God vs. Science: Keeping Creationism out of School

This summer, the Texas Board of Education gears up to possibly consider whether biology classes should include the "strengths and weaknesses" evolutionary theory — known as creationism to some. Biology professor and textbook author Kenneth Miller discusses the debate.

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JOE PALCA, host:

Up next, the evolving battle to keep creationism out of the school science class. (Unintelligible) of Darwin's theory of evolution were pushing to get their own query of intelligent design into public schools science textbooks few years back. But a federal judge banned intelligent design from the science curriculum in Pennsylvania public schools.

The judge concluded that intelligent design wasn't a scientific theory, but a religious belief, and other courts have basically gone along with that idea. But the anti-evolution folks keep trying. They're just - they've just taken a different track. Lawmakers and school-board officials in half dozen states, including Texas, Florida and Michigan, now want textbooks to teach the strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary theory.

Now, some say that that is code for creationism, and that's what my next guess - guest, Kenneth Miller, says. He's a textbook author and biologist at Brown University. He's been a key player in keeping creationism out of public school science texts. He's even testified at a trail - at a trial or two, and he's written a new book just out this week about these ideological classes - clashes. It's called "Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul." He joins me from WRNI in Providence, Rhode Island. Welcome back to Science Friday, Dr. Miller.

Dr. KENNETH MILLER (Biology, Brown University): Thank you. I'm happy to be here.

PALCA: Well, I'm glad to have you. And if you'd like to listen, join the conversation, do give us a call. The number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK, and if you want more information about what we'll be talking about this hour, go to our website, www.sciencefriday.com. Now, Dr. Miller, we have to take a break in just a short - into - in about a minute. So, I'm going to ask you a short question, which is, why is strengths and weaknesses code for - sounds like such a reasonable topic. Now you can start to whack at that question.

Dr. MILLER: Oh, sure.

PALCA: But strengths and weaknesses of a scientific theory sounds pretty reasonable. Give me the 10-second answer about why it's not, and then we can come and take the longer answer after we take a break.

Dr. MILLER: The 10-second answer is we should examine the strengths and weaknesses of everything in science. Everything in science should be critically analyzed. The code comes up when you realize that the people who advocate this point of view, only want one scientific theory. Examine this way and that, of course, is the theory of evolution.

PALCA: OK. Well that is the 10-second answer, and if you stay with us, we'll give you the longer answer and you can ask our questions. So stick around.

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PALCA: From NPR News, this is Talk of the Nation: Science Friday. I'm Joe Palca. We're talking this hour about the battle over keeping creationism out of public science classes. And actually, we're talking about - if Dr. Miller is right, we're talking about a battle for the soul of the American public. But my guest is Dr. Ken Miller. He's a professor of biology at Brown University, and his new book is called "Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul."

And when we heard - when we left for a break, we were talking about the reason - OK, so groups that were first opposed to teaching evolution in school, and were defeated trying to get an intelligent design put in as an alternative, have now come up with a seemingly benign-sounding idea, that they should examine the strengths and weaknesses of evolution theory. And as you just started to say, that's a fine idea, except - and so elaborate again on why this is a red herring, or at least not the whole story, to look at the strengths and weaknesses.

Dr. MILLER: Well, here's the deal. Science is all about critical analyses of ideas. So in effect, what the scientific process is involved in, is examining scientific theories and trying to accept them or refute them, to throw them out on the basis of the evidence. Everything that we teach in the science classroom, everything that's part of the curriculum has gone through this sort of battle of ideas in the open marketplace that is the scientific community. Example, when I was in middle school and high school, I didn't learn anything about continental-drift theory, even though this work had already been published.

And the reason for that is, an awful lot of people in the scientific community didn't think it was true. But so much evidence in favor of continental drift, plate tectonics accumulate, and in the late '50s, '60s and '70s, I've just told you how old I am, that it is now commonplace to teach this in earth science. That's the kind of critical analysis that is behind what we teach in science. Now, the interesting thing about the new strategy by the creationists, the intelligent design, and now you might call them the critical analysis folks, is that what they have done is they've realized that intelligent design got a bad name after it was absolutely clobbered in the Dover, Pennsylvania, trial that you referred to.

