A blog about science and religion from the viewpoint of a biology student in a state that's pretty much not on the map.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Book Review: Only A Theory

When I was shopping for textbooks, something caught my eye. It was this:


One of the professors decided to make the book Only a Theory by Ken Miller required reading for the class. I've been wanting to read something by Miller despite the fact that I can't seem to find Finding Darwin's God in any of my local bookstores. So I decided to read this to see what I thought of it.

First off, I am an athiest under most definitions of god. I don't believe in any gods, but I don't see the need to spout on and on about it. I'm more interested in seeing how the real world works. However, I was afraid that most of the book would amount to an explanation of theistic evolution. Even I find this one of the more innocuous forms of religion, I still don't think it has a place in biology class.

However, considering all of the hullaballoo over creationism and intelligent design-especially here at Iowa State, I can certainly understand the decision.

A few years back, a professor by the name of Guillermo Gonzales attempted to get tenure here at ISU. He had a good study group and before he came to ISU, he had published quite a bit of research. However, he wrote a book called The Privileged Planet and devoted most of his efforts to Intelligent Design. As a result, he didn't publish much research and for this reason was denied tenure.

You can find out more about Gonzales and his book elsewhere online, I'm only mentioning this for background. Iowa State is one of the battlegrounds over ID, and it certianly makes sense that Iowa State would want to include reading material from a devoutly religious man who has spent much of his career defending evolution. Miller helps to cut through the stereotype that evolution is only accepted amongst athiests and helps to destroy the false dichotomy they try to create. In fact, the producers of Expelled were quoted as saying that Miller would 'unnecessarily confuse the audience'.

In the book, there were a lot of things I agreed with him about and many that I didn't...and not just about religion.

He begins the book by sharing some of his experiences defending evolution. He rightly points out that much of the opposition to evolution is based in religion and emphasizes that it is an emotional opposition at it's very core.

I've noticed this while speaking to crowds about why I don't believe in god. Religion is held sacred to many and I believe that the reason many religious people dislike athiests is because, in reality, they're afraid of us. They're afraid that we can disprove something they want to believe in. This is also why they're so afraid of evolution. I'll get to this later.

Next, he explores the many claims of the ID movement...many of which appeared in the 2005 Kitzmiller VS Pennsylvania trial. These include the flagellar/type III secretion systems, blood clotting pathways, information theory and such.

The examples he cites and explains are very good. The flagellum is undeniably the posterboy for ID, and any claim of irreducible complexity is quickly refuted by Miller. Same with the eye and blood clotting pathways. The explanations he gives are really quite good. And damning to ID.

However my one gripe about the examples he chose is that anybody who reads up on the subject (especially as much as me) will already be intamitely familiar with them. It's certainly not a bad thing. I know Miller didn't write the book for people like me who follow the literature or who have read every single page of the transcripts and decision of the trial (I'm such a nerd...). He wrote it for the laypeople who might be on the fence. And to laypeople, those examples are very good. Besides, the Cdesign Proponentists would just accuse him of 'ducking the punches' if he did.

So it's not really even a flaw...just something that annoyed me.

However, the one thing I really didn't agree with is that he thinks the reason for the prevalence of ID and creationism here in America is due to our rebellious nature.

The reason I don't agree with it is because I grew up knowing many people from Britian and Australia...young people like the type who become enamored with ID. They were just as rebellious as I was. Furthermore, the 2005 riots in France should lay his hypothesis to rest...especially for European culture. Suspicion of those who are in positions of authority is simply a part of human nature. Being American has nothing to do with it, although I'll agree with him that we like to think we're a renegade culture.

He believes that Americans want to look at the literature and decide for themselves. However, the literature is pretty conclusive in favor of evolution. Any amount of research on the Discovery Institute or Answers in Genesis reveals almost immediately that they are undeniably intellectually bankrupt and have nothing to offer.

Instead, I believe that it's not that Americans want to decide for's that we as a culture tend to believe whatever we want to believe. There's a marked difference.

Young Earth Creationists have to overlook the fact that there are nesting sites of terrestrial dinosaurs in the strata they claim were underwater during the 'Noacean Deuluge'. They have to ignore most of physics to assert the universe is a few thousand years old and they have to overlook the fact that pathologists need to use the same techniques to study diseases such as Community Acquired MRSA (which according to any of the AIG bacterial resistance articles, should not exist)...amongst other things. People who want to decide for themselves should see these as fatal flaws-nay-falsifications of the young-earth hypothesis.

I think that for many people, the various forms of creationism lack abandonability. They simply equate them with religion and hold it sacred...willing to overlook the flaws in their worldviews because they're unwilling to abandon them or view things in a different light.

I wouldn't consider our culture really all that rebellious. Much of our so-called rebellion in popular culture is packaged up in the form of pop-punk bands and singers like Avril Lavigne and Sum-41 and marketed to the masses.

Instead, I think that the problem is the way science is taught in the US. Science, when properly taught as Miller points out, is nothing more than common sense laid out. It builds on itself, sure...but once you get the basics down there's not a whole lot that's not easily understood. Unfortunately, as Miller also points out, this is where the Cdesign Proponentists are winning. They're making evolution too controversial (even though I don't really believe it is) and the officials who are elected by popular vote are hesitant to teach it for fear of being replaced.

If it's not properly taught, or taught in an over-simplistic form, students don't develop the understanding needed to reconcile their beliefs with science. Their beliefs lack abandonability and the cycle starts over and over.

The rebelliousness of American society is a major theme in the book...and it's one that I don't agree with at all. Other than that, however I think the rest of the book is perfectly solid. It is...and should be required reading for all incoming biology major freshmen.

Buy Only a Theory from

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