I published a review in Nature this week, of Ken Miller’s Only a Theory(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), and boy, was that a tough one. The catch was that I want the book to do well, and I definitely think it has a place as an appeal to the religious majority to support good science (you know, all those people who see my demonic visage leering out at them from the top left corner of this page and want to call for an exorcist), but it also irritated me greatly on several important points.
I think it’s a much better book than his previous, Finding Darwin’s God(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). That book had one point where it simply drove off the cliff with a bunch of handwaving about god dwelling in quantum indeterminacy, which made it virtually unreadable beyond that point. There is no cliff in this one; instead, it’s threaded with some annoying biases throughout.
The big one for me was a lot of naive American exceptionalism, and that’s the issue for which I took him to task in the Nature review. Why does the US have such an aberrant problem with creationism, while Europe does not? I would have answered with something about a tradition of religiosity and anti-intellectualism, and maybe something about a rough-and-ready credulity that allowed for the rapid proliferation of widely variant sects; the recent renascence of creationism under the guise of ID owes something to raging relativism, too. In Miller’s eyes, creationism has absolutely nothing to do with religion at all — it’s all about the American virtues of rebelliousness and disrespect, to which we also owe our eminence in science.
This is news to me, especially lately since Miller’s co-religionists have been madly flinging bricks at me for daring to disrespect their peculiar superstitions. I also don’t think the sheep flocking to the mega-churches are flaunting their rebelliousness…it’s more an expression of conformity. There isn’t one true revolutionary among the creationist hordes, only a mob trying to defend hallowed superstitions from the encroaching modernity. Any explanation for the popularity of creationism that discounts the impact of religion for the worse is like trying to explain the motion of a car while completely ignoring the engine compartment.
The other annoyance of his book creeps in gradually. He’s clearly a fan of Simon Conway Morris’s view that life roughly of our sort was inevitable, that while evolution would lead to variations in the details, a human-like mind was a consequence that was programmed into the starting conditions of the universe. If we restarted the Earth at a point 4 billion years ago, the planet would eventually cough up a pile of social animals that would start going to church and praising their heavenly creator — maybe they wouldn’t be mammals, but our molluscan or reptilian or echinoderm replacements on Alternate Earth would still be occupying a similar niche to ours, and would still be fulfilling the rough outlines of the vision set in motion by a loving god.
This is, of course, untestable wishful thinking, and not at all supported by the science, which shows a genuine role for chance. Real chance. Not the chance of Miller, which is that of a god who throws dice most of the time, but when it is really, really important, he fudges the results a little bit to make sure he wins.
Still, you should read the book. Ignore the apologetics, and don’t trust anything he says about the origins of creationism in the US, but do read it for the excellent rebuttals to common creationist claims. This is a book I’d hand to any creationist students who try to argue against evolution on religious grounds, but I think it would only take them partway to a realistic view of how life came to be.