PALCA: Uh-huh.

Dr. MILLER: So what they've done, and this is where intelligent design came from in the first place, is to change names yet again. And the curious thing is, of course, no one can argue against, let's critically analyze scientific theories. That's a good idea. But there really turns out to be only one, or maybe it's fair to say, a few scientific theories they actually want to critically analyze. The other one that crops up very often along with evolution is global warming. So, what you have is a group that basically rejects a couple of the central ideas of mainstream science, ideas that have really won the day within the scientific community, and these include climate change, and they include evolutionary theory.

And under the guise of critical analysis, what they really want to do is to bring evidence into the classroom that has been thoroughly discredited within the scientific community, in the name of fairness and critical analysis. And to be perfectly honest, that's not fair, because these ideas have failed the test of ideas in the scientific community, so that propping them up by legislative act, which is really what these ideas are doing, is an effect a kind of - you might call it intellectual welfare for a failed idea that can't make it on its own.

PALCA: So, is this - I mean, would your argument go that the objections to teaching evolution might fall into the same category as the objections to having sexual education classes, because they seem to offend some morality, rather than any intrinsic value or lack of teaching the subject?

Dr. MILLER: Well, I would put it in a slightly different way, because I think, you know, being a scientist, I regard the whole discipline, the whole field of science, as being somewhat different from the study of history, or language, or even the study of health education, which has to have a scientific basis, but is still correlated very strongly with sociology, and with personal values of students, and their families and so forth. Science, basically, is based on an attempt to really understand reality in an as objective way as we possibly can. And once again, one of the things that surprises people sometimes about the scientific community, and the scientific process is just how open it is.

Go to a scientific meeting, watch people argue with each other in debate, and you become - you very quickly become aware of how hard an idea has to fight, and how many challenges it has to overcome to sort of win the day in terms of the scientific consensus. Well, evolution is a theory that has withstood 150 years of spirited challenges. It's not only still standing, but it is more widely applied and more useful than it ever has been. These alternative ideas, in terms of scientific creationism or intelligent design, they haven't been able to generate any data. They haven't won support in the scientific community and the reason for that is they have no predictive power.

And where they do make predictions, those predictions turn out the other way, from what they would've said, and that's why these ideas have been rejected by science. So, to pick these ideas up, basically off the canvass, and throw them into classrooms, and tell students, and their parents, and teachers, that these are perfectly good respectable ideas, hides the fact that they've really failed within the scientific community itself. And that does science education in this country a tremendous disservice. That's the reason why I subtitled my book, "The Battle for America's Soul," and the reason for that is I really think that there's a reason why the United States is the greatest scientific country in the world. And it has to do with the American character.

I think we have a scientific soul, the culture of individualism in this country, basically tells all Americans, and we all feel this way. It doesn't matter how high born you are, if you come from a noble line or anything else. What matters is what you can do. And that kind of sense, which is really built in to the American character, is exactly what is necessary for science to prosper. And prosper, it has, and we are still by any measure the leading scientific nation in the world.

But I think all of that is at risk, if we subvert this free and open process to sort of a legislative handicapping, where we say we prefer this idea. Can't win the battle. This is a dog that can't hunt, can't win the battle of scientific ideas, but we're going to stick it in the classroom anyway, in the name of fairness. I think that does a great disservice to our students.

PALCA: Well, I'm going to - there's a lot of people who want to get on the call, but I want to ask...

Dr. MILLER: I'll bet.

PALCA: Well, and they're quite right to. But my question, really, is this sense, has it really changed so much? Because these issues have been coming along. I mean, going back to the Scopes Monkey Trials, these issues have been fought out, wrangled and in your book, you even demonstrate that the - and people - America has, for 20 or 30 years, been one of the countries where there are more people who disbelieve evolution, than any other country in the world, it's been like this, and at the same time, American scientists has been leading the world, so what's going on here?

American scientists is doing just fine, thank you very much, and yet, the numbers of people who don't believe in evolution are either static or growing. Where's the problem, essentially?

