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Breakfast with Kenneth Miller

Written by Mike Thee
October 29, 2010

On Oct. 28, Kenneth Miller, professor of biology at Brown University, delivered “America’s Continuing Problem with Evolution,” the first Catholic Heritage Lecture, to a packed Pigott Auditorium. The following morning, he met over breakfast with about a dozen faculty and staff who were part of two discussion groups on his latest book, Only a Theory.

Over the course of an hour and a half, Miller engaged the group in a fascinating discussion on science and religion and presented a diversity of viewpoints on the subject while explaining his own stance. (This writer’s limited mental faculties preclude an account that does justice to the sophistication of the guest’s presentation; what follows is a rudimentary-level recap of the breakfast.)

Miller offers a nuanced perspective on evolution and what role God might have in the universe. He is an outspoken critic of creationism and its related theory, “intelligent design.” Yet he does not slam the door on God being involved in some way. Many scholars, he explained during the breakfast, believe that the universe is the way it is “just because. For me…that is not satisfying.”

“Could there be a divine presence?” he went on to ask rhetorically, before answering, “Sure, it’s as conceivable as anything else.” Still, Miller said he was unable to go as far as the French Jesuit, Teilhard de Chardin, for instance, who saw the natural world “marching toward a predetermined goal.”

Miller also spoke more generally about scientific literacy in the United States. He took his fellow scientists to task for not making science more accessible to society at-large. “We haven’t popularized science,” he said. He recalled watching “Mr. Wizard” every Saturday as a child and being enthralled with the host’s ability to present experiments that could easily be attempted by young people with simple, household items. Today, as technology—specifically laboratory equipment—has become more sophisticated, Miller said science can seem more of a spectator sport than something for the layperson to actively participate in. Another obstacle to popularizing science, he said, is the science community’s resistance to engaging the general public because it can come off as “grandstanding.”

Miller also shared that he chose to become a scientist largely because it was “profoundly apolitical.” But in recent years, to his dismay, he’s seen science become increasingly politicized. As one consequence, scientists are held in lower esteem than they once were.

The discussion groups, which were organized by Rob Deltete, professor of philosophy, met a number of times earlier in the quarter. The Catholic Heritage Lecture series continues with a presentation by Holmes Rolston III, professor of philosophy at Colorado State University, who will present “Three Big Bangs: Matter-Energy, Life, Mind” at 7 p.m. on Feb. 10, in Pigott Auditorium.