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Kenneth Miller’s lecture at UT

Kenneth Miller spoke at UT last night as part of an ongoing lecture series, Hot Science – Cool Talks, sponsored by the university’s Environmental Science Institute. I had no real idea of what to expect, and while it did not draw Dawkins-sized crowds, attendance was still huge, overflowing the lecture hall in Welch to SRO capacity. Prior to the lecture, several organizations like CFI-Austin and the Paleontological Society of Austin had display tables set up in the lobby, with cool fossils and that sort of thing. The crowd got so thick at one point that, while I was standing at the CFI table chatting with James Dee, the heat started making me feel a little woozy on my feet. Didn’t last long, though, but still another indicator that I need to get back in shape something awful.

I won’t go into as much detail about the lecture as I did Dawkins’, mainly because the webcast is archived and I strongly encourage you to listen to it yourself (you have to install something called Envivio first), as this was one of the best lectures about evolution and the ID debacle I’ve ever heard. Miller is a witty and engrossing public speaker, as only someone who’s been a professor at Brown for a quarter century can be. His Keynote presentation was excellent, far better in quality than Dawkins’ Powerpoint.

Miller spoke about the central scientific failing of ID, that its proponents just automatically want acceptance as a viable theory to be taught in schools without having to produce the actual science that would earn it acceptance, and he went on to document ID’s downfall at Dover. Some of Miller’s information here overlapped that of Barbara Forrest, who spoke here in November at a lecture that got Chris Comer (who was in attendance, as well as many folks from Texas Citizens for Science) fired. (One of Expelled‘s many lies is that it’s the courageous, forward thinking proponents of ID who are losing jobs for their views, but as reality makes clear, the opposite is actually true.)

However, the bulk of Miller’s talk was given over to impressively concise explanations as to how we know evolution is true, and where the claims of the ID camp collapse. Just to give a couple of quick examples: Miller first demolished Michael Behe’s claims about “irreducible complexity” in the bacterial flagellum. Behe’s claim in a nutshell is that, if you take apart the individual components of a complex system, and those individual components themselves have no function, than that proves irreducible complexity and refutes the notion that such a system evolved. However, Miller explained, if you take apart all of the little bits of the flagellum’s little rotary tail, you find those components do have functions. It’s just that, taken apart, those components did other things than what they ended up doing once they evolved into the flagellum’s motor. It was perhaps the most accessible and straightforward explanation for a lay audience about irreducible complexity and the flagellum I’ve ever heard, and one that left no doubt as to the failure of Behe’s concept.

Miller also explained how evolution does in fact have a wealth of transitional fossils, and indeed, the only problem science has with all its transitional fossils is determining just where transitions begin or end. He showed how the creationist textbook Of Pandas and People presents a graph featuring prehistoric fish and amphibians, which simply omits several known species in order to claim that “missing links” and “gaps” in the fossil record exist. And even in the cases where there were real gaps in that sequence, in recent years, those have been filled, for instance, by a little critter called Tiktaalik.

Miller also showed how evolutionary science managed to explain how human beings have one fewer pair of chromosomes than other primates. Scientists predicted that the only possible explanation is that one of these pairs must have fused together at some point in humanity’s evolutionary history…and sho nuff, that’s what we find in Chromosome 2: a fused chromosome with vestigial telomeres near the middle of the sequence (where they’d only be if a fusion had occurred), and two sets of vestigial centromeres, one no longer active. The evidence for evolution is simply everywhere — and even in your own body.

The Q&A was really good. One guy predictably asked Miller’s opinion of Expelled, which he wouldn’t give as he hasn’t yet seen it (“I understand it’s rather hard to get into,” he quipped to gales of laughter). He added that he was looking forward to seeing it, though. An adorable little girl who couldn’t have been more than five or six asked what all those flat-headed prehistoric fish ate. (Answer: probably exactly what fish today like to eat, algae, microbes, and very small fish.)

As I was on the front row, I actually got a question in. I asked, how can scientists counter propaganda efforts like Expelled, which are really anti-intellectual exercises in emotional button-mashing, which do not, in fact, present any kind of scientific case either way, and instead couch their anti-science views in terms of a “culture war,” where the teaching of evolution is simplistically condemned as evil and something that leads to things like Naziism.

