Ken Miller has now weighed in with a lengthy post criticizing Jerry Coyne’s views on the compatibility of science and religion.
Since most of Miller’s essay is focused on specific statements made by Coyne I won’t go point by point through it. I suspect Coyne will post his own reply at his blog, and I look forwrad to reading it. I’ll just comment that in certain places I think Miller has a point (I think Coyne is mostly right about the big picture, but there are certainly places where I wish he would have expressed himself differently.) In other places I think Miller is not presenting Coyne’s views fairly.
Furthermore, most of the essay does not really address the issues on which I have been defending Coyne in his dispute with Chris Mooney. Those issues had to do with the strategic wisdom of Coyne publishing his article, and with the question of whether drawing a clear line between methodological and philosophical naturalism is much help in reconcling evolution and Christianity.
With that in mind, I’ll content myself with remarking on just a few things Miller has said. For me the key quote from the essay is this:
Exactly what have I said or written to incur Dr. Coyne’s wrath? Simply this: I have expressed the view that there are ways for religious people to understand and accept the theory of evolution that are consistent with the Christian faith. That’s it. That’s my transgression.
Dr. Coyne can defend his own wrath. My interest is in the view that there are ways of accepting evolution that are consistent with Christianity.
This is my main point of disagreement with Miller, and with the numerous other authors who have put forth arguments in this regard. I do not believe that Miller’s proposed way of looking at things is plausible.
For example, he is very keen on the idea that the evolution of human-like intelligence was essentially a foregone conclusion once evolution got started. He laid out his argument in his book Only a Theory and reiterates it in his present essay. He seems to think there is a preexisting biological niche for a creature with human-like intelligence, and that, since evolution managed to fill this niche in the one run we have to go on, it is reasonable to think that a second run of evolution would fill it again.
This seems rather simplistic. It doesn’t make sense to talk about niches in the abstract, divorced from the context of what already exists and what is biologically feasible given the starting point of what already exists. There is a niche for predators who can shoot laser beams out of their eyes, but I am not optimistic about seeing that niche filled.
Human-like intelligence can only evolve if body plans capable of accommodating relatively large brains exist, and only if the proper selection pressures are there. Intelligence is not an unambiguously good thing. As paleontologist Jack Sepkoski once put it:
I see intelligence as just one of a variety of adaptations among tetrapods for survival. Running fast in a herd while being as dumb as shit, I think, is a very good adaptation for survival.
Big brains are costly in terms of biological resources. In many contexts it is hard to see how they would help an animal pass his genes on to the next generation. Even if it were possible to put a big brain on the body plan of a fish (a highly dubious proposition) it is hard to see what selection pressure would push a fish towards greater intelligence. Fish have almost no ability to manipulate their envirnoment. Would a big brained fish be better able to evade predators than its small brained counterparts? Or would it just be less streamlined and less able to swim quickly away from danger?
In our own lineage we see that big brains did not evolve until after we adopted our upright posture and bipedal gait. Once that happened, great intelligence evolved fairly quickly. Presumably our ability to use our opposable thumbs to grasp and manipulate objects had something to do with making the evolution of brianiness a live possiblity.
What is the reason for thinking that evolution inevitably reaches a situation in which the right body plans and genetic variations meet the right selection pressures? Certainly dinosaurs show no evidence of evolving toward human-like intelligence, and they had more than one hundred million years to do so. If we hadn’t had the right sort of extinction event to wipe out the dinosaurs, what is the reason for thinking that human-like intelligence would have evolved?
But let’s suppose Miller is right that human-like intelligence was essentially inevitable. What, then, was the purpose of the four billion year preamble to humanity’s appearance? What was accomplished by creating via four billion years of evolution by savage bloodsport that could not have been accomplished by creation ex nihilo, in precisely the way that Genesis suggests?
As Bertrand Russell put it (writing in 1935):
The conception of purpose is a natural one to apply to a human artificer. A man who desires a house cannot, except in the Arabian Nights, have it rise before him as a result of his mere wish; time and labour must be expended before his wish can be gratified. But omnipotence is subject to no such limitations. If God really thinks well of the human race — an unplausible hypothesis, as it seems to me — why not proceed, as in Genesis, to create man at once? What was the point of the ichtyosaurs, dinosaurs, diplodochi, mastodons, and so on? Dr. Barnes himself confesses, somewhere, that the purpose of the tapeworm is a mystery. What useful purpose is served by rabies and hydrophobia? It is no answer to say that the laws of nature inevitably produce evil as well as good, for God decreed the laws of nature. The evil which is due to sin may be explained as the result of our free will, but the problem of evil in the pre-human world remains.
Quite right, and it leads naturally into another point on which I think Miller is making a bad argument. In Finding Darwin’s God Miller writes:
The second is that we cannot call evolution cruel if all we are really doing is assigning to evolution the raw savagery of nature itself. (p. 246)
Evolution cannot be a cruel concept if all it does is reflect the realities of nature, including birth, struggle, life, and death. It is a fact — not a feature of evolutionary theory, but an objective reality — that every organism alive will eventually die. (p. 246)
That looks like gibberish to me. I don’t know what it means to speak of “the raw savagery of nature itself.” Nature has only those properties that are logically unavoidable or that God willed it to have. It’s pretty hard to argue that four billion years of evolution by natural selection was a logically unavoidable consequence of God’s other intentions (though some have tried to make precisely that argument). Likewise for a phrase like “the realities of nature.” Those realities are what God willed them to be.
