Kenneth Miller: A Textbook Biologist at the Dover Trial

This interview with Ken Miller is part of a series looking back at the Dover Trial from 15 years ago. We also interviewed Michael Behe and Eugenie Scott, and will soon interview Barbara Forest.

Fifteen years ago in the Dover Trial, one of the star witnesses was Kenneth Miller, a textbook biologist. Turns out that Miller does not like that title at all. He is a research scientist at Brown University in Rhode Island. One of his students graduated and became a scientist too, but then pressured and cajoled Miller into writing a textbook in biology. He never expected to be writing a textbook.

Turns out that university biologists are not rewarded for writing textbooks. Miller made no mention of this book when he went up for tenure. They might have been concerned he was waisting his time, and not writing enough papers and grants.

In 1990 when it was published, the Milller-Levine textbook was special, a break from how Biology textbooks were usually written. This may have been the first Biology textbook written by two biology professors with active research programs. The textbook was far thicker and denser with information that all its competitors. One of the salespeople from a rival derisively referred to the book as “the elephant book.” Miller’s marketing team took that as an opportunity. The put an elephant on the cover, called it the elephant book, telling teachers “an elephant never forgets!”

Biology (Student Edition) by Miller Kenneth R. Levine Joseph S.  (1995-01-01) Hardcover: Books

The “elephant book” was the first edition of the Miller-Levine Biology textbook. This was the book I used for sophomore biology back in 1993.

Rather than just presenting settled answers, the textbook also raised open questions. Would Archea bacteria someday be considered a new kingdom of life? These bacteria are as different from most bacteria as these bacteria are from us! Miller’s textbook posed the question. Sure enough, that is just what scientists came to understand of them. A whole new kingdom of life.

This textbook also landed him on the Witness stand in the Dover Trial. It was Ken Miller’s textbook that was being challenged by the school board there. This is not at all what he expected. His interview with Nathan Lents and I was entertaining. Come listen in on his experience at the Trial. This biologist has many stories to tell.

After discussing the Trial, Miller recounted his debate with Henry Morris, author of the Genesis Flood. Back in 1981, over 1,000 people attended. Miller marveled at how much interest this attracted from the public. Even a Nobel Laureate would not draw a crowd like this! He was hooked.

Back then, he had no idea what laid ahead. In 2005, 24 years later, was the year of the Dover Trial.

The audio for this debate is available at the National Center for Science Education’s channel, where Miller is now Chairman of their board. Enjoy the this great debate. We are almost at its 40th anniversary, and I’m sure the science from both speakers needs a massive update.

Henry Morris in the 1981 debate with Kenneth Miller.
Kenneth Miller in the 1981 debate with Henry Miller.

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Dr. Swamidass is the founder of Peaceful Science. He is an associate professor at Washington University in Saint Louis where he runs a computational biology group using artificial intelligence to explore science at the intersection of biology, chemistry, and medicine.


Notable Replies

  1. I could listen to Ken Miller for hours. I suspect he’s an excellent teacher. Always engaging and enthusiastic.

  2. Ken Miller’s great. His work in Kitzmiller was important to the outcome and laid the groundwork for the judge being able to really understand what was wrong with Behe’s views. He put himself on the line to prevent our children being force-fed other people’s religious views, and that makes him a hero not only in scientific terms but as a defender of the US constitution.

  3. Yes that’s a bit overselling it I think. Clearly creationists are very self-interested.

    Disregarding your inappropriate use of the term “prove” in a scientific discussion, that has already been done. That hypothesis does not fit the data from comparative genetics at all, hence cannot be rationally maintained.

    Has already been done on this very forum, at length, multiple times.

    I’ve tried to argue it with you directly, but you ran away from the discussion.

    I invite you to go and find spiders, wasps, kangaroos, and crocodiles, in the Cryogenian. Take as much time as you need.

    You seem confused about what Behe’s argument was, and what Miller’s response showed.

    The concept of irreducible complexity was initially invoked by Behe to argue that it would be impossible for some complex structure to evolve if reduced versions of the structure didn’t have any function. But given that reduced versions of the structure do have function, this shows there really is a pathway through which the structure can evolve and remain functional throughout.

    Obviously the fact that some structure can function in different ways even though parts of it are missing doesn’t show it’s “devolving”.

  4. But that book won’t tell you that. It will tell you how Sanford thinks it does, and I’ve been trying to get you to see how it’s wrong. But you’ve run away twice from such discussions. So how long do we have to wait for you to read his book before we can take a look at that curve I asked you to, or for you to find where Sanford quantitatively defines information in a way where it can be measured?

    How is directly giving you answers to your question a strawman? You asked for fossils and where to look for them, I directly answered that.

    Yeah I’m sorry but you seem really confused about these ideas. Behe has argued multiple different things as supposed challenges to evolution. These different things can’t be interchanged. The irreducible complexity argument is not equivalent to the “devolution” argument he’s been making, nor to Sanford’s Genetic Entropy.

    Sanford’s Genetic Entropy idea is superficially similar to Behe’s devolution idea (there are important differences, for example that Behe does not argue anywhere that beneficial mutations are particularly rare, nor that deleterious mutations are overwhelmingly “invisibly” deleterious), but neither of these are directly related to Irreducible complexity(nor to the mousetrap analogy).

    Once again I must point out that you seem very confused. No, Sanford does not “define” anywhere that a structure is devolving just because individual parts of it can have functions. You seem unable to even keep track of what is being argued.

    I get that sense that you’ve decided to just defend any and all anti-evolution ideas you can find by whatever assertion you can think of in the spur of the moment, regardless of whether it makes logical sense or is even related to what is being discussed.

  5. I know Caroline Stromberg! She’s at the University of Washington here in Seattle now. She was showing me a phytolith under a microscope at the Burke Museum during a recent (pre-COVID) members’ open house night, in fact.

    I had a lovely evening out at a pub with her, her husband (Greg Wilson), the paleontologist Christine Janis (who used to be at Brown alongside Ken Miller but now is a professor emeritus), and a bunch of paleo grad students once. Christine and I were regaling them with tales of creationist nonsense. I recall telling Caroline about the thesis of Douglas Axe’s book – that it’s intuitively obvious that living things are designed, and that we should trust our intuition on this – and she simply said that she had no such intuition. Can’t say I have that intuition, either.

  6. Valerie giveth, and Valerie taketh away.

  7. No one said a mousetrap had to move its parts on its own. That’s not germane to the topic. Do you understand a mousetrap is NOT irreducibly complex since parts can be removed and the remainder still retain a different function?

  8. “It’s only a Google away, but here’s the link if anyone wants to check out the Ken Miller/Henry Morris debate mentioned around 15 minutes in. The Miller/Morris Debate (1981) | National Center for Science Education Audio and transcript available.”

    Just listened to the whole thing, and this is about the most masterful oral takedown of YEC and Flood Geology I’ve ever heard. “God hath delivered him into my hands…” Bravo, Mr. Miller. :slight_smile:

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