Dr. MILLER: Well, I think the problem is the nature of the current attack. And it's something that began with the so-called Intelligent Design Movement, and now has morphed into the strengths and weaknesses approach, and the academic freedom bill, so-called, that you see in Michigan, and Florida, and most recently in Louisiana, where a similar sort of Academic Fairness Act may very soon be on the desk of the governor, and we don't know yet if he's going to sign it.

And that is the new approach, has basically tried to cloak its religious background, and no longer says, well you have to believe this, because this is what the bible says. The (unintelligible) - and that was easily disregarded for people who did not construe the bible as a book of science. The new approach is designed to conceal that religious motivation, and stay - say instead, we have a critique of the science behind evolution.

Now the interesting thing about that critique is, it not only says that evolution is wrong, and that's a fine thing to say, we can always argue about that. But it also says the whole process of science is flawed, and it needs the special legislative boost. Now, the reason I worry about that, is because it basically tells our students, even if it doesn't win these battles in various states, it tells students you can't trust the scientific process, that science is a profession in which if you wish to enter it, you not only have to give up your religious faith, you also have to give up any idea of fairness.

And the - and science as an institution basically is politically driven, it's not really an objective search for truth, and you, as a young person, if you really want to find a profession in which you can follow your ideals, you want to choose something else. If we raise a generation of American kids, in which we have intentionally or not, undermined their conception of science, I think we're going to lose our leadership position in world science. And believe me, there are countries everywhere, from the Pacific Rim to Europe, who would be very happy to pick up that torch of leadership.

And I think it'd be - if that happened, it'd be tragic for this country and I even think it would be bad for the rest of the world, because of the position of leadership that American science has exerted and exerted well.

PALCA: OK. Well, I could sit here and discuss this, you know, till the cows come home, because I think it's a totally fascinating question or series of questions. But I feel morally bound to invite our listeners and to join the discussion, because this is a talk program. So, let's got to Mark in Racine, Wisconsin. Mark, welcome to the program.

MARK (Caller): Hi. Thanks for having me on.

PALCA: Sure.

MARK: I think a problem we're really facing is that people don't understand that science is all about likelihoods. You take a look at the evidence, you take the evidence, and look for what seems to fit the best. The religious people who really want to push this, don't want to talk about things like male pattern baldness and they aren't interested in talking about - so it got a closure flaw such as spinal bifida and cleft palate because it doesn't fit their pretty little thing. If you're going to look at science, you have to look at everything, you have to try and find an explanation for everything. And I think that we should all get more aggressive in asking counter questions.

PALCA: All right.

Dr. MILLER: I think incidentally that Mark makes a very good point. And one of the current aspects of the strategy against evolution is not to present a coherent alternative, not to do what Mark said science has to do which is to try to change - examine and explain everything, but rather just to try to shoot holes in evolution. And the idea, I think, is that students, wink, wink, nod, nod, will get the idea if we can just poke enough holes in evolution that the only acceptable alternative is some form of creationism. And that's one of the reasons why most people of the science and educational community see these fairness bills and these strengths and weaknesses approaches as advancing a particular religious agenda.

PALCA: OK. Thanks for that call. Let's go now to Joe in Maple Grove, Minnesota. Joe, welcome to Science Friday.

JOE (Caller): I was wondering if you believe that evolution is kind of forced on the children who are in school.

PALCA: Joe, what grade are you in?

JOE: I'm in the sixth - seventh grade.

PALCA: So the question is, is evolution being forced on you? Dr. Miller, what do you think about that? What do you tell Joe?

Dr. MILLER: Well, what I tell Joe is I don't think evolution is forced on anyone in school any more than Algebra is forced on them, or American history is forced on them. The whole idea of public education is to give students an opportunity to see how learned people learn to regard various things. In other words, when you study geometry, you might say that the ideas of Euclid were forced upon you. But Euclid had a wonderful approach, which withstood the test of time. And here's really the question, if you, Joe, are attending a school in which education becomes indoctrination and, that's a big word of course but what I mean by that, in which the teacher says, OK, here's what you have to believe. And then they make you stand up one at a time and say, do you believe this?

