Kenneth Miller, a Brown University cell biologist and biochemist, is the author of Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul (Viking, $25.95). He was an expert witness at the 2005 Dover intelligent design trial. Instead of demonizing the ID crowd, Miller says the best way to ensure the defeat of such quackery is to “tell the real story” and bring science, in all of its “glory and excitement,” into the “popular imagination.”
How did evolution get hijacked and turned into a “controversy”?
The theory of evolution is particularly troubling to people, because it concerns who we are and where we came from. It’s the same reason you can go into a bar and start a fight by saying something about somebody’s mother. And one of the easiest ways to dismiss literally anything in science is to say, “Well, it’s just a theory”–as if to say it’s not certain. The reality is that nothing in science is certain, and that’s one of the things that makes science so interesting. But that doesn’t translate into theories being just hunches or just guesses. To say I have put together a scientific theory is to proclaim to the world that I have a consistent, sensible, overarching interpretation that unites a large range of experimental and observational facts. Yes, evolution is a theory–just like the germ theory of disease.
Are Americans ignorant about science?
Studies comparing the American public’s level of scientific literacy with our counterparts in Europe and developed areas in Asia actually rank the American public pretty high. And part of it is because of the amount of popular science–Discovery Channel, History Channel–and because an awful lot of Americans have jobs that involve science and technology. One of the things that I attribute [the fracas over evolution] to is this American culture of disrespect for authority. We in the US really celebrate what you might call the cult of the individual. The notion that people can and should judge for themselves is part of the democratic character. And it is really one of the things I believe has made America a great scientific nation–individuals can break ground, can disagree with authority and advance the scientific field even if it goes against the grain of wisdom. Now, it also creates a climate in which it’s really easy to disagree with the findings of science, because if you disrespect authority, what do you care what the Nobel laureate at Berkeley says?
Is intelligent design therefore a threat to science?
It’s not a threat to institutional science–the researchers at the NIH or the National Science Foundation or one of the great research universities. The real threat is to how people in the US perceive science and how they understand the process of science–the faith that the scientific enterprise, with thousands of voices and complete independence, eventually gets to the right answer. The anti-evolution movement seeks to convince people that they should be suspicious of the scientific process and should support acts of government power to adjust and control that process–“academic freedom” bills, equal-time laws, that sort of stuff. My concern is that this movement, even if it doesn’t succeed in its major political goals, may result in a whole generation of Americans who are so suspicious of science that they just want nothing to do with it, and they’re happy to let scientific leadership pass to South Korea, the European Union, whatever.