Kenneth Miller finds good news in evolution

In his new book, 'The Human Instinct,' the Brown University biologist seeks to counter the message that evolution is dreary, depressing and demoralizing.

“The Human Instinct” cover and author Kenneth R. Miller. Images courtesy of Simon and Schuster

(RNS) — To many of the most ardent advocates of the theory of evolution, human beings are accidental creatures living a pointless existence whose every action is determined by neural chemistry, reflex and reaction.

In the words of scientist and atheist Sam Harris, “We are driverless cars running a program we did not write, which we cannot control, and whose existence we are not even wired to sense.”

Kenneth R. Miller, a Brown University biologist, agrees that humans evolved according to Charles Darwin’s law of natural selection, but in his new book, “The Human Instinct,” he suggests “we are more.”

Humans are also conscious, self-aware, creative and intelligent. We are, in Miller’s view, exceptional in those very traits.

The human species may not be the pinnacle of evolution, which continues to unfold, but humans represent the first stirrings of true consciousness.

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Miller may be best known as the plaintiffs’ expert witness in the landmark 2004 Kitzmiller v. Dover trial in which a group of parents sued the Dover, Pa., public school district for requiring the teaching of intelligent design. They won when U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III ruled that intelligent design was a religious view, not a scientific theory.

Miller, a practicing Roman Catholic, sees no conflict between his faith and science. He has written other books on the topic — “Finding Darwin’s God” and “Only a Theory” — but said he wrote this one to counter the message that evolution was dreary, depressing and demoralizing.

The book offers a summary of the basics of evolutionary theory and then moves on to address three additional topics: evolutionary psychology, the evolution of consciousness and the existence of free will.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you write this book?

“The Human Instinct” by Kenneth R. Miller. Image courtesy of Simon and Schuster

About four or five years ago, I had a general sense, both from my scientific colleagues, who were advocates for evolution, and from some very thoughtful people — who were not evolution deniers in any sense — that they found the message of human evolutionary ancestry to be degrading and who were treating it as a bit of news they’d rather not hear.

I came to the conclusion that the message evolution was sending to people all too often was a philosophical message that really was not dictated by the science itself but by the worldviews of the interpreters of that science. I wanted to do what I could to set the record straight — to stick more closely to the actual biology and see where that leads us.

One of the people you specifically address is the writer Marilynne Robinson. Why?

In her book “The Death of Adam,” there’s a long essay considering what she calls “Darwinism.” She almost uses Darwinism as a synonym for evolution, but she’s not a denier of evolution. She recoils against what she calls a view of Darwinism that reduces the human species to just one species among many, that compares our worst behavior to that of animals, that basically invalidates human reason, human aesthetics and presents all of the best of humanity as just preprogrammed responses by natural selection.

In a sense, I wanted to address some of Marilynne Robinson’s complaints by saying: I share your sentiments, but there is a perfectly reasonable way to understand evolution that gets around those problems.

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One of Robinson’s concerns is very clearly that the field of evolutionary psychology has basically tried to explain the religious impulse, the moral impulse, and even the aesthetic impulse, which leads us to create art, as meaningless results of natural selection. One of the central ideas of the field is that there’s no such thing as genuine morality, right or wrong; there is simply an ethical sense that has been bred into us by the imperatives of reproduction and survival.

I would argue that there is an authentic morality, that right and wrong are genuine qualities. I would also argue that there’s a genuine aesthetic of beauty that is associated with the arts that can’t be debased by simply saying what we think is beautiful is simply an artifact of what we adhere to in order to survive and reproduce.

How do you talk about evolution with religious people who have difficulty squaring evolution with faith?

We human beings are wholly natural creatures. We are indeed animals. We have our origin in the process of evolution, just like every other living thing on this planet. We are made out of matter and energy and it’s matter and energy that gave rise to us. But I don’t see anything in that formulation which is contradictory to the message we get from all the Abrahamic religions.

I remember the admonition from the Bible: “Thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.” To me that’s the admonition that we are creatures made out of the matter of the Earth. And even in the Book of Genesis, which I do not take as science or literal history, there is an understanding of the way in which God works, as God commanding the Earth and its waters to bring forth life. The Earth is seen by the author of Genesis as the intermediary creating and sustaining life, which is pretty much what science tells us too. So I don’t find that a threat to religious belief unless you are someone who demands that every book of the Bible, every word of Scripture, be taken in a very literal sense.

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You say that while also acknowledging that the human species is not the crowning achievement of creation and that we owe our existence to happenstance.

Indeed. The evolutionary process is a process of diversification that explores what biologists called “niches,” in life, ways of making a living. There’s a niche that’s occupied by a plant, like a dandelion. There’s the niche that’s occupied by a bird that gathers seed, like a robin or a sparrow. Ultimately, there is a niche, and we’re the only species to date that have come to occupy it, that involves reflective intelligent and self-aware cognition of the conditions of existence. I do not argue that we were predestined to fill that niche — only that the niche has always existed and that the evolutionary process was bound, sooner or later, to produce a creature that would fill it.

What you mean by “The Human Instinct”?

“The Human Instinct” author Kenneth R. Miller. Image courtesy of Simon and Schuster

By the human instinct, I mean the collection of traits and behaviors and cognitive abilities that make us unique among all the organisms on planet Earth. I also mean the processes that gave rise in us to reason, consciousness and free will. These are the things that make the human species absolutely unique.

What I mean by special is not a chest-thumping “we’re-the-pinnacle-of-creation,” but an acceptance of responsibility. Of all the creatures that inhabit the planet, we’re the only ones who are aware of where we came from, what gave rise to us and what effect we’re having on the future of this planet. That gives us a special responsibility that no other species can possess. We’re the only ones aware of a process called extinction. We’re the only ones aware of our global footprint on this planet. We’re the only ones that can take steps to safeguard the biodiversity and future of the planet. That alone makes human beings special.

You’re critical of many of evolutionary psychology’s more sensational conclusions, such as studies that find men are predisposed to rape or women are predisposed to shop. How can laypeople distinguish good evolutionary psychology from bad?

The really faulty studies never bother to do any genetics or molecular biology. They never bother to say, “Can we find genetic markers that go along with this behavior or that ability or anything else.” If this was an authentic case of evolution favoring a particular behavior, we should as good biologists find the genetic markers that go along with it. So if a story like this lacks actual genetics, I would tend to discount it. I think most biologists would as well.

My favorite is the evolutionary story of why women evolved to shop. Those stories come about because the authors presume to know what the social roles of women were in the Pleistocene Epoch and what men were out doing in the Pleistocene. Men were out hunting and women were gathering and staying home and tending the fire. How do you actually know that? The answer is, “You don’t.” So unless you have really discovered some genetic marker that predisposes people to like to go into the mall and shop, then these stories are absolute nonsense.

Do you go to church?

Every Sunday and on holy days. I am a practicing Roman Catholic and I will keep on practicing until I get it right.

A DNA strand next to the title of the series.

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