Kenneth Miller’s unrelenting attack on creationism

April 13, 2009 | By | 16 Replies More

Kenneth Miller is a professor of biology at Brown University. He is also a widely published author (co-author of high school and college biology textbooks used by millions of students). He is also a practicing Roman Catholic who has served as an expert in several court cases concerning creationist school boards that have tried to muzzle classroom science. In his most recent book, Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul, Miller makes an unrelentingly strong case against creationists of all stripes, including those who advocate “intelligent design.”

image of book cover by Erich Vieth

image of book cover by Erich Vieth

I did not realize the strength of the scientific case based upon the analysis of the genomes of human beings and other animals. How strong is it? It is at least as strong as the fossil record, arguably much stronger.  I already knew a few things about the arguments based on genome analyses. For instance, I had often read that the genomes of chimpanzees and humans were 99% the same (or, at least, 96% the same). I also knew that all animals possessed Hox genes, essentially “toolkits for generating body form.” Miller reminds us that “it is the same kit whether that animal is a honey bee, a fish or an elephant.” The Hox genes prove “deep connections between animal groups.” Miller points out that these similarities are even much more striking than Haeckel’s (admittedly exaggerated) embryonic drawings. In fact, Haeckel “actually understated the evolutionary case each of these embryos possesses the same developmental toolkit, revealing both are common ancestry and the similarity of form and function produced by the workings of the evolutionary process.”

These profound Evo-Devo findings (the combination of development and the study of evolution) show that we “no longer need to make a distinction between the two types of change known as macro evolution and micro evolution. We don’t need to attribute special mechanisms for large-scale changes. Evo-devo “reveals that macro evolution is the product of microevolution writ large.” According to Miller, these should be “chilling words” to the ID crowd.

With the above examples, Miller is merely warming up. Recent genomic research demonstrating that our genomes are rife with errors proves that the “Designer” is a plagiarist. Miller gives several startling examples.

The first example has to do with vitamin C. Most mammals can make vitamin C, but not human beings. We lack a critical enzyme in our livers, GLO (gulonolactone oxidase).  Tongue in cheek, Miller ponders whether this was a divine plan to pump up the sales of citrus fruits. On a more serious note, however, he points out that we are not the only animals missing the GLO gene. Actually, we have a damaged version of GLO on chromosome 8, which is the same position where it can be found on other mammals (where it is a working copy). Therefore, the intelligent designer positioned a defective version of GLO into a most curious place on the human genome. Miller wants to know why the intelligent designer left this “corpse” of a GLO gene in the human genome?

The only reasonable solution is that the “designer” originally gave us a functioning GLO gene, and it became dysfunctional due to mutations. What is the evidence for this proposal?

We are not, you see, the only species in which the GLO gene is broken. The need for vitamin C is also characteristic of a certain group of primates, the very ones that happen to be our closest evolutionary relatives. Orangutans gorillas and chimps require vitamin C, as do some other primates such as maquaques. But more distantly related primates, including those known as prosimians, have fully functional GLO genes. This means that the common ancestor in which the capacity to make vitamin C was originally lost wasn’t a human, but a primate–an ancestor that, according to the advocates of intelligent design, we’re not supposed to have. And there’s the problem.

(Page 98-99)

Miller gives another example which he terms “plagiarism.” This example has to do with genes for producing beta-globin, a component of hemoglobin. The human genome has five functional copies of the beta-globin gene on chromosome 16.  In the middle of this group of functional genes, there is a nonfunctional gene for making beta-globin, which is almost identical to its neighbors. It fails to work because it contains “a series of errors in its sequence.” Why would an intelligent designer allow this to happen? ID believers would say that all humans were originally created this defective way and we all descended from those defective ancestor. Here’s the problem, however.

