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Dr. Kenneth Raymond Miller: Professor of Biology, Brown University (Part One)

July 1, 2014

Interviewer: Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Numbering: Issue 5.A, Idea: Outliers & Outsiders (Part One)

Place of Publication: Langley, British Columbia, Canada

Title: In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Web Domain:

Individual Publication Date: July 1, 2014

Issue Publication Date: September 1, 2014

Name of Publisher: In-Sight Publishing

Frequency: Three Times Per Year

Words: 2,559

ISSN 2369-6885

Dr. Kenneth Miller


An interview with Professor of Biology at Brown University, Dr. Kenneth Raymond Miller, examining the following subject-matter: youth and motivation for an interest in science and the natural world; early study and investigation of biology, inspiration, and pivotal moments; religious convictions; inspiration of the teachings of the Gospels, compelling historical accounts of the life of Jesus, and the logic and reason of Augustine and Aquinas for the faith; proportion of scientists and ‘elite’ scientists adhering to an evolutionary account of life; court battles and scientific investigation of ID; Dr. Michael Behe’s Irreducible Complexity and Dr. William Dembski’s Specified Complexity; thoughts on teleology in nature; influence of personal religious views on matters of science; article Nagel’s Untimely Idea (2009) critiquing Thomas Nagel’s book entitled Mind and Cosmos (2012) and extensions of the critique to the problem of evil; new book project; unsolvable problems in practice and principle in the biological sciences; thoughts on a firm adherence to straightforward communication; book recommendation; and the John Templeton Foundation essay Does science make belief in God obsolete? (2008).

Keywords: Aquinas, Augustine, Biology, brown university, Dr. Kenneth Raymond Miller, Dr. Michael Behe, Dr. William Dembski, Gospels, ID, Irreducible Complexity, John Templeton Foundation, natural world, problem of evil, Professor, religious convictions, Science, Specified Complexity, teleology, Thomas Nagel.

1. How was your youth?  What motivated an interest in science and the natural world?

I had a good time as a youth. I grew up in a suburban town in New Jersey, not too far from New York City. I attended the local public schools, played sports, and hung out with a great group of friends. Outside of school, I was an Eagle Scout, and worked for three summers teaching scoutcraft and swimming at a Scout camp in northern New Jersey.

I was always interested in how things worked, and for a while expected I’d become an engineer, designing and building things.  Then, in 9th grade, I took my first course in Biology, and was hooked. My eyes were opened to the intricacy and beauty of the living world, and from that moment on I knew I wanted to be a biological scientist.

2. How did you find your early study and investigation into the discipline of biology?  Who inspired you?  Do you recall pivotal moments motivating your trajectory into the study of biology?

It’s fair to say that Mr. Paul Zong, my 9th grade biology teacher, was my first inspiration. His classroom was a jumble of plant and animal specimens, and he emphasized the direct study of living things. He inspired me to enter a science fair for the first time, and in turn I pestered my parents for months to buy me the present he made me dream of having – a microscope.  I spent more hours than I can count looking through that instrument, but it made me determined to explore as much of the world of cells as I could.

3. What religious convictions do you hold?  What argument or evidence convinces you?  Or do you take personal revelation and faith for a foundation?

I am a Roman Catholic. I find the teachings of the Gospels inspiring, and embrace the sense of value and purpose that comes from the faith. Christianity depends, of course, upon specific historical accounts of the life of Jesus, and I find these compelling as well. I am also drawn to the insistence upon logic and reason that one finds in the writings of Aquinas and Augustine, as well as the continuing embrace of scientific inquiry by the Church itself and by its institutions such as Catholic colleges and universities.

4. To clarify the discussion prior to further plumbing of the issue’s depth, what proportion of scientists adhere to an evolutionary account of life?  What about the ‘elite’ scientists in the National Academy of Sciences?

Probably 95% or more of all biological scientists accept the board outlines of the theory of evolution. In the National Academy, the percentage is probably even higher.