I could go on, believe me. But this is a sampling of the sort of thing I have in mind when I say that evolution and Christianity can not be plausibly reconciled. Then again, plausibility is a subjective thing. As I wrote in an earlier post:
Your answer to whether science and religion can be reconciled will depend a lot on what you consider essential to your faith and on what you consider it plausible to believe.
I don’t think what Miller is suggesting is plausible. He thinks it is. But here’s the thing. An awful lot of other people also don’t think it’s plausible. Consider the results of this study from Pew.
The largest Christian denomination recognized by Pew is Evangelical Protestant. Only 24 percent of them accept the statement that evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life. The next three largest Christian denominations in the poll are Catholics, Mainline Protestant and Historically Black Protestant. Between them they account for nearly all Christians in the US. Combining their rates of acceptance of evolution with data about their level of representation in the population, and accepting a bit of round-off error, we come to roughly 57 percent of American Christians who do not accept evolution.
Pretty grim. Perhaps you think all of those people are just confused. If only they had more exposure to people like Ken Miller and Francis Collins they would suddenly see the error of their ways. I don’t believe that, not as a general proposition at any rate. I believe those people are thinking very clearly and simply don’t accept as plausible the sorts of arguments made by Miller and others. I suspect if I were to show them Michael Ruse’s Can a Darwinian be a Christian? (specifically endorsed by Miller), they would see in it the same sophistry and hand-waving that I see.
This is the reason I make such a big issue of this subject. We have a big social problem here: lots of people want to gut science education by giving respectful treatment to some form of creationism. So far we have been successful fighting off such people in court, but have been relatively unsuccessful in the realm of public opinion. Why do we have this big problem?
Miller, in Only a Theory, put forth a truly preposterous explanation. His idea was that American skepticism of evolution is a reflection of our general spirit of reblliousness. Not for us the dictates of some pointy-headed scientific authorities. P.Z. Myers nicely skewered that idea in his review of Miller’s book:
Only a Theory deals poorly with one central aspect of this battle: why this problem is so much greater in the United States than elsewhere. Miller’s rationalizations are sometimes painful to read. Europe’s relative freedom from the scourge of creationism is explained with a condescending anecdote: a British colleague offers that any outbreak of such nonsense is rapidly quashed by “dispatch[ing] a couple of dons from Oxford or Cambridge” to overawe the locals with their prestigious degrees, to which the populace will defer. The popularity of creationism in the United States is ascribed to independence and rebelliousness rather than religiosity, which, as someone who has dealt with many creationists, I find disingenuous.
I would add that the reblliousness that drives so many Americans into the ranks of the anti-evolutionists does not seem to lead them to be skeptical of their local religious leaders. Nor does it lead them to be skeptical of other scientific theories. Looks like very selective rebelliousness to me.
The primary reason we have a problem with creationism is that certain very bad religious ideas are very popular in American society. That would seem too obvious to need saying and the public opinion data seems to make that clear. If you have this idea that it is only a radical fringe of fundamentalists who oppose evolution, or that most Christian denominations have no problem with it, or that it can only be ignorance of the depth of Christian theology that leads people to see a serious conflict between Christianity and evolution then you have not adequately understood the problem.
For all of that, I have no problem emphasizing the many Christians who see no problem with evolution. My objection comes when saying that evolution and Christianity don’t have to be at odds spills over into suggesting that only fringe types think otherwise, or in trying to marginalize the views of those of us who demur from this view. As I wrote in my post on accommadtionism:
As for the NCSE, I have no objection to them pointing out, as a simple empirical fact, that many people have reconciled evolution and Chrisitanity, and I have no objection to them taking the pragmatic view that we need religious moderates on our side. I not only don’t object, I think that’s what they should be doing. There are many teenagers growing up in religiously isolated towns who are no doubt genuinely unaware of the diversity of religious opinion on this subject. Maybe they hear a talk by Eugenie Scott and have their eyes opened.
There is no question, however, that the NCSE goes well beyond this, to the point of trying to marginalize the views of those who regard evolution and Christianity as being at odds. Coyne documents this nicely, and he is right to find it troubling.
I concluded with:
There is a need for both the NCSE and P.Z. Myers. They both have an important role to play in defending science education and fighting creationism. But people who whine about polemical atheists hurting the cause are wrong. They are helping the cause. They are, in fact, the only hope for a long-term solution.
That is my view. I do not think it is a betrayal of science to be religious. I do not think there is any logical contradiction between anything in science and the tenets of Christianity. I accuse religious evolutionists of nothing more serious than making bad arguments in defense of their view. I have no problem at all making common cause with people who disagree with me on this point when the issue is protecting science education.
But I also think a strategy of trying to convince people to move to a more moderate sort of religion is doomed to failure. I just don’t think you will find enough people who see the arguments of Miller and Ruse (and many others) to be credible here. The only hope for a long-term solution is to marginalize religion in public discourse. I don’t know if we can accomplish that, but I do know it won’t happen without a whole lot of screaming and yelling.
As always, there is plenty more to say. But since I have already gone on far longer than I intended, I will stop here.