We’re not the only organisms with a set of beta-globin genes, and were not the only ones with a pseudogene right in the middle of that set. Gorillas and chimpanzees have them, too, and they are arranged in exactly the same way-five working copies of surrounding a single pseudogene, just as in humans-but here’s where life gets really interesting. The gorilla and chimpanzee’s pseudogenes have exactly the same set of molecular errors. Just like the two kids in my class [that committed plagiarism], they have matching mistakes…. the only sensible interpretation is that the original errors developed at random in a single common ancestor of these three species.

(Page 102-103).

Miller’s third example has to do with a missing chromosome. When you compare human and chimpanzee genomes, the chromosomes almost perfectly match up. The exception is telling. Humans have 46 chromosomes, but the other great apes have 48 (24 pairs). Now, the loss of a complete chromosome pair would have to be fatal to any animal. But, as Miller claims, there is another way to explain the absence.

In the animal line that led to us, two primate chromosomes must have been accidentally fused to form a single human chromosome. The beauty of this hypothesis is that it is testable. . . . human chromosome 2 does indeed contain telomere DNA at its middle, at the fusion point, and it carries two centromere sequences that correspond to the centromeres from chimpanzee chromosomes 12 and 13. Furthermore, the genes on human chromosome 2 are arranged in an almost exact match for the patterns of corresponding genes on the two chimp chromosomes. So clear is the match, in fact, the scientists working on the chimpanzee genome have now changed the numbering of chimp chromosomes 12 and 13 to chromosomes 2A and 2B to match the human chromosome to which they correspond. The forensic case of the missing chromosome is settled beyond any doubt.

Despite this crushing onslaught of evidence, believers in intelligent design are unfazed, at least publicly. Yet they have nothing to say about how it would be that a creator would make such revealing mistakes so consistently. Miller argues that instead of a creator, the evidence suggests a “serial creator,” who brings each new species into being, “inexplicably fashioning each one so it bears a striking resemblance to a species just lost to extinction,” or re-creating the mistakes and lapses of the genomes of related species. Why, indeed, would a creator do such things? The proponents of creationism or intelligent design simply have nothing to say. Miller challenges them, asking if these things were truly designed, why do we have such similar ancestors and so many related species?  He concludes:

In every case, design offers a neater, cleaner and less troublesome solution. After all, when your explanation has no testable steps, there are no means to disprove it. It just sits there, almost like the smile on Alice’s Cheshire Cat.

(Page 108).

Only a Theory is a terrific read filled with the kinds of things that leave creationists speechless: interwoven biological facts that relate species to species in compelling and coherent ways.  Miller’s book takes a close look at numerous other topics in clearly written prose, never skimping on the research. You’ll find terrific stories on the evolution of horses, criticism of the irreducible complexity arguments, what it means to be “random,” (creationists hate certain types of random processes but don’t mind others), clear descriptions of the phenomenon of convergence and how to recognize numerous non-arguments by creationists.

If you’re looking for a good book for jumping into these topics, this could be the book for you.

[Cross reference: My growing impatience with creationist:  a side-by-side comparison of evolutionary biology and creationism.]


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Category: Culture, Evolution, ignorance, Media, nature, Religion, Science, scientific method, snake oil

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (16)

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  1. Tony Coyle says:

    Truly a great book. Miller writes clearly and intelligently. His writing is readily accessible to all but the most closed-minded.

    And as a practicing theist he destroys the canard that you must deny god to 'believe' evolution.

  2. Anyone know a GLO-gene repair shop?

  3. Dan Klarmann says:

    Creationists happily argue that God simply used the same toolbox to independently design each creature; similarity from same (lazy) creator rather than same ancestry.

    They also argue that defective genes are part of the proof of punishment from The Fall. In Eden, Adam didn't need citrus to survive.

    They further use defective genes to illustrate that only defects occur naturally. Creatures can only decay, not advance. (They carefully avoid reading about how Historical Contingency was Proven in the Lab).

    Someone has to play Loki's Advocate.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Thanks, Loki, but whatever happened to omnipotence, omniscience and perfection? Oh, I get it. The fact that our bodies have these microscopic defects is OUR fault.