5. You have been at the forefront of the public fight over creationism, intelligent design, and evolution in high school classrooms, especially with respect to having published an extraordinarily popular and widely-used biology textbook.  However, much news in the past reported on intelligent design and creationism having potential insertion into high school textbooks prior to long, hard scrutiny by experts in the scientific community, which seems odd.  Especially in light of the fact that most science goes through the rigours of the scientific method and community.  In your article Goodbye, Columbus, you state, “There was a simple way that ID could… find its way into the scientific curriculum… by fighting it out in the scientific marketplace.” What attempts have been made to “fight it out in the scientific marketplace” compared to court battles over intelligent design?

I have seen very few genuine efforts by the advocates of ID to carry out scientific investigations. Nearly all of their efforts have been in the spheres of politics and public relations. Typically, more than 3,000 papers are presented at the annual meeting of the scientific group to which I belong, The American Society for Cell Biology. If there were genuine scientific results on the complexity of the cell that supported ID, one would expect to find them at these meetings. But ID proponents seem to avoid such gatherings, perhaps because these are places in which their ideas would meet serious, expert scientific criticism.  Instead, they prefer to make their arguments to political groups such as school boards and state legislatures. In such places, they can seek the political support needed to rewrite curriculum standards and revise textbooks. My sense is that if they had a genuine scientific argument, they’d be ignoring the political route, and trying to find the evidence that would convince the scientific community.

6. Most notable of the intelligent design arguments are Dr. Michael Behe’s Irreducible Complexity and Dr. William Dembski’s Specified Complexity.  What does each argue?  By your analysis, what evidence and argument most defeats them?  How might they respond?

Behe has argued that complex multipart biochemical systems are “irreducibly complex,” which means that the removal of so much as a single part renders them non-functional.  In his own words, “An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly by numerous, successive, slight modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition non-functional.” Therefore, since such systems cannot be produced by evolutionary mechanisms, they must be the products of special creation by “design,” according to Behe’s formulation.

The problem with that argument is that even the systems that Behe himself has chosen as examples contradict that claim. I’ve pointed out that there exist subsystems with his favourite system (the bacterial flagellum) that are missing multiple parts and yet are fully-functional. Even more dramatic is the example of the vertebrate blood-clotting system, which he claimed as an example of irreducible complexity because each and every part of the system had to be present for blood to clot. However, thanks to the work of Russell Doolittle at the University of California, San Diego, it is now clear that there are many vertebrates that are missing multiple parts of the system, and still are able to clot their blood.  Even more devastating are Doolittle’s recent studies, which demonstrate how the multipart clotting system arose from simple components, something that Behe has always claimed would be impossible.

Dembski’s arguments regarding specified complexity are couched in the terminology of information theory, and this makes them sound authoritative to those searching for a scientific-sounding argument against evolution. In essence, Dembski notes that living systems contain a great deal of information coded in DNA and other molecules. That is true, of course. But he then makes the claim that information cannot be generated spontaneously, and must always come from an intelligent source. Therefore, there must be an intelligent designer who put that information into living systems. The problem with that argument is that we already know where biological information comes from, and that is the process of evolution itself.

The literature has many examples of how novel genes and new functions arise through evolutionary processes. Individual studies have traced the evolution of new enzymes and new receptor proteins, and even new biochemical pathways.  Each of these involves the production of new information. That information is generated by well-understood processes such as gene duplication, mutation, and natural selection. Joseph Thornton at the University of Oregon, for example, has traced the development of hormone receptor proteins, a process that generates new information in the form of genes that specify the structures of these critical proteins. Richard Lenski at Michigan State University has traced bacterial evolution for decades, and has recently watched as these organisms developed a new way to metabolize citrate. Where did the information for citrate metabolism come from? Not from an outside “designer,” but from the evolutionary process itself. This is why Dembski’s ideas have found no support within the scientific community. It is because they are wrong.

7. Have intelligent design theories made any predictions?  Have any intelligent design theories yielded experimental results?  What falsifies intelligent design?

First, it’s worth noting that the arguments advanced by ID are entirely negative. Think about the claims made by Behe and Dembski. They point to a characteristic of living systems (biochemical complexity or specified information) and then argue that evolution could not have produced these characteristics. They are wrong in their arguments, of course, but the remarkable thing is that neither of these arguments actually produce anything in the way of positive evidence for ID. They simply argue that evolution couldn’t do it.

