Justin Li


Only a Theory

2010-01-23

I just finished Ken Miller's Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul. Miller is the author of one of the most widely used high school biology text book, and the lead expert witness for the Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District case. The book, however, was not as much focused on the trial as on the ideas behind intelligence design (ID) and evolution, and some comments by Miller on the intelligent design movement.

Being rather familiar with the arguments of ID, I found the first half of the book a little dull. However, I do think Miller does a good job of taking ID arguments seriously, and analyze those ideas from the scientific perspective. Having heard him lecture at Northwestern's Darwin celebration last year, his examples are not new to me either. But in a book, where he can afford to give longer descriptions of the history of life on Earth, I found myself draw into the subject. For a short moment I wondered what it would be like to see Earth 1 million, 100 million years ago. And then I realized that, although there might not have been skyscrapers or monkeys or ants, there was still rain, and volcanoes, and oceans. And the idea that science can prove all these things did exist so long ago is rather amazing.

Personally, the more interesting part of the book was where Miller explained why he thought ID has become what it is, and what we (as scientists) can do about it. Miller suggests that the ultimate motivation is philosophical and psychological. Quoting Max Ehrmann's poem Desiderata, he wrote,

"No doubt the universe is unfolding as it should" assures us that, however chaotic and disorderly the events of our lives may seem at the moment, we should take heart, for we were meant to be. And, in the eyes of many, that's exactly the problem with evolution - it says that we weren't meant to be and that the way of things are unfolding isn't part of anybody's plan or purpose. [...] The worry is that the universe is not "unfolding as it should" but, rather, that it's just unfolding.

My instinctive response is that, is it such a horrible thing for the universe to exist without purpose? Must your sense of direction in life be derived from some external source, and couldn't you create a direction yourself? This philosophical (in fact, existentialist) argument also applies to the claim that evolution "doesn't put a moral demand" on us, as ex-senator Rick Santorum suggested. But this has nothing to do with evolution.

Miller's reply to the worry is different. He brought up the idea of convergence - that evolution will keep on returning to good ideas. In particular, even if humans as a species might not have evolved, it is almost certain that the niche of an intelligent species capable of changing their environment would be filled. That is, despite the process of evolution being probabilistic, we - as intelligent beings - are in fact guaranteed. This is, the certainty that evolution would have led to something like us, would help quell the worries.

I want to voice another idea though. This quote comes from the video game Max Payne 2, and is more about predestination. Applied to evolution though, it would mean that we are indeed very special:

There are no choices. Nothing but a straight line. The illusion comes afterwards, when you ask 'Why me?' and 'What if?' When you look back, see the branches, like a pruned bonsai tree, or a forked lightning. If you had done something differently, it wouldn't be you, it would be someone else looking back, asking a different set of questions.

The last idea I found intriguing in Miller's book was him mention Allan Bloom's book, The Closing of the American Mind (which I wrote about briefly). Miller quoted Bloom writing:

Openness used to be the virtue that permitted us to seek the good by using reason. It now means accepting everything and denying reason's power. The unrestrained and thoughtless pursuit of openness [...] has rendered openness meaningless. [...] The danger [students] have been taught to fear is not error but intolerance. [...] The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right, rather it is not to think you are right at all.

Miller compares this to the calls for "balance" and "openness" to get ID in public school curriculum. Although that's not the declared goal of the ID movement, "once the supernatural becomes a valid element in scientific inquiry, science will cease to be an empirical search for the truth of the natural world. Like faith itself, "theistic science" will be a subjective window on the world that reflects the innermost convictions of its adherents and not of the outer reality of nature."

This whole affair of injecting supernatural causes into science reminds me of Ellsworth Toohey in The Fountainhead: "Set up standards of achievement open to all, to the least, to the most inept—and you stop the impetus to effort in all men, great or small. You stop all incentive to improvement, to excellence, to perfection."

Without having clear boundaries of what science accepts, science itself suffers. People no longer need to discover the cause and cure of AIDS, when a simple "it's divine punishment" will suffice. Our understanding of the world grinds to a halt, as does our technological advancement - which depends on the rigorous quest for cause and effect. The "Designer" did not create the iPod, nor the internet, nor any of modern technology. All of it is done by men, relying and exploiting our scientific knowledge of the world. Without science, none of that would be possible.

And that is why I truly fear what the ID movement can do to the world.

comments powered by Disqus