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 3 | Dr. Ken Miller, on nonscientific reasons why Christians might feel compelled to deny evolution.
Me: What do you think is the problem many religious people have with evolution, if it’s not because of the evidence or lack thereof?
Ken Miller: Most people in a country that loves science like ours would say their objections are scientific. But when you answer those scientific objections, one after another, they just search for other objections. They approach it with such passion and look so desperately for examples to counter evolution that it’s obvious there is something that bugs them besides science alone.
And I think there are two things that bother religious people about evolution. The first one only applies to a minority who take Genesis as literal, historical and scientific fact, which is a nontraditional way to read Genesis. Great theologians of the early centuries of the Christian era, like Saint Augustine, did not read Genesis as history. It’s only in the last hundred years, mostly in the United States, that you have people coming up with a radically different view, which is that Genesis has to be true of science and history. And the fact that evolution and geology portray an entirely history for this planet than the one mentioned in Genesis is, for them, a problem.
It would not have been a problem for Saint Augustine or Saint Thomas Aquinas, or even for great Protestant figures like John Calvin, who wrote a commentary on Genesis, saying scientific errors in Genesis don’t matter because the author would have never assumed scientific facts not known then because it would have made the book look ridiculous. It was a book written in the scientific context of that time to appeal to the people for whom it was written, and I think that is still the proper way to understand Genesis.
A lot of people don’t care what the geologists, astronomers, or biologists say. They believe this planet is 6,000 years old, and that every single living thing was created during a single six-day creation period and that the descendants of those who survived the Great Flood are still alive today. That, I’m sorry, is a contradiction of everything we know in modern science. That’s fine if you want to believe it, but it leads you not just to reject evolution but everything we know about science.
Most people, however, reject evolution because they think it means we are just animals, morality doesn’t exist, and our lives are without meaning, value and purpose. They’re afraid evolution is a theological doctrine that tells us there is no God — you might call it an anti-theological doctrine. If you believe all that stuff, it would be pretty scary. If I thought that’s what evolution really meant, I would find it disturbing too. But evolution isn’t philosophy. Evolution isn’t theology. Evolution is a scientific theory that explains literally tens of thousands of observations and experimental facts about the nature and history of life.
The great biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky, who was a Christian, once wrote, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Any biologist will tell you that that’s true. That is the essence of evolution. Evolution doesn’t invalidate morals or religious beliefs.
Francis Collins is an evangelical Christian and also the head of the National Institutes of Health. I’m a practicing Roman Catholic. The reality is that mainstream faiths across the Christian spectrum accommodated themselves to evolution more than a century ago and many of them have been outspoken about the need to value both faith and reason in trying to form a worldview that is consistent with Christianity.
I understand why people find evolution so disturbing, but I would like to respectfully suggest that I think they’re wrong about that and that there are perfectly good ways to understand the evolutionary process within a Christian context.
Me: OK, Genesis says that humanity is made in the image of God. Would you please comment on how that could be compatible with the evolutionary process?
KM: Oh yes! Aquinas had a meditation on what that verse might mean, which I’ll put in contemporary terms. He wondered, does it mean that God is a hairless, bipedal primate with ten toes and ten fingers? Aquinas said that has to be wrong because if God has a physical body, that limits him in the same way that our physical bodies limit us.
Therefore, God could not be understood as a physical person of a certain age, appearance, weight, length of beard, ethnicity and so forth. Aquinas pointed out that the direct involvement of God in the Old and New Testaments involve a voice from heaven, the appearance of a dove, tongues of fire, the burning bush. They suggest the immaterial, which is surely what God has to be.
Again, think about the context of the Hebrew people. They were surrounded by people who worshiped gods in the forms of rams, bulls, eagles, falcons and lions, and they wanted to emphasize that our God is not some strange animal; our God is very much like us. We can trust our own spiritual and moral selves to discern God’s plan and what is good and evil. And so I think it means is that we are made in the spiritual — not physical — image and likeness of our creator.