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Ken Miller’s Only a Theory Attacks Straw Man Version of Intelligent Design on Common Descent

Casey Luskin

A friend recently wrote me an e-mail asking if I had any critiques of Ken Miller’s 2009 book Only a Theory. Writing back to him, I observed that the book has many problems, but that I would offer a few quick responses to two or three of its most egregious errors. This serious of three posts (or three topics, really) will look at three errors and mischaracterizations of intelligent design (ID) in Only a Theory, starting with Miller’s mischaracterization of ID and common descent.

On page 51, Miller states:

What does design theory tell us about the details of the horse family over the past 55 million years? First, it would not consider it a family at all. From the ID perspective, the relationships detailed in figure 3.1 aren’t real, because descent with modification, which is another name for evolution, never actually took place. Those ancestor-descendant relationships so apparent to paleontologists are just an illusion. In fact, the evolutionary tree leading to modern horses isn’t a tree at all, but just a collection of individual species, directly created by the designer, each without any relationship to the other.

On page 44, Miller says, “The most sincere compliment anyone can pay to a scientific idea is to take it seriously,” but it’s clear that he has no intention of taking ID seriously. Since ID proponents should have the right to stake out their own position without having their critics determine what they are arguing, let’s see what ID’s leading proponents say about ID and common descent. William Dembski writes:

Intelligent design does not require organisms to emerge suddenly or to be specially created from scratch by the intervention of a designing intelligence. To be sure, intelligent design is compatible with the creationist idea of organisms being suddenly created from scratch. But it is also perfectly compatible with the evolutionist idea of new organisms arising from old by gradual accrual of change. What separates intelligent design from naturalistic evolution is not whether organisms evolved or the extent to which they evolved, but what was responsible for their evolution.

(William A. Dembski, The Design Revolution, pg. 178 (InterVarsity Press, 2004).)

Likewise Michael Behe, Miller’s long-time opponent whom he knows well, has been outspoken in his support for common descent. Given that Miller spends a lot of time critiquing Behe’s books and arguments for ID, there can be no doubt that Miller knows all of this.

I personally am a common descent skeptic (for scientific reasons), although I recognize that ID is very much compatible with common descent. (I co-wrote with Logan Gage in Intelligent Design 101, “Intelligent design is not necessarily incompatible with common ancestry. Even if all organisms on earth share a common ancestor, it does not follow that the primary mechanisms causing the differences between the species must be blind, unguided processes such as natural selection.” [pg. 217])

Even so, I have always thought that the proposed evolutionary horse series looks like a string of highly similar and related forms probably belonging to the same taxon. It always looked like microevolution to me.

Thus, even us ID-proponents who are common descent skeptics don’t fit Ken Miller’s straw man characterization that according to ID, life is composed of “individual species, directly created by the designer, each without any relationship to the other.” That’s so NOT ID!


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



Ken Miller