The evolution of a controversy


When rumors of Charles Darwin's theory about the origin of species first began to circulate in British society during the mid-19th century, one aghast gentleman pronounced: "Let us hope that it is not true. But if it is, let us hope that it does not become generally known!"

Evolution frightened the Victorians because of its apparent threat to religion - and it continues to trouble society to this day. Although Darwin's theory is accepted as fact by virtually all respected scientists, fewer than half of all Americans today believe that humans evolved from an earlier species.

If anything, recent events indicate that opposition to evolution may be on the rise: Last August, the Kansas School Board voted to remove evolution from the state's science curriculum. Oklahoman officials recently ordered that all state biology textbooks bear a disclaimer calling evolution "a controversial theory." And Kentucky's state education officials decided last month to eliminate the word "evolution" from the school curriculum, replacing it with the phrase "change over time."

Kenneth Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University in Providence, R.I., takes these attacks on evolution seriously and believes they call for a serious rebuttal. The first half of "Finding Darwin's God" addresses the various claims of the creationists, demonstrating why they are, in Miller's words, "bad science."

The second half of the book, however, is far more ambitious. After carefully establishing that evolution is scientifically true, Miller, a practicing Roman Catholic, attempts to demonstrate that it is also compatible with a belief in God - and that, in fact, it is "the key to understanding our relationship with God."

Miller's scientific arguments are compelling, presented in terms that any layman could understand. He's never condescending or dull. Particularly entertaining is his response to the creationists' view that the earth is no more than 10,000 years old.

One reason these early chapters are so convincing is that Miller actually has a certain amount of sympathy for his opponents. In a wonderful anecdote, he relates how several years ago he debated Henry Morris, the founder of the Institute for Creation Research, in Tampa, Fla. The following morning, he ran into Mr. Morris in the hotel's coffee shop and, in a moment of confidence, asked him if he really believed all that nonsense he'd spouted the night before. Morris responded: "Ken, you're intelligent, you're well-meaning, and you're energetic. But you are also young, and you don't realize what's at stake. In a question of such importance, scientific data aren't the ultimate authority."

As Miller came to realize, the opponents of evolution aren't necessarily misinformed about scientific facts, but often have simply chosen to reject those facts because they don't like their implications. And to his mind, the scientific community is in large part to blame for this backlash.

He castigates scientists like Edward O. Wilson and Stephen J. Gould for their thinly veiled condescension toward those with religious beliefs, and for using evolution to support their own atheistic world views.

Ironically, both sides of the evolution debate tend to hold a common assumption: that "if the origins of living organisms can be explained in purely material terms, then the existence of God - at least any God worthy of the name - is disproved."

For Miller, this assumption is blatantly wrong. He writes, "If the Creator uses physics and chemistry to run the universe of life, why wouldn't He have used physics and chemistry to produce it, too?"

Moreover, the aspect of evolution that seems to disturb its opponents most - its indeterminacy, or the role played by chance - is also, he believes, consistent with a view of God as having given man the ability to make moral choices. The opposite of unpredictability, Miller argues, is determinism, which would eliminate man's free will. God can play no active role whatsoever in this latter scenario, whereas in a world governed by chance, at least, He reserves the right to interfere at any time.

Of course, these arguments are still based on a material view of the universe, which Miller largely adheres to. And his God may strike some readers as unappealingly distant - since for the most part, it's evolution, not Deity, shaping our lives. But he does establish that science and religion can be compatible, because they ultimately address different questions. Absolute materialism, as Miller puts it, "does not triumph because it cannot fully explain the nature of reality."

*Liz Marlantes is on the Monitor's staff.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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