Miller replied that we have the facts on our side, and simply putting those facts out there — that Hitler never once mentions Darwin in Mein Kampf but directly attributed his anti-Semitism to “the work of the Lord”; that the Third Reich in fact banned the teaching of Darwin’s theory; that Nazi soldiers wore belt buckles with the slogan “God [not Darwin] Is With Us” — ought to be sufficient to counter the lies of the anti-science fanatics. I wish I could agree with him. The fundamentalist mindset is not in any way a rational one. And if people have been taught to dismiss and in fact fear facts outright, then simply setting out the truth for them will usually just result in their closing their eyes and covering their ears and going “La la la la I can’t heeear you!” in a very loud voice. Hell, those stupid creationist “biology” textbooks that were presented in the recently-concluded California lawsuit actually printed statements like this: “If [scientific] conclusions contradict the Word of God, the conclusions are wrong, no matter how many scientific facts may appear to back them.” That isn’t education, it’s indoctrination, and it’s such a hugely damaging act of abuse that it will take more than mere facts to counter it.

Miller is such a brilliant scientist that I must admit I’m flummoxed (as were many others in CFI that I talked to after the lecture) why he feels he needs to hold onto his Catholic beliefs. He never really addressed the dichotomy in his talk, though one question allowed him to touch on it in a brief way. Miller stated that he thinks it’s utterly absurd to think that being religious means you cannot be well versed in science too. He also said “Science transcends religion,” which I found interesting. In retrospect, if I had the chance to partake in the Q&A again, my question to him would be the following: “If your view is that science transcends religion, then what is your opinion of Dawkins’ statement to the effect that religions do in fact make scientific claims; specifically, that if the existence of the material universe is through the actions of some deity, then that is a question that can and should be examined by science? And if you disagree, why?” I guess I’ll just have to hold that until next time I get a chance to
see him. Miller did say that, if anyone in Texas would care to invite him back, he’d be happy to sit down with our SBOE and set them straight on a few things. That would be a great idea, as I do see Miller as being a guy who could successfully communicate the pro-evolution, pro-science message to a religious audience, who would be predisposed to dismiss atheist scientists like Dawkins and Myers who’ve been very public with their criticisms of religion.

(No, I’m not supporting the Nisbet “PZ and Dawkins should shut up” bogus “framing” position, only acknowledging that the pro-science side should have a wide variety of voices advocating for it. A Christian scientist will get his message through to Christians where a non-Christian scientist would hit a brick wall.)

In all, a great lecture which I’m very glad I attended. Yeah, this report turned into my usual long-winded epic post. But go listen to the webcast anyway. Finally, Miller has a new book — Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul — dropping on June 12, which can be pre-ordered through Amazon now.


  1. says

    “If your view is that science transcends religion, then what is your opinion of Dawkins’ statement to the effect that religions do in fact make scientific claims; specifically, that if the existence of the material universe is through the actions of some deity, then that is a question that can and should be examined by science? And if you disagree, why?”I know exceedingly little about Miller’s religious views, but let me take a stab at a possible answer.Both Ken Ham and Ken Miller would (presumably) agree that there is no conflict between science and religion. But their reasons for doing so are different: Ham ignores any evidence that conflicts with his religion.I suspect that Miller and other knowledgeable theists, on the other hand, define “God” in such a way that it lies beyond disproof. This can be something like “the ground of all being” (whatever that means), a Deist noninterventionist entity, a cosmic consciousness arising out of the interactions of components of the cosmos, or some such.As a (possibly poor) analogy, what if I say, “I believe that the song `Hotel California’ has a meaning; I think it’s about drugs, though I’m open to better interpretations”. How could one disprove that? You can analyze it and convince me that it’s about, say, social relationships, in which case I’ll just nod and say that I misunderstood the meaning. You could interview the lyricist and find out that he just strung a bunch of words together, and I could say that that may well be so, but it still forms a statement about drugs.If Miller’s view of God is anything like this, then presumably science can never disprove God, only reveal how he works. But of course this is just conjecture.

  2. says

    The chromosome 2 evidence is my favorite. It’s such a blatantly obvious marker for evolution that it takes a real mind-twist to pretend that it isn’t. Otherwise you’d have to believe “God” is deliberately trying to fool us. I know some creationists claim to believe that, but to say “that’s just the way God wanted to make us” is the coward’s way out. It totally avoids the obvious implication of the fused chromosome, and the fact that evolutionary theory specifically predicted it before it was discovered.

  3. says

    He said his new book will deal with the culture war. I’ll be interested to see his views on prayer in public schools, stem cell research, artificial contraception, Plan B, RU486, and abortion. That would have been a good question if I had thought to ask it. /What $1 parking?

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