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.

Kenneth Miller tomorrow night at UT

Kenneth Miller is both a staunch defender of evolutionary science (he was a lead witness in the Dover trial), and a theist. This event on Friday night ought to be interesting coming on the heels of Dawkins’ appearance. Maybe I’ll see some of you locals there. Here’s the skinny direct from CFI-Austin. If you’re not local, or you are but cannot attend, note the webcast information in the following.

Hot Science – Cool Talks Outreach Lecture Series

“God, Darwin, and Design: Lessons from the Dover Monkey Trial”
by Dr. Kenneth Miller, Professor of Biology, Brown University
Friday, April 4, 2008 at 7:00 pm (Central Time)
Reception and activities 5:45 pm, come early and see the exhibits!
Welch Hall (WEL) Rm. 2.224

DESCRIPTION: It has been 80 years since the Scopes Monkey Trial, but the debate between science and religion has never been as heated as it is now. Recent efforts to introduce “intelligent design” into science classes will likely lead to a major Supreme Court ruling on the issue. Kenneth R. Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University, is a preeminent evolutionary scientist and the author of the most widely used high school biology textbook in America. He is perfectly suited to address this controversial topic on many fronts. More details can be found here.

SCHEDULE: Friday, April 4, 2008
5:45-6:45 pm: Interactive exhibits and refreshments, outside Welch 2.224
6:00-6:45 pm: Evolution Workshop, Welch 2.246
7:00-8:15 pm: “God, Darwin, and Design: Lessons from the Dover Monkey Trial”, Welch 2.224

PARKING: Due to construction projects on campus, parking has become limited. Two ways to find parking on the evening of the lecture are:
1. Look for spots close to Welch Hall along 24th St. Check signs posted at each spot to be sure the days/times listed for needing a permit are expired. Do not park in handicapped or loading zones.
2. Reserved spots in the San Jacinto Parking Garage on San Jacinto and 24th St are at a discounted rate. Lecture attendees will be charged $1 for parking, upon exiting the garage, but must have a parking coupon that can be picked up at the lecture. Do not park on the ground floor of the parking garage or you will be ticketed. Go up the ramp and pull a ticket to enter the garage.

For more parking info, please use the map at: http://www.utexas.edu/parking/maps/map.htm

WEBCAST: For those that cannot attend, the lecture will be broadcast live over the Internet at 7:00 pm. We recommend logging into the site 15 minutes before to get set up. For more information about the webcast, see: http://www.esi.utexas.edu/outreach/ols/webcasts.php?vol=53

The lecture series is presented by The University of Texas at Austin’s Environmental Science Institute. This event is sponsored by the Texas Natural Science Center.

I’m given to wonder if, given Miller’s theism, campus Christian groups and local creationists might make themselves a more visible presence than they did at Dawkins’ lecture. In any event, this will be a most interesting evening, and it’s early enough that it still leaves plenty of time for other Friday night plans afterward.