Jerry Coyne returns to the pages of The New Republic with this review of Ken Miller’s recent book Only a Theory and Karl Giberson’s book Saving Darwin. I previously reviewed Giberson’s book here and Miller’s book here.
Miller and Giberson, recall, were both rying to carve out space for a reconciliation of evolution with Christianity. Coyne’s verdict:
This disharmony is a dirty little secret in scientific circles. It is in our personal and professional interest to proclaim that science and religion are perfectly harmonious. After all, we want our grants funded by the government, and our schoolchildren exposed to real science instead of creationism. Liberal religious people have been important allies in our struggle against creationism, and it is not pleasant to alienate them by declaring how we feel. This is why, as a tactical matter, groups such as the National Academy of Sciences claim that religion and science do not conflict. But their main evidence–the existence of religious scientists–is wearing thin as scientists grow ever more vociferous about their lack of faith. Now Darwin Year is upon us, and we can expect more books like those by Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson. Attempts to reconcile God and evolution keep rolling off the intellectual assembly line. It never stops, because the reconciliation never works.
Yes. Exactly right.
Having been very critical of Coyne’s last essay for TNR, I am happy to be able to recommend this one. Most of Coyne’s points are spot on. I was cheering at this one (a response to the arguments of Miller and Giberson that it is America’s instinctive mistrust of authority that leads in large part to widespread rejection of evolution):
The resistance to evolution in America has little to do with populism as such. Our ornery countrymen do not rise up against the idea of black holes or the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem. It is evolution that is the unique object of their ire, and for this there is only one explanation. The facts are these: you may find religion without creationism, but you will never find creationism without religion. Miller and Giberson shy away from this simple observation. Their neglect of the real source of creationism is inexcusable but understandable: a book aiming to reconcile evolution and religion can hardly blame the faithful.
And this one (in response to arguments that human-like intelligence is the inevitable end result of the evolutionary process):
This raises another question. We recognize convergences because unrelated species evolve similar traits. In other words, the traits appear in more than one species. But sophisticated, self-aware intelligence is a singleton: it evolved just once, in a human ancestor. (Octopi and dolphins are also smart, but they do not have the stuff to reflect on their origins.) In contrast, eyes have evolved independently forty times, and white color in Arctic animals appeared several times. It is hard to make a convincing case for the evolutionary inevitability of a feature that arose only once. The elephant’s trunk, a complex and sophisticated adaptation (it has over forty thousand muscles!), is also an evolutionary singleton. Yet you do not hear scientists arguing that evolution would inevitably fill the “elephant niche.” Giberson and Miller proclaim the inevitability of humanoids for one reason only: Christianity demands it.
Well said! One more:
Unfortunately, some theologians with a deistic bent seem to think that they speak for all the faithful. These were the critics who denounced Dawkins and his colleagues for not grappling with every subtle theological argument for the existence of God, for not steeping themselves in the complex history of theology. Dawkins in particular was attacked for writing The God Delusion as a “middlebrow” book. But that misses the point. He did indeed produce a middlebrow book, but precisely because he was discussing religion as it is lived and practiced by real people. The reason that many liberal theologians see religion and evolution as harmonious is that they espouse a theology not only alien but unrecognizable as religion to most Americans.
Preach it, brother!
All in all, a solid performance, and one that nicely skewers the simplistic arguments of Miller and Giberson. But I do have to object to one part of the essay:
But regardless of their views, all creationists share four traits. First, they devoutly believe in God. No surprise there, except to those who think that ID has a secular basis. Second, they claim that God miraculously intervened in the development of life, either creating every species from scratch or intruding from time to time in an otherwise Darwinian process. Third, they agree that one of these interventions was the creation of humans, who could not have evolved from apelike ancestors. This, of course, reflects the Judeo-Christian view that humans were created in God’s image. Fourth, they all adhere to a particular argument called “irreducible complexity.” This is the idea that some species, or some features of some species, are too complex to have evolved in a Darwinian manner, and must therefore have been designed by God.
This is a prelude to an argument that Miller and Giberson are effectively creationists themselves.
There are a number of people on my side of the issue who go this route. Carving out space for a meaningful Christian faith within an evolutionary view of the world, it is argued, somehow reduces you to the level of a creationist. Considering that, among scientists, calling someone a “creationist” is pretty close to calling them an ignorant jerk, I think we ought to be real careful about how we apply the term.
Coyne has ignored what I would regard as some of the most important attributes of creationists. They believe in using the political process to have their religious views forced into science classes. They believe that religious revelation is a source of information about nature at least as important, if not more important, as the findings of science. They believe that science as presently understood is inadequate, and must make room for supernatural explanations. And they are almost completely unscrupulous in making their case to the public. Miller and Giberson do not do any of those things, and it is scurrilous to apply to them a term summoning up images of those that do.
Seeing a broader purpose to the evolutionary process does not make you a creationist. It makes you someone willing to accept some bad arguments in an attempt to prop up antiquated religious beliefs that should have been abandoned long ago, but that is a different sin. Creationists are well-deserved targets of derision and contempt. People like Miller and Giberson, by contrast, ought to be treated as targets of polite but firm disagreement. Miller, in particular, through his numerous public speeches and his work as an expert witness in several trials is one of the great heros in the cause of science education. It is ridiculous to argue that he is, in any meaningful sense, a creationist.
Coyne’s article is very long, but well worth reading in full. Go do it now!