Thoughts of an "Ardent Theist,"
or Why Jerry Coyne is Wrong


Can an evolutionist also be a theist? I used to think that the answer to this question was an obvious and self-evident "yes." So did philosopher Michael Ruse, who brilliantly defended science in the 1983 Arkansas trial that sounded the death knell for efforts to put "scientific creationism" in American schools. Can a Darwinian be a Christian? was the title of Ruse's carefully-reasoned 2001 book on the question, and his answer was an emphatic "yes."


Today, however, evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago begs to differ. In three separate articles he has tried to make the case that the science of evolution demands a philosophical materialism that flatly rules out theism — and he pulls no punches in making that claim.


These are:

Seeing and Believing (The New Republic, Feb. 4, 2009).

Truckling to the Faithful: A Spoonful of Jesus Helps Darwin Go Down (Coyne's blog, April 22, 2009).

Accommodationism and the Nature of our World (Coyne's blog, April 30, 2009).

In one piece he compared religious scientists who might defend evolution to "adulterers." In another he argued that making a case for compatibility of science and faith was akin to peddling cancer by lying about the ill effects of tobacco. To Coyne, the pro-evolution arguments of religious scientists such as Francis Collins, George Coyne, or Karl Giberson are not only unwelcome, but downright dishonest. In his words, this is because "when one makes pronouncements about faith that involve assertions about science, the science always suffers."


Coyne's criticisms are significant because they apply to institutions, not just individuals, involved in the struggle to defend science. In particular, he attacks both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Center for Science Education for what he calls "accomodationism." In Coyne's lexicon, this is the misguided attempt to "show that it [evolution] is not only consistent with religion, but also no threat to it." Accomodationism is a "self-defeating tactic" because it "compromises the very science" these organizations seek to defend. Apparently, NAS and the NCSE ought to change their ways, come out of the intellectual closet, and admit that only one position is consistent with evolution — a philosophical naturalism that requires doctrinaire atheism on all questions of faith.


Curiously, for someone so eager to defend Darwinian theory, Coyne never tells his readers that Charles Darwin was once asked the very same question — and that he gave a quite different answer. In an 1879 letter to John Fordyce, Darwin wrote: "It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist and an evolutionist." Absurd? Apparently this Darwin fellow must have been an accommodationist, too, at least by Coyne's standards.


No theist himself, as he made clear in that letter, Darwin nonetheless realized that it was certainly possible for Christians to see the evolutionary process as consistent with their faith. As well he should have. His most enthusiastic proponent in the United States was the "eminent botanist" Asa Gray of Harvard. Gray, as Darwin knew, was a sincere and committed Christian, and Darwin was not about to reject Gray's strong scientific and personal support. Nor did he find it dishonest or logically inconsistent.


Since Coyne regards me as one of the principal accommodationist transgressors — a view enthusiastically shared by fellow bloggers P. Z. Myers and Jason Rosenhouse — I thought it might be time to answer these charges. Knowing that others they've attacked can speak for themselves, I will confine my remarks to the views I have expressed myself on issues of faith and science.


Twisting Science?


Exactly what have I said or written to incur Dr. Coyne's wrath? Simply this: I have expressed the view that there are ways for religious people to understand and accept the theory of evolution that are consistent with the Christian faith. That's it. That's my transgression.


To be sure, Coyne thinks that Christianity, like all religions, is nonsense. He's got plenty of company in the regard, including the formidable Christopher (God is Not Great) Hitchens, with whom I debated this issue last year:


However, Coyne's beef goes well beyond telling me that I'm wrong on the God question. He argues that I have twisted and distorted science in order to make it conform to religious beliefs by slipping in supernaturalism. That's a grave charge to level against a scientist, and I take it just as seriously as he did in making it. So let's look at the record.