Then you're not being well-educated, not just in evolution but in history, or math, or even English. But rather, the idea of really good education is not to indoctrinate people, to make them all think the same way, but to expose them to the best ideas and scientific thinking. Now evolution is one of those ideas. And, again, I would argue that the purpose of really good education is not to make you believe something, but to let you see what the best minds in the field have done, and give you the tools with which you can understand it, accept it, reject it, or maybe go on and make discoveries of your own. So no I - in the best schools, I don't think evolution, any more than Algebra, is being forced on anyone.

PALCA: Joe, thanks very much for calling. Appreciate it.

JOE: Thank you.

PALCA: OK. We're talking with Dr. Ken Miller about teaching evolution and other alternatives, although there hasn't been a good one proposed so far, at least in terms of the scientific community. Anyway, that's what we're talking about. I'm Joe Palca. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's take another call from Matt in Grand Junction, Colorado. Matt, welcome to Science Friday.

MATT (Caller): Well, thank you very much for taking my call. First of all, I take great exception to some of the statements made by your guest. First of all, what about such things as mathematical probability of proteins forming by accident? What about the fossil record? Don't you feel like these are, at least, valid things to consider? And, why is evolution as a theory in to contrast with Algebra, which is provable time, and time, and time again, why is evolution exempt from a serious analysis of evidence in the classroom?

PALCA: OK. Thank you for that, Matt. Dr. Miller?

Dr. MILLER: First of all, thanks for the question, Matt. It's always nice to hear from Colorado. My Ph.D. is from CU Boulder. And I hope things are going well in Grand Junction. The first thing is, I'm going to respond first to the last thing you said, which is that why is evolution exempt from serious analysis? The answer is, it's not. All you have to do is to go to a scientific meeting, you'll see people arguing about which forms of natural selection are the most important. Open a popular scientific journal, like Scientific American or Discover. And you will see all sorts of discussion relating to critically testing the ideas of evolution. So it's not exempt from that at all. What it should be exempt from in the public school science classroom, as every idea should be exempt from is a non-scientific religiously supported alternative that doesn't meet to test the facts.

Now, you ask also what about the fossil record? Well, what about it? The fossil record contains some of the most powerful evidence for evolution. Critics of evolution often very much like to say, well, the fossil record is filled with gaps. And, as an example, they might say, well, you evolutionists will say that that the first tetrapods, the first land animals - land vertebrates with four legs emerge from amphibians. Well, if that's true, find us a transitional form that is sort of half-amphibian and sort of - I'm sorry, half-fish and half-amphibian.

Well, as it turns out, not one, not two, not three, but four or five transitional forms have been discovered in that particular sequence going from fish to amphibians. And the most spectacular one was discovered about 3 years ago by Ted Daeschler and Neil Shubin. Shubin wrote a terrific book about it, which I always plug shamelessly, called "Your Inner Fish," talking about the way in which our own skeletons and our own bodies are really modifications of fish anatomy. And he and his associates discovered the transitional fossil in a Canadian Arctic called tiktaalik. And tiktaalik was everything you would put up on a drafting board in terms of a link between fish and ancient amphibians. So the fossil record, far from being the problem for evolution that you think it is, Matt, is in fact some of the most powerful evidence for it.

And, finally, the first thing that you said was why don't you consider the mathematical probabilities of proteins assembling by accident? And I agree with you. Those mathematical probabilities look very, very foreboding. They just wouldn't happen. But, the interesting thing is, no person who studies protein evolution has ever proposed the proteins assemble by accident. And, in fact, there are very careful studies of protein evolution that show quite clearly that new proteins, with new capabilities, evolve by a series of mutations and genetic recombinations from pre-existing proteins. So the field, which you think evolution is ignoring, is actually one of the most vibrant areas of study in modern molecular biology that fully supports evolution.

PALCA: Dr. Ken Miller, I have to cut you off there because we need to take a short break, but we will continue with this fascinating discussion of evolution, and how it's taught, and where it should be taught, and when it's taught. So we'll take a short break. And, please, stay with us.

