Wednesday, January 11, 2006

10 questions for Ken Miller   posted by Razib @ 1/11/2006 11:36:00 AM

Ken Miller is author of Finding Darwin's God. My questions are in bold.

1) Looking at the opinions of the more sophisticated proponents of the new Creationism (i.e., Intelligent Design), like William Dembski, they clearly aren't the Biblical Fundamentalists of the days of yore. Ultimately it seems that what they have in their sights is 'methodological naturalism.' Philip Johnson was the first to elucidate this idea of an explicitly theistically informed science.

My question is simple, do you believe that the proponents of this new type of science really believe in their own talking points? Do they actually imagine that 20 years from now laboratories will be run on a stance that rejects methodological naturalism? Or is this part of an overall culture war which is waged for greater ends?

Yes and yes. I certainly feel that they do believe it, and a few of them have struggled (unsuccessfully) to produce scientific speculations on the basis of "design" thinking. I certainly don't see any productive science emerging from ID at all, but I am convinced that its proponents certainly believe that it will.

And, yes, this certainly is part of a great cultural war. Both Johnson and Dembski have been explicit about this. In a seminar at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary on March 23 Dembski said: "These issues of Intelligent Design and creation really cut to the heart of worldviews, what we are about, how we're putting life together and what's ultimately meaningful, what morality is based on." The proponents of ID routinely assert that evolution is responsible for society's moral ills, including divorce, crime, abortion, and homosexuality. So the movement is clearly part of a greater culture war.

2) An idea I have been considering recently is that rejection of evolutionary biology is partly innate and derived from our intuitive sense of folk biology, which comes with a conception of essential kinds. Cognitive psychologists like Paul Bloom have recently reported on research which suggests that children raised in non-Creationist households often prefer the Creationist narratives when offered choices. Another vantage point is that the large number of Americans who reject evolutionary theory is mostly a function of lack of public education on the topic, so given enough time and energy on the part of scientists evolution will become the natural default paradigm for the man on the street. What is your take on the tension between these two stances?

I am an eternal optimist, and I am convinced that the American people, given the chance to fully explore scientific and non-scientific alternatives, will pick science every time. It's just a matter of improving on the very poor job that we scientists do of explaining and popularizing our work. The good people of Dover, Pennsylvania, saw this issue very clearly in November of 2005, and voted out their pro-ID school board. I am confident that the Dover reversal can take place in any community where the issues are clearly presented.

3) Do you have any opinions on the ideas of Simon Conway Morris as elaborated in Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe?

I have not read the book. However, I have read several of Conway-Morris' essays and lectures on the same subject. In general I agree with his ideas, and find them scientifically sound and philosophically sensible.

4) A recent survey of evolutionary biologists suggested that ~90% do not believe in God. Larry Witham and Edward Larson's surveys from the 1990s suggested that the majority of biologists rejected a personal God, while the overwhelming majority of National Academy of Science members rejected a personal God.** Peter Atkins would likely offer that these results necessarily follow from the nature of science as a materialist enterprise. As a Roman Catholic I suspect you would disagree with this assessment. What do you think accounts for the lack of belief in traditional religion that seems normative among the majority of working scientists?

First of all, let's quote the results fully. The results you cite were actually reported in a paper with the title "Scientists are still keeping the faith." The survey reported in Witham & Larson actually reported that the percentage of practicing scientists who expressed religious belief had remained surprisingly constant over the past 90 years. They compared their results to a similar survey of scientists taken in 1916 this way: "about 40 percent of scientists still believe in a personal God and an afterlife. In both surveys, roughly 45 per cent disbelieved and 15 per cent were doubters (agnostic)."

The level of belief is indeed lower among scientists than the American population, but I strongly suspect that this may be the result of the hostility than many religious groups have shown towards science rather than any anti-theistic character to the scientific enterprise.

5) Do you accept that the existence of a personal God can be deduced via rational reflection? If so, which of the various "proofs" do you find most compelling? (i.e., ontological, cosmological, etc.).

I don't think that the existence of God can be proved. There's a reason, after all, why it's called "faith" and not "certainty." Rather, I find that the hypothesis of God helps me to make sense of life and of the world around me, and I find that hypothesis congruent with science, not dependent upon it.

6) Do you think "Evo-Devo" is going to revolutionize biology, or do you think that the hype is outrunning the real prospects of novel insights?

Anything with a catchy name has a bit of hype attached, but the evolutionary analysis of development is the real thing. And it is already revolutionizing our understanding of biology.

7) Has bioinformatics touched cell biology yet?

"Touched it?" It's all over it! After several days at the ASCB (cell biology) meetings last year, I was staggered by the extent to which information technology has become a major research tool in the field. The use of bioinformatics to explore signaling pathways, gene expression, and protein function has infused cellular and molecular biology at every level.

8) Cellulose is ubiquitous, why don't you think the ability to metabolize it is found in more organisms?

Quite probably because the beta 1,4 linkage is much more difficult to break chemically than the alpha 1,4 linkage.

9) If you had foreknowledge of your life as it has unfolded to this point at the age of 18, what changes would you make in terms of your educational priorities as an undergraduate?

I would have worked a little more at foreign languages. I speak German reasonably well, but would have studied at least one more language if I had it all to do over again.

10) Would you be willing to trade a month's salary for your full genome sequence?

Nope. Maybe a week's!