In a reply to Coyne's New Republic review of my 2008 book Only a Theory I challenged him to show exactly where I had departed from the naturalism that science requires:


We live in a material world, and we use the materials of nature to study the way nature works. By definition, that confines science to purely naturalistic explanations, because only those are testable, and only those have validity as science. I agree, and would defy Dr. Coyne to point to any claim made in the books he has reviewed that defines science in any other way. He cannot do that, of course, because there are no such claims. [from my response to Coyne, posted on John Brockman's Edge discussion group]



And, indeed, I haven't made such claims. However, Coyne thinks I have by the very act of explaining how a person of faith can understand evolution. Specifically, he told his readers that I believe God "micro-edited DNA" to guide evolution, citing a passage from my older book, Finding Darwin's God. But if an astute reader looks at the very passage Coyne cites, he'll see that I used conditional language (words like "would" and "could") to describe possibilities, not realities. That passage indicated a Divine author of nature could intervene in the world He created at any time — but I simply did not make the assertion of Divine guidance that Coyne claims. In fact, the very point of the language I used was that Divine intervention would be beyond the ability of science to investigate. In other words, that any claim of Divine intervention in evolution could not be scientific.


I then went on to state that evolution is a fully-independent naturalistic process that operates according to material laws and principles, and I thought I was absolutely clear on that point, writing:


"Yet, curiously, that is exactly what many expect of a religious person engaged in the study of natural history — they want to know how God could have ensured the success of mammals, the rise of flowering plants, and most especially, the ascent of man. My answer, in every case, is that God need not have. Evolution is not rigged, and religious belief does not require one to postulate a God who fixes the game, bribes the referees, or tricks natural selection. The reality of natural history, like the reality of human history, is more interesting and more exciting." [Finding Darwin's God, p. 238]



Putting it plainly, I stated that "the outcome of evolution is not predictable." That's almost exactly the opposite of Coyne's complaint. So, why did he fix on the conditional passage and ignore the very plain declarative language that followed? Perhaps the conditional passage served the purpose of discrediting me, and he did not feel the need to read further, or perhaps he simply overlooked the language that followed. No matter, the point is that this charge is simply incorrect.


Now, it is true that the Christian conception of God requires that He be able to intervene in our lives — but it does not require that such intervention be of the clumsy, direct, material sort that Coyne would accept as proof of God's existence — and a subversion of science. Nor does it require that evolution be constrained, guided, rigged, or pushed in a particular direction. That, in fact, was exactly the point I made in Finding Darwin's God to my theist readers. Coyne's chagrin, quite possibly, stems from the very fact that I do not find it necessary to bend scientific reality to make it compatible with Christianity. Quite convinced that this is impossible, he accuses me of holding a view I don't.



Evolution and Intelligent Life


The desperation of Coyne's drive to link any sort of theism with scientific distortion is particularly clear in another objection he's made just about every time he's complained about my "accommodationist" views. As he puts it, this is my tendency to argue that evolution was bound to produce intelligent, reflective, self-aware beings. Curiously, he finds that argument even in places where I do not make it. One example was a guest column I wrote for The Guardian in the spring of 2009. Commenting on popular resistance to evolution, I wrote that evolution tells us that:


" . . . the human presence is not a mistake of nature or a random accident, but a direct consequence of the characteristics of the universe. What evolution tells us is that we are part of a grand, dynamic, and ever-changing fabric of life that covers our planet."

Posted on: April 29, 2009.



Now, you might find passages very much like that in some of Richard Dawkins' books, but no matter to Coyne. He objects to what he thinks it means:


"But what Miller really means here –and we can have no doubt about this given the content of his talks and writings –is that the laws of the universe are fine-tuned for the appearance of humans, and that, given the nature of evolution and Earth, the appearance of higher intellectual capabilities (ones that could apprehend and worship their Creator) is inevitable." [Coyne: "Accomodationism"]


Once again, Coyne is distorting my actual views. In my book Only a Theory, I made it very clear that I do not believe that the "appearance of humans" on planet earth was inevitable. Rather, I took Gould's analogy of the history of life as a videotape, and imagined evolution running its course a second time:


