to release a new book entitled “Devil in the Details: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul.”

Herald: You recently spoke about science, religion and evolution at Wake Forest University’s opening convocation. What did you tell the incoming freshmen?Miller:At the present time in the United States, the teaching of biology, incredibly, has become a controversial subject. Political science, history – I understand that, but I don’t think of science as being controversial.I gave the students some of the backdrop to that controversy. About two years ago, there was a federal trial on this issue in the small town of Dover, Pa. The Dover school board had instructed the teachers to prepare a curriculum on intelligent design, but the teachers – at the risk of being fired – had refused. So, the school board drafted a four-paragraph intelligent design lesson and had the superintendent go into the classroom and read this to the students while the teachers stood outside in the hallway. Eleven parents in that district filed a lawsuit, and I was the lead witness at the trial.What I did was to basically explain to the students at Wake Forest what was involved in the trial, what the issue was. One of the things that happened was that the scientific case – if there ever was one – for this thing called “intelligent design” just collapsed, literally fell apart. It also became clear that intelligent design is just a re-labeling of what used to be called “creationism” or “creation science.” That was pretty easy to show, because the textbook on intelligent design that the school board had purchased for the students had actually been produced by a publisher that took a textbook on creationism, and wherever the word “creator” or “creationism” appeared, they just pasted the word “design” or “designer” on top of it.

In your book, “Finding Darwin’s God,” you put forth the idea that science and religion are compatible and even complementary. How so?Let’s ask a question that people in science don’t generally ask: “Why does science work? Why can we figure anything out?” Einstein once said the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible. It’s a typical Einsteinian statement in that it has many layers of meaning, but why should the universe be organized in a regular way that enables us to do science and allows us to make sense of it? I think one way to look at and understand that is to say that the universe behaves in what we might call a rational way because there is reason behind it. And if you’re a believer, if you’re a theist, the source of that reason ultimately is the creator – it’s God. God is the ultimate explanation for why reality is the way it is, and what makes science possible. The other thing is there has been a long tradition of scientific inquiry within the Abrahamic religions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The notion in all of these religions is that we were given free will and intelligence to do God’s will, but also to use that intelligence to understand the world around us. In the 13th and 14th centuries, the greatest scientific nations in the world were the states of the Muslim Caliphate in Northern Africa. These are the guys who were inventing algebra, figuring out the biochemistry of fermentation – the word “alcohol” is an Arabic word – and drawing the best astronomical charts in the world. They saw all of this as fitting within a religious context.

How, then, have you arrived at Catholicism, with its specific traditions and beliefs?The short answer is that I was brought up and raised a Catholic, so I understand Catholicism.That doesn’t mean I’ve considered myself that way for my whole life. There were a couple times in my life where I just sort of walked away from the Church. But what I find within my particular sect of Roman Catholicism is a respect for the intellectual traditions of science.What I often have a difficult time explaining to people is why I’m a Catholic and not a Baptist or a Unitarian or a Jew. The first thing I would say is that there is absolutely nothing in science that points me to being a Catholic, or even a Christian. But what I will say is I think that all people who profess a religious faith have first of all the duty to be modest about their own understanding. Any person who is religious and has really thought seriously about the idea of God has got to be overwhelmed by its incomprehensibility. And if you’re overwhelmed by the incomprehensibility of something, then I think you automatically respect the efforts of other people to grasp the same thing, even if they come down with slightly different conclusions. I practice the faith I do because it makes intellectual and emotional sense to me and because it helps me to order my life and understand the world.

How do you achieve a balance between your national work and what you do at Brown? Do you envision yourself taking a break from one to focus more on the other?I’ve always been interested in research and teaching. A few years ago, when I started to write textbooks, I began to think of that as an alternate kind of teaching. What I mean by that is when I teach my cell biology class, I might reach 50 students, when I teach the intro bio class I might reach 400 students, but when I write a high school textbook I can – without exaggeration – reach millions of students. So I regard all of this as kind of the same activity.Travelling, speaking and even doing strange things like appearing on television do take time away from other professional activities. You have to ask yourself, “Do these things do any good for the scientific enterprise as a whole?” I think the answer to that is really simple: If those of us in the scientific community decide we aren’t going to venture into the public square and make ourselves available for public talks and interviews and going on TV shows, saying that all that is beneath us, that vacuum in the public square will be filled by people whom most of us regard as the enemies of science. I think everybody in the scientific community has an obligation to bring science to that public square and to make their work understandable to the general public. And I’ve received a tremendous amount of support from my scientific colleagues here at Brown and in the rest of the scientific community for doing exactly what I’m doing.

What projects are you working on right now?I’m on sabbatical leave this year, so I’m not teaching. If my leave is successful, by a year from now I will have finished three books. When I come back, I’ll go back into my lab and do some research on plant cell walls and plant cell membranes.

As if college students weren’t enamored of you enough, you appeared on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” last year. How has the “Colbert bump” been for you?I don’t know if this is a sad commentary on the state of American higher education, but nothing I’ve ever done in my whole scientific career has gained me as much credibility among my students as appearing on “The Colbert Report.” There’s no question that one of the reasons I’ve literally been flooded with lecture and seminar invitations all over the country is because people have seen the segment or heard about it and thought, “Here’s somebody who can go nose-to-nose with Stephen Colbert.”My phone hasn’t stopped ringing.

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