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Biologist Ken Miller

Our guest today is Ken Miller, a Professor of Biology at Brown University and author of the book “Finding Darwin’s God.” Miller is featured in PBS’s critically-acclaimed Evolution project which is having a national encore broadcast this May and June. Chat producer Will Femia moderates.

MSNBC-Will Femia: Welcome Dr. Miller

Professor Ken Miller: Thank you. Good evening everyone. I’m sure everyone realizes that this is a very sad day for anyone interested in science and anyone in the field of evolutionary biology. Dr. Stephen J. Gould died yesterday at the untimely age of 60. Steve appeared in the first episode of the PBS evolution series, was a scientific advisor to the series and I’m very privileged to say was one of my long time friends. I will miss him very much as will everyone who knew him or read his many works.

Question from dave b.: Why is Gould commonly credited with revolutionizing evolutionary theory when he did little more than stick a “punctuated equilibrium” sticker on Benedikt Goldschmidt’s “hopeful monsters” theory? Is would seem at first glance that plagiarism was never so grandly rewarded...

Professor Ken Miller: The charge of plagiarism leveled against him is hopelessly misplaced. I say this for a very simple reason. Gould always fully credited the intellectual sources of his ideas. In fact, one of his most famous essays entitled “In Praise of Hopeful Monsters” was a homage to the work of Goldschmidt. As his obituaries in many papers today show, scientific opinion on Gould’s work remains divided. Many consider him to be indeed a revolutionary evolutionary thinker. And others think he merely fine tuned the work of Darwin and other evolutionary biologists. I have to say on a personal level that I think Steve’s most lasting contribution has been to popularize, to make accessible to the general public, the intellectual ferment and cutting edge excitement of evolutionary biology.

Question from M. David Morales, M. D.: I believe that the evolution theory is correct. There is just so much evidence. However, I also believe in a God. After thinking about this subject I understand the search for the missing link as there is such a gap between the highest other animal and man. Perhaps we have found the missing link in terrorists!

Professor Ken Miller: Ha! Terrorists as missing links. I haven’t heard that one before. With regard to your more serious points like you I am a theist. In 1999 I wrote a book called “Finding Darwin’s God.” It was published by Harper Collins. My thesis in that book was that for a believer, an understanding of evolutionary biology enriches and enhances our sense of God. So on that score I agree with you. However, the old argument about a “missing link” is out of date by at least three decades. In fact, even popular publications have begun to tell the story of how complete our record of human ancestry actually is.

I would recommend for starters an August 1999 issue of Time Magazine which had a pre-human fossil on its cover and detailed in a scientifically accurate way the enormous range of ancestors that have been uncovered leading to our species. It’s out of date to say that there is a “missing link”. It would be more accurate to say that we now have uncovered so many missing links that human paleontologists argue instead about which one or ones are the most important.

MSNBC-Will Femia: What do you think of the use of evolution to justify racism as implied in that last question?

Professor Ken Miller: When I hear the word terrorist, I think not only of Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden but I also think of Timothy McVeigh and the ex Klu Klux Klansmen on trial today in Alabama for burning a church, so I see no racism, overt or covert in the previous question.

Question from Ken: There should be no debate. Evolution is a fact!

Question from Jay Richards: Is it possible for there to be evidence against’s Darwin’s theory of evolution (the claim that natural selection and random variation produced adaptation in living things?

Professor Ken Miller: Most scientists upon careful reflection would say that evolution is not a fact but a theory. The reason for that is not because they aren’t sure that evolution is true, they are sure that evolution is true, but rather because a fact is simply an experimental observation. A theory in science is a higher level of understanding because theories explain the facts. Evolutionary theory is considered well supported and reliable, in ordinary language true simply because it explains so many facts from so many observations from so many areas of science.

To the second question: Yes, absolutely. Darwin’s theory makes specific testable predictions about the nature of life and the nature of life in the past. If it failed to meet any of these testable predictions the scientific community would discard it and discard it quickly. For example Darwin’s theory required that the earth be old, much older in fact than many scientists expected in 1859 when the “Origin of Species” was first published. You might say Darwin went out on a limb with respect to the age of the earth.

We all know what has happened since. It’s been shown that the earth is much older than Darwin ever dared to hope. Similar predictions of evolutionary theory have been borne out in geology, biology and most recently in molecular biology and genetics.

Question from Chris Boarman: My friend claims that there is a strong bias in the mainstream scientific community against the publication of any papers which challenge evolutionary theory. Is there any truth to this? Why would some people feel this way?

Professor Ken Miller: I have no doubt that within the scientific community there are many biases including some in favor of evolutionary theory. Science however is an open enterprise. No one who has ever attended a scientific meeting and witnessed the free exchange of ideas, indeed the chaos that goes on during scientific argument, would believe even for a moment that evidence contrary to any scientific theory could be suppressed, bottled up or kept out of public view. The same applies to evolution.

One of the surest ways for a young scientist to make their reputation is to upset an established theory. Scientists not only enjoy proving each other wrong, it’s practically our national sport. If there was genuine evidence against evolution, although some might resist its publication, the scientific community is so large and diverse that that evidence would surely find the light of day.

Question from Gary Tucker: The mosquito, the cockroach and crocodile, to name a few, were contemporary with dinosaurs. Why have they not continued to evolve? Isn’t the theory of evolution of little value without a known trigger that explains why evolution starts and stops? Please do not resort to the natural selection crutch. The gap is too large between evolution and natural selection.

Professor Ken Miller: They are in fact not the same as their modern counterparts. These organisms like every other group of organisms have continued to evolve and change over time. So it is not correct to say that evolution has not occurred or affected these organisms. The statement that the theory of evolution is of little use without an understanding of what causes it to start and stop is an interesting comment coming as it does the day after Steve Gould’s death.