"But as life re-explores adaptive space, can we be certain that our own niche would not be occupied? I would argue that we can be almost certain that it would be — that eventually evolution would produce an intelligent, self-aware, reflective creature endowed with a nervous system large enough to solve the very same questions we have, and capable of discovering the very process that produced it, the process of evolution. To argue otherwise would be to maintain, against all evidence, that our own appearance on this planet was not the product of repeatable natural events. It would be to maintain, for no particular reason, that this corner of adaptive space was found once by the evolutionary process, but could never be found again." [Only a Theory, pp. 152-153]



But I also made it very clear that I was talking about filling a niche, the niche of intelligence, not about recreating Homo sapiens. Trying to make this point as dramatically as possible, I put it this way:


Indeed, we would have no reason to suppose that primates, mammals, or even vertebrates would emerge in a second running of the tape. [Only a Theory, p. 152]



What that means, of course, is that I wouldn't even bet on vertebrates, let alone humans evolving a second time — or on another planet somewhere else in the universe. I also clearly stated that this was not a question we could address scientifically:


I'll admit that there's nothing to be gained by pretending that one can settle this question of repeatability with any certainty. So far as we know, nature has done the experiment just once, and the result was us (plus a few million other species). Science demands repeatability, and that's not possible in this case. [Only a Theory, p. 153]



Dr. Coyne, once again, pretends otherwise, arguing that I made a scientific claim that humans were the inevitable products of a guided evolutionary process. I didn't, and remain puzzled as to why he insists that I did. Now, Coyne may actually be objecting to my confidence that "our own niche" would eventually be filled by evolution. He clearly feels that is not the case, and he may be right. But he doesn't attribute our disagreement on this point to an honest difference of opinion. He writes that that I "proclaim the inevitability of humanoids for one reason only: Christianity demands it." To Coyne, once again, that accommodationist Miller has twisted science to fit his religious preconceptions. And, of course, "the science always suffers." Why? According to Coyne, "because Christianity demands it."



A Lesson from Carl Sagan


Or does it? Coyne's own preconceptions on this issue have blinded him to the fact that there is a large group of non-religious scientists who have come to exactly the same conclusions I have with respect to the ability of evolution to produce intelligent life. Who are these folks? They include everyone who has worked in, supported, or argued for SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Most prominent among them would be the late Carl Sagan. Sagan's confidence that intelligent life would be found elsewhere in the universe most certainly did not stem from religious convictions — he was an outspoken atheist — but from an analysis of the vastness of the universe and the inherent capacity of matter to give rise to life.


In arguing for a systematic search for intelligent life, Sagan wrote this:


"But clearly when we're talking about extraterrestrial intelligence, we are not talking--despite Star Trek--of humans or humanoids. We are talking about the functional equivalent of humans-- say, any creatures able to build and operate radio telescopes. They may live on the land or in the sea or air. They may have unimaginable chemistries, shapes, sizes, colors, appendages and opinions. We are not requiring that they follow the particular route that led to the evolution of humans. There may be many different evolutionary pathways, each unlikely, but the sum of the number of pathways to intelligence may nevertheless be quite substantial". [Sagan, The Bioastronomy News, vol. 7, no. 4, 1995]



My views coincide precisely with Sagan's, especially on the issue of evolution. Different pathways, different evolutionary trajectories, but a "substantial" number leading to intelligence. Sagan was not alone on this point. The famous Drake equation, put forward by Frank Drake in 1960, suggested that the likelihood of intelligent life beyond the Earth could be calculated as the product of a number of individual, estimable probabilities. Plug reasonable values into this equation, and the number of places where intelligent life might be expected even in our own galaxy is surprisingly large.


Now the Drake equation may well overstate these probabilities, and many scientists think it does. Jerry Coyne may believe that the SETI project is a waste of time, and he may be critical of any suggestion that intelligent life could exist anywhere other that our small blue planet. But he clearly has no justification for labeling my views on this point as being dictated by "the demands of Christianity." Sagan's weren't, and neither are those of any scientist who thinks that the search for extraterrestrial life is worthwhile.


