Friday, April 15, 2005

Fish Wars

I heard a talk Friday by Kenneth R. Miller, a noted biologist at Brown University. He is co-author of a widely-used high school science textbook. In fact, his is the book that the Cobb County, GA school board slapped with a warning label: Caution: Contains Darwinism. Avoid Contact with Brain. Flush with Scripture Immediately if Exposure Occurs.

Miller is a point man for the pro-Darwin forces, testifying in court and participating in public debate in Kansas and Cobb County and other flashpoints in the struggle. He has written a book titled Finding Darwin's God, and he outlines the conflict between science and fundamentalism, and the way he resolves it, with authority and impressive clarity. There is nothing weak or shaky about evolutionary theory that makes it more vulnerable to attack than physiology or organic chemistry or any other aspect of natural science. It is purely a matter of the cultural implications Darwin has for some conservatives. How to respond? Develop a proper understanding of science. Answer the scientific objections calmly and respectfully. And fight the presumption that evolution is anti-religious.

Miller is an engaging speaker and peppered his lecture with a number of funny asides. For instance, in 1999, the Kansas State School Board didn't stop at removing evolution from schoolbooks, it removed or rewrote much scientific consensus, including the fossil record and much geologic theory. The latter deletion was protested by the Kansas petroleum lobby: "for God's sake, that's how we find oil." If I were Miller and a coast-to-coast network of nitwits and charlatans was harassing me and slandering my life's work, I wouldn't have nearly the amount of good humor and equanimity that he has. In his good-humored way, though, he demolished the arguments of the intelligent design crowd (he called intelligent design a brilliant PR maneuver, but not much more than that).

But he also cited some overreaching statements by scientists. The assertion that science alone can lead us to truth is a philosophical one, not scientific in nature. Unlike some of his religious opponents, Miller has read the Book of Genesis closely, and he finds room there for a Darwinian view ("Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures... Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds..."). Remarkably, I learned today, St. Augustine in AD 411 wrote "On The Literal Meaning of Genesis," in which he implored fellow Christians not to talk nonsense about science; it embarrasses the church. Augustine encourages the study of nature, and part of his intellectual legacy is that the father of genetics, Gregor Mendel, was an Augustinian monk.

Good stuff all around.

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