I seem to deal with Ken Miller on an unusually frequent basis. I saw him when he visited KU in 2006 (1, 2, 3, 4), I read and reviewed his book Finding Darwin's God, and I'm teaching my Bio II course using his textbook.
It's a good thing I tend to like the guy.
So when he published Only a Theory, it was only a matter of time before I got around to reading it too.
As I see it, the book is divided into three sections: 1) The Introduction, 2) The Case Against Design, and 3) The Danger of Design. I'll break the book down this way.
Miller is a very good speaker and an even better writer. His prose is vivid and well constructed, often drawing on personal experience to make it more interesting. So although the introduction is light on real content, it's still an excellent read. This consists of the first two chapters. The first sets the stage for the whole "debate" and the second explains the argument for design (in many respects better than its own proponents, so I expect to see it quote mined in the near future).
Chapters 3 - 6 take the arguments just developed and deconstruct them in great detail. If you've followed the ID movement at all or visited talkorigins, then the vast majority of the material is old hat. However, Miller did show some new arguments including more instances of novel mutations adding new information and allowing bacteria to digest pentachlorophenol (PCP, a pesticide) and even explosive agents used by the US Air Force (p 84).
Another excellent feature Miller included in this section was something I'd seen before, but had since forgotten about that revealed that even Creationists can't agree which side of a gap transitional fossils are. Some Creationists call it an ape. Some call it a human. Yet as much as it spans they gap, they refuse to admit it's transitional (he referred to this chart to illustrate the point).
There's also a segment on humans inability to produce vitamin C on our own which is suspiciously shared with our closest relatives. Miller goes on about just how unsatisfying the design hypothesis is to explain this, and other such important facts.
Echoing much of the work in Shubin's Your Inner Fish, Miller also goes though how embryology reveals the workings of evolution as well making an exceptional point that many of our "macro"evolutionary features are controlled by the genes that control our development during our embryonic grown which are controlled on a decidedly "macro"evolutionary scale. I've never seen the micro/macro distinction treated this way before, but it's an amazingly well made point. Shame the only thing Creationists seem to ever know about embryology is "OMG! Haeckel faked his drawing!!1eleven!*drool*!1". I suppose the point would be lost on them anyway.
As good as this part is, it's mostly new cover on what's long been a closed book; ID/Creationism fails utterly. It's nice to have some new points to hammer this home with, but if the ones I was already familiar with weren't sufficient, nothing short of a thunderbolt from a Pikachu up their asses would convince them.
Where the book was best, in my opinion was the last chapter or two in which Miller makes the case of why ID/Creationism isn't just wrong, but dangerous. This isn't an argument that's new to me. I've been having to try to justify to friends and family alike why I spend so much time arguing the topic. They seem to think it's just some anti-religious crusade.
The actual answer that I've been pushing for a few years now is that ID/Creationism is dangerous because it's not just out to attack one topic. If it was, that would be pretty significant given that topic is the pillar on which an entire discipline has come to rest. But ID/Creationism goes beyond that. Most forms of Creationism attack not just biology, but astronomy, physics, geology, and every other field they can distort.
But it doesn't stop there.
As Miller points out, the neo-Creationists under the guise of ID aren't out to just pick out pieces of certain fields; They're out to undermine all of science. I've been attempting to show this by three main pieces of evidence:
1) The Wedge Document explicitly states its goal is to overthrow the methodological naturalism on which all of science operates.
2) When the Creationists got a hold of the Kansas School Board in 2005, they redefined science so that natural explanations were no longer required.
3) Behe admitted on the stand at Dover, that under a definition of science that would include ID, Astrology would have to be included too.
Miller tackles the first two points, yet is oddly silent on the third. Perhaps this is because a large number of Americans think that Astrology is legit and he didn't want to have to take the time to demolish that as well.
These points have worked well for me in making my point, but it's nice to be able to point to this book now and show that the position is held by a serious biologist who most certainly doesn't have any anti-religious agenda.
Meanwhile, Miller ties all of this to a deeper point that is what gives the book its subtitle: This goes beyond a battle about science; It's a battle for America's Soul.
Miller makes the case that the reason science has flourished in the US, despite our educational system being poorer than many other countries, is that science fits perfectly with the American spirit in which legitimacy isn't based on authority, but on taking a long hard look at things and really working through them. He refers to a book called The Closing of the American Mind in which the author (Bloom) claims that the academic system is so infested with cultural relativism that it has become worthless.
The only field Bloom still had hope for was the sciences which were preserved by their requirement for hard facts and evidence. Yet Creationists are trying to destroy that too by forcing relativism into science as well (think about the frequent claims that Creationism is the same facts, but different "interpretations". I'm amazed Miller didn't reference this). Should this happen, Miller argues, it would destroy the last safe haven of the American spirit in which we insist that value is decided by works. I really like this point and will likely add it to my own discussions.
So Miller ends the book. I've still got a few comments left that didn't fit anywhere else, but I'll make them now.
The first is a very odd quotation. See if you can guess where it's from:
"[w]e are literally made of stardust."
The quotations here are mine, quoting Miller who didn't have quotations, so I can only assume this wasn't meant to be a direct quotation, but rather a paraphrasing. Regardless, such a phrase brings to mind only one individual: Carl Sagan.
But that's not who Miller cites as the originator of the phrase.
Instead, he attributes it to the former Vatican astronomer George Coyne. I like Coyne. He's been pretty outspoken against Creationism, but citing him as opposed to one of the greatest popularizers of science of all time? Seriously? What were you thinking Kenny?
The last thing that bothered me about one of Miller's points is that I think it doesn't go far enough. If you read back through the history of this blog, you could possibly notice my stance of religion slowly shifting, from one of a mild annoyance with an overall respect for religion, to a more hard lined approach in which I have begun to call into question just how many positive effects religion really offers as opposed to just taking credit for.
The final point Miller makes is that ID/Creationism is dangerous because it calls for us to stop questioning and looking at honest evidence.
But isn't this precisely what religion does? Not in all cases certainly. But the entire foundation of religion is based on blind faith. Now tell me that doesn't spill. Obviously it does, which is why it's so frequently tied with blind zealotry in other aspects.
So yet again, I find myself liking Miller's overall point (ID/Creationism is dangerous), but have serious objections to serious points. Previously I criticized his claim that atheists were a significant cause of Creationism, and pointed out the logical inconsistency of chastising Creationists for using "God of the Gaps" argument and then turning around and creating his own gap through Quantum Mechanics.
Miller is a great proponent for evolution and is right on every point there. As others have pointed out, his theology has some pretty big holes in it. But that's fine. I wasn't looking to this book for any sort of theological arguments (although I certainly was with Finding Darwin's God). If you take this book as a review of the ID/Creationism movement, this is quite possibly one of the best books yet written on the topic.
I'm sorely tempted to get a few more copies and give them to my friends and family that scoffed at my persistence with this topic with a note attached telling them just to read chapters 7 and 8.