The self-contradicting irony of Coyne's thought process on this question is stunning. He argues passionately that evolution is an entirely naturalistic process. Then, in the same breath, he criticizes anyone who dares to point out what this obviously means — namely, that all of the necessary and sufficient conditions for life are present in the physical nature of the universe itself. Carl Sagan realized this, and argued passionately that it was our scientific calling to search for such life. But to Coyne, life on earth just has to be a strange and unique mistake, a bizarre exception to the harsh realities of a lifeless cosmos extending endlessly without plan or purpose. Someone has indeed been bound by his religious (or anti-religious) convictions on this point, but it isn't me. It's Dr. Coyne.



Coyne's Allies


Right or wrong, Coyne's views on the incompatibility of science and faith have plenty of allies, but it is instructive to see where many of them stand on the issue of evolution. One of those who agree with his analysis is Bill Buckingham, former member of the Dover, Pennsylvania, Board of Education. Buckingham led efforts to establish an "intelligent design" curriculum in Dover High School, and was adamant about the dishonesty of the Dover science teachers who resisted his efforts. "I fail to understand how teachers can call themselves Christians, go to church, talk about God, talk about Christ, and then go to school 5 days a week and talk about Darwin and teach it as if it's fact. Not a theory, but that's how it happened. I don't understand that. To me, that's talking out of both sides of your mouth." Coyne obviously agrees. I don't, and was proud to stand instead with the Dover science teachers, and not with Mr. Buckingham. So was NCSE, the "accommodationist" organization so critical in winning the dramatic courtroom battle against ID in 2005.


Another supporter of Coyne's view is Don McElroy, Chair of the Texas State Board of Education. To support his efforts to introduce creationist language into Texas' new curriculum standards, McLeroy gave his colleagues copies of a book called "Sowing Atheism." The book's premise is one that Coyne clearly supports. Evolution simply cannot be reconciled with religious faith, and teaching evolution properly requires an intellectual commitment to atheism. Indeed, one wonders why McLeroy didn't ask Coyne to appear at the Board's hearings as an expert witness to back up the book's claims on this point. Maybe next year.


Phillip Johnson, the Berkeley law professor who crafted the intellectual strategy for intelligent design movement in the so-called "Wedge Document," explained its key goal this way: "The objective [of the ID Strategy] is to convince people that Darwinism is inherently atheistic, thus shifting the debate from creationism vs. evolution to the existence of God vs. the non-existence of God. From there people are introduced to 'the truth' of the Bible and then 'the question of sin' and finally 'introduced to Jesus.'" Johnson now has the unwitting help of scientists like Coyne in achieving exactly that result.


In purely tactical terms, Coyne's recent writings provide powerful and persuasive support for one of the most effective arguments in the creationists' bag of tricks. If the American public can be convinced that the central theory of the biological sciences cannot be understood without rejecting religion, the forces of anti-evolution in our country will have achieved one of their most cherished goals — to depict evolution as a secular philosophical movement rather than a natural science. Then, with Coyne's aid, they will have a much easier time persuading voters and school board members to protect their schoolchildren against what creationists call this "sinister plot."



Understanding Science


Coyne seems to think that the message of science is clear. There is no room for faith among scientists, and scientists who are religious are intellectually dishonest. In reality, he should know that science is and has been done well, honestly, and effectively by people of faith, and that continues to be the case. Like Coyne, I would object strenuously to any attempt to twist or distort science to make it acceptable to religious views — but I also object to attempts to twist science to make it conform to anti-religious views like those held by Coyne.


As I have shown, the charge that I've distorted evolutionary science to allow for God's meddling is false. In addition, Coyne's curious stand on the likelihood of evolution producing intelligent life isn't based on science, but on his own deeply-held anti-religious views. Hešs welcome to those views, of course — but he shouldn't pretend that any disagreement on the evolution of intelligent life is motivated by religion — unless, of course, he wishes to attack the late Carl Sagan as a closet theist.


