In December 2009, I conducted an interview with cellular and molecular biologist Kenneth R. Miller, who was both then and now a biology professor at Brown University. The interview was for a feature in a Christian magazine exploring the possible reconciliation of the scientific consensus on evolution with an uncompromised biblical faith. I thought that, as an evolutionary biologist and opponent of creationism and intelligent design, as well as a Roman Catholic and theist, Dr. Miller was more qualified than most to speak to the issue.
I would be delighted to be able to say that, after three and a half years, the debate has progressed such that his comments no longer apply, but unfortunately that is not the case. And so, with Dr. Miller’s permission, I am reprinting our interview in several parts.
Part 2 | Dr. Ken Miller, on the harmony between evolution and an active God and why he opposes intelligent design. (Also see the book he authored on the subject.)
Me: Dr. Miller, do you view evolution as guided by God or a random process that he initiated?
Ken Miller: OK, the answer is no and no. To most people, the word “random” means anything could happen. It’s like a roll of the dice — you never know what’s going to come up. Even though some of the things that power evolution — like genetic recombination, transposition, the appearance of mutations — are unpredictable, the driving force that Darwin identified is natural selection, and it’s not random at all. It is driven by the environment in which the organism lives, and it’s regulated by the laws of physics and chemistry, which are not random either. Genetic change is constrained by the process of development and the way gene expression works and that’s also not a random process.
Evolution, therefore, is not random. Is it guided by God? This thought comes from Thomas Aquinas, the great theologian of the Middle Ages who wrote in the 13th century. He said that when you show that something that happens in the natural world has a natural cause, that does not take God out of the picture because he is the author of all things natural. So when you say the rain has a natural cause in the clashing of cold and warm fronts, that does not take God out of the picture, it simply places all of nature in God’s providential plan.
What does that mean about evolution? Evolution is a natural process. The whole message of evolution is that we can explain our origins and other species in terms of natural processes that operate today in living organisms that are all around us. If God is real, as I believe he is, that means that those natural processes are part of his providence. Does it also mean that he was such an incompetent planner that he had to constantly reach in and supplant his own laws and rules to make things come out the way he wanted? And the answer to that is no, for theological purposes.
The most satisfying, Christian view is a God who is the master of everything, including nature itself. Does that mean that God is not involved? No, to a person of faith like myself, God is involved in every second, every millisecond of existence, not by constantly pulling strings and subverting our independence, but by supporting our existence and the natural laws that make this world so orderly and enable us to do science in the first place.
Me: In the Dover case, you testified that intelligent design is not science and should not be in schools. How do you define science, and why do you think evolution fits that definition better than ID?
KM: I think science is actually rather easily defined: It is simply the human activity of seeking natural explanations for natural phenomena. When a meteorologist tries to figure out why it’s raining today, the meteorologist looks for a natural explanation in terms of moisture content in the air, warm fronts, cold fronts, movements of the jet stream and so forth. When a chemist tries to figure out why mixing two solutions together produces a red color, the chemist looks for a natural explanation in terms of the laws of chemistry and physics, chemical bonding, resonance structures, light absorbency and so forth. When a biologist tries to figure out why a cell is dividing into two cells, the biologist looks for a natural explanation in terms of macromolecules, their interactions with the proteins that control cell structure, timing mechanisms and so on. That’s how science works.
Now, the research program for intelligent design — if you want to call it that since they don’t really do research — is to find complicated structures or intricate processes within cells and then throw up their hands and say, “We cannot think of a natural explanation for this, therefore it must have been specially created or designed.” It is, in effect, a negation of everything science stands for.
One of my colleagues, Kevin Padian, was asked on the stands of the Kitzmiller trial why he objected to intelligent design being taught at schools and he said, “It makes kids stupid.” What he meant by that is the whole idea of intelligent design is: “Look at this! There’s no explanation for it. Look at that! We can’t figure out where this came from.” It basically teaches students to be satisfied with not explaining things that we find in the natural world, and that’s why it’s referred to as a “science-stopper.”
Me: One of the most common arguments against evolution is that there are not enough transitional fossils to support the theory. How do you respond to that?
KM: Well, I don’t want to get too brutal about this, but that is simply not true. About 20 years ago, I was in a debate with a young-earth creationist who made the same claim. Because of the format of the debate, I had 3 minutes to respond. I told the audience that I had slides — this was before PowerPoint — of 22 different transitional forms and I would try to get as many in before the moderator rang the bell and I had to shut up.
I don’t remember if I did go through all of them, but after I got through 10 or 15, the audience realized the claim that there are not transitional forms is bogus. We have well-documented evidence of major evolutionary transitions: the origin of mammals from reptiles, the origin of swimming mammals, the transition from lobe-finned fish to early tetrapods. And all these guys meet any reasonable definition of intermediate form.
My paleontologist friends tell me when they find yet another intermediate form representing the transition from reptiles to mammals, they actually argue about whether or not it should be called a “reptile-like mammal” or a “mammal-like reptile.” Some of these arguments can get pretty vicious, but what this shows is that, absolutely, positively, we have intermediate forms. So a lot of the criticism, saying this or that doesn’t count as a transitional form, is done not because of the evidence, but in spite of the evidence.