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PALCA: From NPR News, this is Talk of the Nation: Science Friday. I'm Joe Palca. We're talking this hour about teaching evolution and the battle to creation is on out of the science classroom. My guest is Ken Miller. He's a professor of biology at Brown University, and his new book is called "Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul." And, we're taking your calls at 800-989-8255. And let's take another call now and go to Martin in Rapid City, South Dakota. Martin, welcome to the program.

MARTIN (Caller): Thank you. I'm a pastor here in South Dakota. And I see this discussion as much as being about controlling what is the discussion within religion it is about the discussion within science, that the people who support intelligent design would like to present their position as the only legitimate position and the silents are the people within religion.

PALCA: Now, that's interesting. Now, does your church have a position on this?

MARTIN: No, my church does not. I'm a member of the United Church of Christ. But, personally, I believe in evolutionary growth, the evolutionary theories.

PALCA: And so, I mean, the fact that scientists, like Dr. Miller, will look at the earth having, you know, evolved over billions of years and species have been evolving over similar billions and, in some cases, millions of years, that doesn't trouble you compared with what the bible says about how humans were created?

MARTIN: No, in fact, I think when we tried to make Genesis one into a scientific text, we missed much of the truth that the text is trying to teach us. That it's trying to teach us how to be separate and how to have good boundaries, and about - to respect nature and the rest of the world. And if we turn it into just some facts, that we could have observed for seven days, at some point in history, then we miss the beautiful part about how we should be living.

PALCA: OK. Go ahead.

Dr. MILLER: I think Martin makes an absolutely terrific point. I mean, the first book that I wrote is called "Finding Darwin's God," a scientist's search for common ground between God and evolution. And I'm a Roman Catholic. And I'm constantly challenged in the same way that Martin described by people who say that you must accept Genesis as history. And one of the things that an awful lot of people of faith seem to miss is that many of the early Christian writers including, for example, St. Augustine, writing in the beginning of the fifth century, already recognized that Genesis was not a scientific document.

And he actually wrote a book on Genesis, in which he warned Christians against interpreting it that way, because he thought that would be damaging to their faith. And Martin, I think, is quite right, which is that the anti-evolution movement tries very hard to co-opt all religious belief into saying, basically, all of those evolutionary scientists are just a bunch of God-less atheists. So if you're a church-going Christian, you've got to be on our side against evolution. And I think that this terrible damage, not just to science and the education, but I think it does terrible damage to religion.

PALCA: Martin, thanks for that call. I just wonder if I can ask you one further thing. I mean, how widespread, I mean, are you - would you say that your church and your philosophy are in a minority in religion? Or would you say that you're either the majority or the silent majority, to use an old term, in people who feel the way you do?

MARTIN: I would maybe say that the silent majority, but I do recognize the fact that creation literalists seem to be growing again and that they have made a comeback in the, say, last 15, 20 years.

PALCA: Interesting. Well, we...

MARTIN: I think it's kind of sad because, as I said, we lost the beauty that the biblical text is trying to teach us on how to live.

PALCA: OK. All right. Martin, thanks very much for that call. Let's take another call now and go to Antonio (ph) in Annapolis, Maryland. Antonio, welcome to the program.

ANTONIO (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

PALCA: Sure.

ANTONIO: I work at an area nature center. And I wanted to just relate a story about -. I think the problem is that the creationist activists have made evolution something that actually can't be talked about in the public sphere. We are actually, as nature-educators, discouraged from talking about, from using the word evolution in any of our nature's programs, so...

PALCA: Discouraged - excuse me. Antonio, discouraged by whom?

ANTONIO: Discourage by the administrators of the park.

PALCA: OK. Go ahead. I'm sorry.

