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Only a Theory

Only a Theory by Kenneth MillerOnly a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul
by Kenneth Miller

With some of my birthday money, I picked up this book by Ken Miller, a Brown University biologist whose textbook was so “Darwinist” that it prompted the Dover board of education to try and weasel ID into the curriculum as a counterpoint.  I blazed through it, as it was very readable and interesting.  A few thoughts:

  • Miller does a great job of skewering the standard claims of IDiots.  His evisceration of the two most common examples of irreducible complexity (bacterial flagellum and the clotting cascade) had me giggling.
  • This would be a very good book to give someone with an open mind about the subject, who honestly wanted to know what Intelligent Design was all about and how it compared to evolution.  I doubt it will convert and “true believers,” though.
  • Miller’s arguments about the nature of the ID campaign ring true to me.  ID isn’t about good science, it’s about changing the definition of science to include the supernatural.  He makes a great argument for the problem with civilian evaluation of education standards.  We see this in writing education a lot–since people took a couple writing classes in college (and they’re “good writers”), they have no problem telling us how writing should be taught.
  • I can see this kind of discussion being much more tolerable to religious folks than someone like P.Z. Myers, whose acerbic voice won’t win many hearts and minds.  Both are probably necessary for the evolution debate, though.
  • My only complaint with Miller’s book is his evaluation of the trends of non-science disciplines in the last 40 years or so.* Miller suggests that ID proponents are using Allan Bloom’s observations from The Closing of the American Mind to try and inject cultural relativism into science.  Miller scoffs at the developments in other disciplines where notions of an abstract “truth” have been eroded and replaced, in his view, with cultural relativism.  I would suggest that the cultural relativism he sees there is the most facile understanding of the research done in the humanities.  People like Foucault and Derrida were not destroying “Truth,” but rather digging into what it meant when a single group of people with a single worldview pretended that their background and context had nothing to do with their understanding of how the world worked and how people should behave.  But this is a small point that has little to do with his larger argument.

Overall, the main message that I take away, in thinking about the issue, is that ID is not science.  It doesn’t rely on the natural world for its answers, and it doesn’t provide testable hypotheses.  It has no standing in the scientific community, and thus does not merit inclusion in any curriculum short of a study of American science and politics, perhaps as an upper-level sociology or cultural studies course in college.

*Obviously, as a member of the humanities academy in 2008, I have a vested interest in suggesting our disciplines haven’t been corrupted and made futile.

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