From the archives: Review of Finding Darwin’s God

I’ve spent the day suffering from writers block over what to say about evolution in the book. I went poking through my own blog archives and discovered a review of Kenneth Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God, originally published in September 2009. To my surprise, I apparently liked it. I’ll need to reread it, or at least parts of it, to see if I still feel the same way.

Let me say this first: Kenneth Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God is easily one of the best books I’ve ever read on the relationship between science and religion. The one-half of the book dedicated to defending evolution and debunking various strains of creationism is as good or better than what you’d find in books dedicated solely to those tasks. And the section arguing for the compatibility of science and religion is one of the more coherent such discussions I’ve read, a good example of a discussion that you can learn from even when it’s wrong.

One of those interesting mistakes comes very early in the book, discussing how our scientific understanding of the world works. Miller says that the way we know about what the sun is like depends upon assuming that the laws of physics are the same everywhere, and this is simply an assumption–a “leap of faith.” Miller doesn’t use the “leap of faith” phrase in a pejorative way, but there’s still an issue here: it doesn’t match the actual history of cosmology. Since the time of the ancient Greeks, scientists (and proto-scientists) used to assume that the celestial sphere operated under radically different laws than the earthly sphere, and they did so with good reason: superficially, they appear radically different. The heavenly bodies move around in simple, regular patterns unlike anything that the ancient Greeks or Medievals could find on Earth. Only once Newton showed that you could use the same mechanical laws to explain both the motion of the planets and earthly ballistics did scientists begin to suspect that that’s how everything works. And as Miller himself shows through the sun example (which is wonderfully well explained), that assumption gives us results that “merge into a tight and consistent web of theory and phenomena.”

The other great thing that emerges from the book is that as hard as Miller tries to make science and religion consistent, it’s clear that science makes him profoundly uncomfortable. Notably, he is offended by this quote from E. O. Wilson:

If humankind evolved by Darwinian natural selection, genetic chance and environmental necessity, not God, made the species. Deity can still be sought in the origin of the ultimate unitys of matter, in quarks and electron shells (Hans Kung was right to ask atheists why there is something instead of nothing) but not in the origin of species.

Miller’s offense is strange given that this is exactly his position. Miller’s view is that the origin of the universe and the laws of physics call out for an explanation, God is at least a plausible candidate for such an explanation, one that Miller choses to accept. Miller also says that God played no direct role in evolution, but rather simply created a universe where life could in principle arise and which was large enough to give life lots and lots of chances. All of that is consistent with the Wilson quote.

Though it’s not the only reason, one of the reasons I’m skeptical about attempts to reconcile science and religion is that pro-science believers seem to be so half-hearted about it. They say they accept the conclusions of such-and-such scientific discipline, and then throw a fit every time they’re reminded that science has pushed God out of those areas. Even scientists who have been relatively kind to religion, get this: Carl Sagan caught flak for casually mentioning in The Demon Haunted World that scientific medicine is more reliable than prayer. The message from people like Miller seems to be: we’ll accept the findings of science, just don’t remind us what they are.