In defending evolution, all I have attempted to do is to point out ways in which people of faith can understand the evolutionary process as being consistent with the will of a Creator. This is precisely the tradition espoused by Asa Gray himself as an advocate for evolution. In 1876 Gray wrote: "Does the investigation of physical causes stand opposed to the theological view and the study of the harmonies between mind and Nature? More than this, is it not most presumable that an intellectual conception realized in Nature would be realized through natural agencies?" [Darwiniana, essays of Asa Gray pertaining to Darwinism. Appleton & Co. New York. 1876. P. 22] Gray's answer, and mine, is "yes."


Apparently, Coyne says "no," and pretends to take a stand on principle against mixing philosophy and science, calling me out by name on that score:


"What bothers me is that Miller can't resist slipping in, under the guise of his expertise as a biologist, the idea that it is scientific to assert that the laws of physics are fine-tuned for our appearance, as is the nature of the evolutionary process itself. But those are NOT scientific statements; they are philosophy born of religion." [Coyne: Accommodationism]



Indeed they are, and that's exactly my point. Namely, that there are philosophical and even theological ways in which the science of evolution can be understood, not twisted or distorted, but understood. That philosophy may be born of religion, as Coyne notes, but it is shaped by the absolute need to be consistent with science, and that's what makes it both logical and relevant to people of faith. Nonetheless, one could still argue that any such thoughts do indeed mix philosophy with religion, which Coyne would never do, would he? Well, not exactly. Just a few lines later Coyne does exactly that by making an even broader statement that does indeed draw sweeping theological conclusions from his own view of science.


"But any rational person looking at the world would conclude, as did Darwin, that it was not designed by a beneficent God. ... As Richard Dawkins has noted, the world and universe look precisely as if they reflect not a caring designer, but 'blind, pitiless, indifference.' " [Coyne: Accommodationism]


Curiously, for Coyne it's just fine to use the "authority of science" to make conclusions about the presence or absence of "design," and even to parrot Richard Dawkins on completely non-scientific qualities such as "pity" and "indifference." Apparently it's legitimate to mix a philosophy in with your science — as long as it's the right kind philosophy, the one he happens to hold. To note that we live in a universe bursting with evolutionary possibilities would be dishonest, but an assessment of "blind, pitiless indifference" isn't philosophy at all? C'mon, Jerry. You know better than that.


The record is abundantly clear. I haven't twisted, compromised, or "accommodated" science to fit religious views. Rather, like others who have made similar arguments, I've simply pointed out ways in which traditional religious views of nature can accommodate science — not the other way around. Most scientists, even if they reject those religious views, nonetheless understand that this is a logical, honest, and appropriate position for a religious person to take.


One can indeed embrace science in every respect, and still ask a deeper question, one in which Coyne seems to have no interest. Why does science work? Why is the world around us organized in a way that makes itself accessible to our powers of logic and intellect? The true vow of a scientist is to practice honest and open empiricism in every aspect of his scientific work. That vow does not preclude the scientist from stepping back, acknowledging the limitations of scientific knowledge, and asking the deeper questions of why we are here, and whether existence has a purpose. Those questions are genuine and important, even if they are not scientific ones, and I believe they are worth answering. To me, those answers lie in faith. Others find their answers elsewhere, but our science is the same. That is why science works, why it provides a unifying force between people and cultures, and ultimately why scientific rationalism is a gift worth defending.


The tragedy of Coyne's argument is the way in which it seeks to enlist science in a frankly philosophical crusade — a campaign to purge science of religionists in the name of doctrinal purity. That campaign will surely fail, but in so doing it may divert those of us who cherish science from a far more urgent task, especially in America today. That is the task of defending scientific rationalism from those who, in the name of religion would subvert it beyond all recognition. In that critical struggle, scientists who are also people of faith are critical allies, and we would do well not to turn those "Ardent Theists" away.


June 10, 2009


Kenneth R. Miller

Professor of Biology

Brown University