Coyne Spanks Miller, Giberson

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!


  1. #1 The Science Pundit
    January 26, 2009

    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.

    I think this is right. I know that I was a little uncomfotable when PZ used the C word in his review of Miller’s book.

  2. #2 Damian
    January 26, 2009

    While I tend to agree with you, Jason, it is important to point out that Theodosius Dobzhansky was happy to call himself a creationist:

    I am a creationist and an evolutionist. Evolution is God’s, or Nature’s method of creation. Creation is not an event that happened in 4004 BC; it is a process that began some 10 billion years ago and is still under way.

    – Theodosius Dobzhansky, “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution” (1973)

    So in that sense, both Miller and Giberson are creationists. However, when language/meaning changes, or even the situation in which it is used, it is only reasonable for us adapt to those changes, lest we spread even more confusion.

    I guess that is why “theistic evolutionist” was invented, and it does the job rather well, in my opinion.

  3. #3 Rev Matt
    January 26, 2009

    Everytime I see one of these headlines I instantly think “Really? Wayne Coyne has gotten into science advocacy?” Maybe the weirder part is it doesn’t seem all that unlikely.

  4. #4 BaldApe
    January 26, 2009

    As it happens, I’m reading Miler’s book now. I haven’t gotten to the mystical parts yet. His critique of ID is truly withering though.

    Thanks so much for the link. The article is more than worth the read. I’ve wishlisted Coyne’s book.

  5. #5 tomh
    January 26, 2009

    @ Damian
    So in that sense, both Miller and Giberson are creationists…

    I have to agree with this. The meaning of the word hasn’t changed that much. Someone who believes in supernatural creation is a creationist. People who focus amost entirely on the evolution battle see creationism in a much more narrow sense than what the word still means to the general population, or in the dictionary, for that matter. Regardless of their other work or acceptance of science, belief in supernatural creation makes them creationists.

  6. #6 Pierce R. Butler
    January 26, 2009

    The resistance to evolution in America has little to do with populism as such.

    “Populism” historically denotes a late-19th-century movement rooted in the American midwest, opposing capitalists (primarily banks & railroads) from northeastern urban centers. These in turn heavily promoted Herbert Spencer’s “social Darwinism” while squeezing every possible nickel from the yokels.

    Both sides conflated the two Darwinisms, scientific & political, twining the conflict of farmers, workers, and small-townspeople against educated Yankee elitists with the resistance of clergy to secularism and science. Wm. Jennings Bryan fought for decades on behalf of economic underdogs before battling Snopes and Darrow in Tennessee.

    Without this element of flat-out class struggle, antagonism to evolution among rural and blue-collar populations in the US would have been much milder, at least for the generations between 1859 and 1925. “[R]esistance to evolution in America” corresponds to “populism” in the same degree that modern fundies (even in changed political circumstances) have inherited that prairie wind.

  7. #7 386sx
    January 26, 2009

    Yea I have to agree also. They are creationists in the sense that they think everything was “created”, but the term has many bad connotations nowadays, so it is best not to say that they are creationists. If there is any kind of a gap in scientific knowledge, then that seems like as a good a place to stick something as the next.

  8. #8 Pierce R. Butler
    January 26, 2009

    Coyne has ignored what I would regard as some of the most important attributes of creationists.

    Just as most “evolutionists” ignore, or at least disregard, some important attributes of creationists. The creos are a small part of a “culture war” waged on a wide front by overlapping cabals, embodied by the modern Republican Party.

    Though occasionally in conflict (e.g., a purely capitalist society would not deny birth control, including abortion, to its workforce, and would market “porn” wherever there were buyers), the two factions work together regularly. Hyperchristian propaganda frequently demonizes Al Gore and global-warming realists, but not for theological reasons; Big Pharma quietly surrendered embryonic-stem-cell research for the sake of tax and regulatory advantages from Busheviks.)

    Our opponents generally recognize the full context of their shared crusades, and calculate accordingly. As most science advocates decline to ally even with atheism, never mind (say) feminism or (gasp!) leftism, the fight against creationists is likely to continue on a fragmented and strategically incoherent basis.

