Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Review: Only a Theory

Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul
Kenneth R Miller
New York: Viking, 2008. 256 pages.
Reviewed by
Andrea Bottaro

The thesis of Ken Miller's succinct and very readable book Only a Theory is that the evolution/creationism controversy that has been playing out in schools, school boards, legislatures, and courts across the United States is more than a heated but circumscribed skirmish between scientists and religious fundamentalists over the veracity of evolutionary theory versus divine creation, but actually part of a broader and more widespread battle over "nothing less than America's scientific soul". Since few people in the past decade have been more often and more prominently involved at the front lines of this controversy than Miller, this is an alarm call we ought to listen to.

The book begins with taking stock of the scientific prominence of the United States. According to Miller, this success reflects a deep commonality between the scientific spirit and America's key national virtues, namely individual independence and imaginative enterprise, and the value ascribed to the challenging of authorities. American scientific institutions, Miller argues, have thus tended to reward originality and innovation as opposed to loyalty and adherence to established paradigms, which are part of the Old World's academic structure. This is an interesting observation and, to the extent that such a generalization can do so, it probably reflects a true insight.

The next step in Miller's argument, namely that this same independent spirit leads the American public more freely to doubt and openly to challenge the scientific consensus, allowing grassroots movements such as creationism to prosper and score occasional political victories, is far less convincing. By all published surveys, in fact, Americans are far less skeptical of science and more likely to trust the scientific establishment than the supposedly less independent-minded Europeans (see, for instance, NSB 2004: Fig 7-4). For instance, a stunning statistic is that since 1973 a very large fraction (about 40%) of Americans have consistently expressed "a great deal of confidence" (as opposed to "some" or "no confidence at all") in the leadership of the scientific community, more than any other professional group but medicine (which science actually passed in 2002) and, in brief wartime periods, the military (NSB 2004: Fig 7-13). European skepticism of science, however, expresses itself in ways that are not common among Americans, such as the widespread rejection of genetically modified organisms and biotechnology. To me, these data suggest that evolution is more likely to be a sticking point in the United States because of the country's widespread religiousness and the success of fundamentalist denominations, rather than any innate contrarian spirit.

Regardless, Miller's remark that the creationist attack focuses not only on some of the results of science but even on its very methods, and is therefore a real threat to American scientific success, is sensible and important. Yet, the book continues, if we abide by the spirit of challenge that is intrinsic to science, we owe it to ourselves not to reject the creationist critiques of evolution on principle, but to counter them factually. This is where Miller's broad biological knowledge and science writing skills really shine: in a few central chapters, the major tenets of modern creationism and its objections to evolutionary science, such as "irreducible complexity" and the misuse of information theory, are first fairly outlined and then convincingly dismantled. Ranging from pseudogenes to eye evolution, from the immune system to evo-devo, Miller gives a comprehensive view of the scope of modern biology and the interlocking evidence for evolution. Much of this evidence, and the linked account of the Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District trial over the teaching of "intelligent design" in a Pennsylvania high school, will not be new to those who follow the evolution/creationism controversy, but will certainly be a key attraction to readers who want to find a easily digestible and yet factually accurate — well, almost fully accurate: on page 149, Miller classifies the Australian feral dog, the dingo, with the indigenous marsupials — and thorough condensate of the topic.

The factual evidence having been presented, the book goes back to its core argument on the nature of science and how "intelligent design" aims to undermine its very foundations. Miller draws a parallel to a famous book by Allan Bloom (1987), The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Impoverished America's Young and Failed Its Students, which was among the first to highlight the problems associated with the academically dominant post-modernist/multiculturalist paradigm of the time. The striking parallels between the antiscientific arguments of (generally conservative) religious anti-evolutionists and those of (generally leftist) post-modernists have been noted before, most notably by Paul R Gross, who has spent the better part of two decades countering both (Gross and Levitt 1998; Forrest and Gross 2007). Here Miller quotes extensively from Bloom to point out that "intelligent design"'s very own "Wedge strategy" to turn society first against evolution and then against empirically based science altogether very closely matches the rhetoric and goals of some post-modernist philosophy, with similarly pernicious effects. Both attempts, Miller warns, have the potential severely to undermine America's scientific and technological primacy at a critical time in world history. (I dare say that the juncture has become even more critical since the book's publishing, because of the current global economic recession.)

Ultimately, Miller is optimistic about the final success of the pro-science side in this battle, and offers suggestions on how to achieve it by expanding the civic engagement of scientists, renewing our efforts in education, and becoming more savvy in the use of tactics and arguments that appeal to the general public. I suspect that some of these latter proposals will encounter some skepticism, but as usual with Miller's writing, his arguments are thoughtful, his tone engaging, and his enthusiasm infectious. This book is no different, and will make for stimulating reading regardless of a reader's own positions on specific issues and their knowledge of the field.

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.