Gould perhaps more than any recent evolutionary theorist devoted his work to answering exactly this question. He and others have made enormous progress in that direction but it is certainly true that the final answers are not in. Nonetheless, I think it is clearly incorrect to say that the theory of evolution is of no use until we have all the answers on this particular aspect of it.

Question from RJRavalli: How do you explain information content in DNA via evolutionary theory? Could not that be proof against evolution and *for* intelligent design/creation?

Professor Ken Miller: From its very inception evolution has concerned itself with the origins of biological information. Darwin didn’t use that word explicitly but he did ask repeatedly where adaptation comes from. Adaptation in this context is biological information. Today a century and a half after Darwin, we think we have good answers to that question. For example, where do new genes and new capabilities come from? It’s clear that very often they come by a process called gene duplication in which cells accidentally make extra copies of long stretches of DNA. These duplicate copies can then be changed, modified and adapted by natural selection to produce new genes and new capabilities. The “information” that you ask about is in fact supplied by Darwin’s mechanism, the mechanism of natural selection.

Question from Bruce Bartel: Could “punctuated equilibrium” possibly describe what the Bible calls the “days” or “ages” of creation?

MSNBC-Will Femia: In a more general sense does the Bible work well as a metaphor for science or are the two completely incompatible?

Professor Ken Miller: I don’t believe that the Bible and science are incompatible so long as one remembers that the Bible was written in a pre-scientific age and therefore it would be inappropriate to judge the Bible by the standards that today we apply to science. That does not mean in my view, that the Bible is not “true”. As a believer I think the Bible is true, but I also do not regard it as a work of science. Many people will comb scripture looking for passages that can be interpreted as consistent with scientific ideas like quantum physics, punctuated equilibrium or chemical valence. I don’t do such things and I don’t think finding such correspondences is necessary for consistency between the Bible and science.

Question from Ron Rayborne: What effect do you see the “sixth extinction” as having on biodiversity and the future of evolution?

Professor Ken Miller: Paleontologists recognize five great extinctions and as you note in your question, many have suggested that today we are in the midst of the sixth great extinction, an extinction caused by the work of humankind. There is no question that human activity on planet Earth is placing many species on the edge of survival. I certainly believe, especially as a biologist, that we humans have a special duty to be aware of what we are doing to the planet and to do our best to prevent the sixth extinction from running its course. Does human activity affect evolution? Absolutely. Can we say for sure the direction in which human activity will lead evolution? I don’t think so but I think it behooves all of us to be cautious, to be careful and to be informed on environmental issues.

Question from David Cox: Why is the “evolution theory” so controversial in today’s society? Is it because humans are trying to find a different answer than God to fill the void in their life?

Professor Ken Miller: I think evolution is controversial for the same reason that you can start a fight in a bar by saying something about somebody’s mother. Evolution deals with who we are and where we came from. Those are issues that are close to everyone’s heart. I think evolution is controversial for two basic reasons. One, extremists on both sides of the so-called evolution/creation debate are willing to tell people that evolution and religion are not compatible. Ironically, absolute materialists and Biblical literalists seem to agree on exactly this point.

I have tried to argue, however, that a more reasonable view of both science and religion does away with the appearance and I think it is only an appearance, of conflict. The second reason that I think evolution is controversial concerns the theory itself. If evolution produced we humans as surely it did, this means that evolution to some extent shaped and guided human nature.

Every social debate that we have whether it is political, economic or psychological in nature revolves on the issue of just what exactly human nature is. Therefore, no matter which side of such an issue one finds oneself, evolution it seems has something to say for or against ones position. That sort of centrality guarantees that evolution will always be controversial.

Question from Nelson Alonso: How do you respond to the fact that Behe never said that all parts, including redundant parts, are part of the irreducibly complex systems he mentions? For example, even your eel sperm example still has microtubules.if we remove doublet 6, then doublets 5 and 7 can simply link up, that is an 82 pattern. The 30 pattern in Daplius works, but it beats very slowly. And even eubacterial flagella has a core 26 parts that cannot be removed without losing function. Behe also never said that subsystems cannot perform other functions.

Professor Ken Miller: This questioner has obviously read chapter 5 of my book, “Finding Darwin’s God” as well as Michael Behe’s articles on “irreducible complexity”. I stand by my refutation of Behe’s arguments and here’s why: Michael Behe, a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania has argued that complex biochemical systems could not have been produced by evolution since the parts of those systems have no functions until every single part is put into place. My answer to that argument has simply been to look at the facts.

For example, in the bacterial flagellum the system which you cite, recent research has shown that only ten of the twenty-six odd parts are required for an important biochemical secretory function. What this means is that subsets of the complex system can be favored by natural selection. For readers of this chat who are interested in the details of this argument, I would recommend they look at the April 2002 issue of Natural History Magazine. In that magazine they will find one page essays by Behe and myself addressing exactly this point. I invite the listeners to read both essays and see for themselves whether the facts lie for or against evolution.

MSNBC-Will Femia: Thank you very much for your time Dr. Miller. Can you give us some closing comments before we have to let you go?

Professor Ken Miller: I certainly hope that everyone who is interested in this issue will view the PBS series on evolution which airs tonight on most local PBS stations. In my town, it will be broadcast from 9 to 11 p.m. As they say however, consult your local listings. I would also add that the PBS evolution series has an absolutely sensation website which is a splendid resource for teaching and learning about evolution. I want to thank everyone for their provocative questions and MSNBC for giving us the opportunity to have this chat.

MSNBC-Will Femia: Thank you very much Dr. Miller.

Professor Ken Miller: It was my pleasure.

MSNBC-Will Femia: The Evolution Project