    … On re-reading the above, I want to add that I’m not pushing for “pro-science” groups to rewrite their agendas in the name of feminism/liberalism/progressivism/whatever (as if any of those movements were unified in themselves). I’m just saying that opposing “creationism” per se is like whacking at one minor tentacle of a giant kraken, when a wider view of the overall problem is needed. (Apologies to the cephalopophiles, with a request for improved metaphors…)

  9. #9 BaldApe
    January 27, 2009

    Pierce Butler said:

    (e.g., a purely capitalist society would not deny birth control, including abortion, to its workforce,

    I dispute that. By keeping population growth high, capitalists would ensure a growing economy, and by forcing poor people to have unwanted kids, they would maintain an eneducated surplus work force of cheap labor. This has been the case in South American countries, where native populations with very high intrinsic rates of reproduction are denied birth control to maintain a flow of cheap labors into the cities as the forests can no longer sustain their populations.

  10. #10 SLC
    January 27, 2009

    Re Damian

    However, Prof. Miller himself rejects the description theistic evolutionist in a comment on Larry Morans’ blog. He describes himself as a methodological naturalist and a philosophical theist.

  11. #11 eric
    January 27, 2009

    One thing that bothers me about Coyne is that at some point, if you really think science is a form of methodological naturalism, you have to put your money where your mouth is and stop paying so much attention to what’s in people’s heads. Its how they act as scientists that matter. Once you start judging scientists not by their methods but by whats in their heads, you’ve committed to science as philosophical naturalism. AFAIK, Coyne (unlike Dawkins) presents himself as a methodological naturalist, for instance saying things like this:

    “Evolution is simply a theory about the process and patterns of life’s diversification, not a grand philosophical scheme about the meaning of life.” New Republic, August 2005, p33.

    But in his review of Miller, for instance, he essentially takes him to task for his philosophical scheme. So it appears to me that he defends methodological naturalism in abstract, but when faced with a concret case of a religious scientist, switches to philosophical naturalism. Maybe I’m doing a disservice to an otherwise great biologist, but I don’t think he’s entirely consistent about his view of science.

  12. #12 Raymond Minton
    January 27, 2009

    Coyne’s certainly right about the futility of trying to reconsile religion and evolution, but he should be careful with his critiques, since his own book, “Why Evolution Is True” contains errors that play into the hands of creationists.

  13. #13 John Kwok
    January 27, 2009

    Francisco J. Ayala has often struck me as someone who tries harder than Ken Miller in reconciling his religious faith – he is after all a former Roman Catholic monk – with his steadfast acceptance of modern evolutionary theory as valid science. However, I don’t think he has gone as far as Ken has in musing that natural selection created conditions – that GOD desired – that would lead eventually to the appearance of Homo sapiens (Unfortunately Ken does mention this in one of the concluding chapters of “Only A Theory”, and it’s a section that I’m not especially fond of for that reason.).

  14. #14 Bayesian Bouffant, FCD
    January 28, 2009

    Ayala is steadfast in his refusal to discuss his own beliefs. While he does make the “science and religious belief are compatible” argument, he does not state outright that he holds such beliefs.

  15. #15 Pierce R. Butler
    January 28, 2009

    BaldApe: By keeping population growth high, capitalists would ensure a growing economy… This has been the case in South American countries…

    Well taken-points. I should have said In a technologically advanced society, capitalism would not deny birth control…

    (I do, however, quibble with the implied assumption that population growth automatically equals a growing economy – and cite the last few decades in Latin America as supporting evidence.)

  16. #16 BaldApe
    January 29, 2009

    I am not saying that a growing population is desirable. I only mean that most of the time, when a country manages to get their population growth in the negative range, the chorus of “Oh how terrible” from business and economists drives me nuts, since I consider the world overpopulated by a couple orders of magnitude already.

    Apparently the field of Sustainable Economics is supposed to deal with that and other problems. I can only hope they will be successful and persuasive.

  17. #17 Pierce R. Butler
    January 29, 2009

    BaldApe – we are much more in agreement than I had recognized.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think either of us is likely to appreciate the forms by which de-population seems most probable to occur.

  18. #18 BaldApe
    January 31, 2009

    The good news is that giving women control of their reproductive fate is the best way to reduce the population. The bad news is I’m not going to see it applied planet-wide in my lifetime.

    You are right that any faster solution is way too draconian to be acceptable.

  19. #19 Pierce R. Butler
    January 31, 2009

    Again, we agree on the optimal solution, and on the unlikelihood of its timely arrival.

    However, my reference to de-population was to the traditional ways it’s been done before: disease, famine, wholesale knocking-in of heads, and suchlike unpleasantness.

    While a case could be made for “draconian” mandatory birth control, the political implications and certain backlash (see attempts made in India a few decades back) are overwhelming arguments against that approach, even if we ignored the moral issues involved.

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