“Design,” therefore, is assumed to be the default explanation in the absence of an adequate evolutionary mechanism. But that is a very weak argument, even if their critiques of evolutionary mechanisms were correct. By assuming a priori that the only mechanism for living things is special creation by a “designer,” they are ruling out, for no reason, a host of other possibilities. These possibilities include, incidentally, as yet undiscovered genetic mechanisms. Since the last two decades have seen several such discoveries, including RNA interference, epigenetic modification, and RNA editing, it would be foolhardy to assume that we have run the table in that respect.

Not surprisingly, a negative critique of evolution, like ID, makes no predictions of its own except that living things will have some characteristics that we cannot yet explain. If that were not true, of course, there would be no need to do research, because we would understand everything. And the “design hypothesis” has proved to be almost completely unproductive in the scientific sense.

It is also worth noting that almost nothing can falsify every claim made for “design” in the strict sense. But that’s actually ID’s greatest weakness. You can invoke “design” to explain anything, from the structure of the ribosome to the winner of last year’s World Series, but that proves absolutely nothing. Whenever we lack a detailed explanation of a biological structure, pathway, or process, you can always throw up your hands and say “it must have been designed,” and that’s that. But that’s not an explanation. It’s really an appeal to ignorance. And my greatest problem with ID is that it proposes that we be satisfied with ignorance rather than continuing to search for answers.

8. Do you see any room for teleology in nature?  For instance, if God created the laws of nature, then the non-teleological, i.e. deterministic, laws discovered of physics, chemistry, and biology would, in essence, result from teleology, i.e. an act of creation by God.  In other words, the deterministic laws and constants discovered by science can have consideration as teleological by-products, but, of course, intentional by-products from many adhered-to definitions of God.

That depends, of course, on exactly what one means by “teleology.” The Nicene Creed states that God is the “maker of all things, visible and invisible,” which would certainly include the laws of nature to which you refer.  Ironically, ID actually demeans the teleological role of God in creation by its claim that natural processes are not sufficient to account for the origin and evolution of life. To an ID adherent, teleology is not inherent in nature, and must be supplied by the supernatural intervention of an outside “designer.”

Evolution, by contrast, accepts that the origin and diversification of life were and are fully natural processes. To a person of faith, that means that the universe itself contained the seeds of life and consciousness that gave rise to the living world and to our own species. As a result, it becomes much easier to infer intention and rationality to the universe through the evolutionary process. In this very important respect, evolution makes a much more direct connection between God and the natural world that ID ever could.

9. In the arguments for creationism vs. evolution vs. intelligent design, there do arise some peripheral – regarding biology, but ultimate, issues around the larger cosmological questions of origins.  In that, in any case of biological systems having origin through design, natural forces, some combination of the two, or an alternative, does the universe itself exhibit transcendent/‘top-down’ design in the form of a first cause/creator/designer or natural/’bottom-up’ design in the form of a natural law/self-creating universe?  For example, if the universe had a designer, in a general sense, all biology would have potential of being in the design plan of the universe from the instance of the creation.  Even so, some have characterized this – at the limit – as a debate between two philosophical worldviews: theism and atheism.  However, this seems – unfortunately – misleading and pre-maturely simplifying the matter, and more a reflection of personal views of many major figures in the public debate.  How much do worldviews influence the output of research?  Do personal religious/irreligious views have any bearing on the facts and theories from science? 

I think it’s obvious that personal views on just about anything can influence the attitudes and work of scientists, and that includes religious views. But the great strength of the scientific process is its self-correcting nature. The very fact that scientific work is open to review, criticism, and correction ensures that mistaken theories and hypotheses don’t last for very long. For example, claims that the earth was formed less than 10,000 years ago or that the Earth’s geological formations were produced in a single worldwide flood are empirically testable. Even though these claims were accepted as fact by generations of naturalists, they were quickly abandoned when scientific tools made it possible to test them and to demonstrate that they were incorrect.

**********************References at end of part two***********************


In-sight by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen, In-sight, and In-Sight Publishing 2012-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-sight with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.  All interviewees co-copyright their interview material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.


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