ANTONIO: Because we've gotten flack for mentioning the word evolution. So if I do a program say on wetlands and I, you know I'm trying to talk about the fact that animals are evolved to fit in this particular environment, I am not supposed to use the word evolution, and I've had - I actually ignore that because I think it's intellectually dishonest, but a lot of people don't. And so I think that why I was surprised a couple years ago when the Smithsonian Institution did a new Mammal Hall, and they did a film about mammals, and they actually used the word evolution. I found myself actually being surprised that financially, you know, an organization as, you know, fairly honest as the Smithsonian is, would actually used the word evolution. People become really unwilling to use that word, and I think it's terribly unfortunate.

PALCA: Antonio, thanks for that. Dr. Miller, is that the kind of thing that gives you pause about this state of our society?

Dr. MILLER: Oh, it is indeed and because I'm also co-author with Joseph Lavigne of a series of high school textbooks that are used around the country, including in Texas, by the way, I often travel around the country, and I do workshops over the summer for teachers groups. And one of the questions I get all the time from teachers basically runs along the line of please give us some ammo and I was wondering, what do you mean by that? And the teachers will say, we get so much pressure not to teach evolution or to de-emphasize it or to water it down or to present invalid counterexamples, can you give us easy ways to answer this objection and that objection, the sort of objections that Matt called in with a few minutes ago.

And that tells me that the teachers in the front lines, the good men and women who are educating our kids for tomorrow feel as though this is a subject that they have to skip or to de-emphasize. And Antonio's experience in the nature preserve, I think, is typical for people engaged in general public education and that is administrators and many people in the public regard evolution is so controversial that they just don't want to hear about.

PALCA: We have time for one more call now, and let's go to Charlie in Wichita, Kansas. Charlie, welcome to the program.

CHARLIE (Caller): Oh, thank you very much. I want you to know that despite all the controversy of our state board of education a couple of years ago, I was proud to learn from the paleontologist at our first Kansas book conference a couple of years ago, that Kansas is one of the nation's incubators of paleontology in this country.

PALCA: Oh, indeed it is.

CHARLIE: Because we have - we were under a sea for so many, many, many, many centuries. We're just a great - I mean, we find dinosaurs and giant shark, fossils, and all kind of stuff out here. But I wanted to ask you about, Dr. Miller, because nobody ever seems to ever bring this up, Darwin was a very young man when he sailed on the Beagle, and he came to his conclusions, and then he sat on them for 20 years because he was such a deeply religious man. He knew that this kind of flack was going to happen when he published his book finally in 1859, am I correct in that?

Dr. MILLER: I think you're generally correct. Now, I'm not a Darwin's scholar. OK. I've read a lot, but I'll only mention two things that are relevant to this. And one is, shortly after coming back, Darwin wrote a book called "The Voyage of the Beagle." And if you read "The Voyage of the Beagle," you will see hints of the theory of evolution scattered throughout it. There are some of them really quite dramatic, so it's clear this was on his mind. The other thing is that, I believe, in 1837 or 1838, Darwin wrote up a sketch, a good one, of the theory of evolution in his notebooks and actually he asked his wife to have it published in the event of his premature death. But as you say, there were 20 more years before he actually published, part of it was his own religious training.

CHARLIE: Right.

PALCA: The Darwin scholars I know say, part of it was that he was afraid of offending his wife, who was a whole lot more religious - I've been married for 36 years, I can appreciate that, who was a whole lot more religious that he was, but certainly in one of the letters that Darwin wrote to a friend, he said publishing this would be like confessing a murder. So Darwin himself was worried about the implications of his ideas as Charlie says.

CHARLIE: May I leave you with one quick family anecdote?

PALCA: Quick thought.

CHARLIE: All right. In 1923, my father went to get his first job as a teacher in southeastern, Missouri and he said it was the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker interviewing him. And one of them leaned forward and said, young man, are you going to teach our children that the world is round or that the world is flat? And my father said he looked at those three worthy men and wondered which answer was going to win him the job.

PALCA: Oh, he could.

CHARLIE: It continues.

PALCA: Charlie, thank you very much for the call. Ken Miller, thank you very much for this fascinating discussion. I appreciate you're taking the time to talk with us.

Mr. MILLER: Thank you. It's my pleasure.

PALCA: Ken Miller is the author of a new book, "Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul." He's also a professor of biology at Brown University in Providence Rhode Island.

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