  4. Greg Laden says:

    August Berkshire, of Minnesota Atheist fame, has written a review of Ken Miller's talk in the Twin cities. The post is "Losing Miller's God." It is getting a certain amount of attention.

  5. Danny says:

    Thanks, Loki, but whatever happened to omnipotence, omniscience and perfection? Oh, I get it. The fact that our bodies have these microscopic defects is OUR fault.

    “If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning.” – C.S. Lewis

    If science has shown that evolution can account for nearly all physical process in life, then I gladly accept. I am a theist but like some have mentioned, don't believe that the God of Christianity and evolution are mutually exclusive.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    Kenneth Miller has, by the way, received the AAAS award for "Public Understanding of Science." Here's what he did, according to AAAS:

    Kenneth R. Miller is a superstar in the public outreach and engagement world. He has appeared in court in support of evolution, including his participation as a lead scientific witness in the Dover, Pennsylvania Intelligent Design trail. As such, he made an extraordinarily persuasive public case for the power of science in general, and the validity of evolution in particular, to explain the natural world. He was extensively quoted and filmed in the news and entertainment media, and in the process he did the scientific community an immeasurable service.

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    Ken Miller explains the “missing chromosome” of humans in this 4-minute video:

  8. Erich Vieth says:

    “So what does genetics tell us about evolution? Not just that organisms that are more closely related to one another share more DNA—precisely as they should—but also that there is, in effect, a missing link inscribed in the human genetic code. The telltale evidence involves human chromosome 2, which was formed by the ancestral fusion of two smaller chromosomes after we diverged from orangutans, gorillas, and chimpanzees.”

  9. Edgar Montrose says:

    I just finished reading “Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul”. The factual examples of common-ancestor traits, and other evidence of evolution, are fascinating. But the following chapters, in which Miller attempts to square his own Christianity with the evidence for evolution that he, himself, presents, are so weak as to almost undermine his credibility. Then the last chapters, in which he describes the history of the ID movement, are fascinating again.

    In the spirit of those last chapters, I think that, if evolution was renamed “Genetic Unfettered Capitalism” and the theory of Natural Selection renamed “Genetic Free-Market Adaptation”, the resulting cognitive dissonance among religious One-Percenters might be ID’s undoing.

    • Edgar Montrose says:

      Interesting read, Erich. Isn’t it amazing that success always becomes its own justification — that when people succeed it is always a result of their own talent (“mutations”, if you will) and efforts, but when those same people fail it is always because they were “dragged down” by other non-successful (“non-mutated”) people?

      Natural Selection does not work like that. Natural Selection does not apply to individuals (except to the extent that it might allow an individual to compete a bit more successfully for resources). Natural Selection applies to populations. So Natural Selection in economics would not explain how an individual became successful, but rather how an entire population became prosperous.

  10. Van Carman says:

    We can actually synthesize ascorbic acid.Components in many plants catalyze gulonolactone into ascorbic acid.Cinnamon,parsley and olive leaf are some.I like parsley as it tastes good and I can add it to my food.I average 3 to 4 teaspoons of dried parsley throughout the day with good results.Thanks,Van

  11. grumpypilgrim says:

    Edgar’s last comment about success becoming its own justification reminds me of a story I heard on the radio about a research study. Researchers divided test subjects into two groups and had subjects from one group play the board game, “Monopoly” one-on-one against subjects from the other group. Subjects in one of the groups was required to play by the actual rules of the game. Subjects in the other group were allowed to start the game with twice as much money and were also given twice as many turns (i.e., two rolls of the dice). Not surprisingly, subjects who had the rules tilted in their favor consistently won. However, what researchers discovered was that the winners ignored this fact and consistently credited themselves with their success. The researchers also discovered that subjects in the advantaged group also tended to emphasize their success by, among other things, loudly banging the playing pieces on the board as they moved, as if to rub it in to their losing opponents.

    BTW, I first heard this story during Romney’s campaign for president, and it shed considerable light on many of the comments by that son-of-privilege.

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