Mail Room

April 21st, 2007

The Darwin Debate

Linda Heuman's splendid article on Professor of Biology Ken Miller '70 ("The Evolution of Ken Miller," November/ December), does not convey the carnival atmosphere that prevailed in Meehan Auditorium during Miller's debate with Henry Morris, the deputy director of the Institute of Creation Research, back in the spring of 1981. I attended as the sole evolutionist - and resident Deist - on the ad hoc Committee on Origins, organized by the Brown chapter of the Campus Crusade for Christ, which had sponsored the debate. More than half of the audience came from fundamentalist Protestant congregations throughout New England; I recall seeing a score of empty school buses parked outside the auditorium. Inside, the atmosphere was that of a Christian revival meeting, with Morris preaching to a predominantly sympathetic audience. I was among a handful of Brown students, mostly PLME students like Michael Lev '82, '86 MD, to pose difficult philosophical and scientific questions to Morris during the question-and-answer period; none of these Morris answered well. Afterwards some of the Brown Christians accused us of being unfair to Morris in our questioning.

I am delighted that Miller has become one of our most important advocates of evolution and of American science education. Heuman didn't mention his role as a consultant to the new Darwin exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where he is among the "talking heads" speaking on evolution. The exhibition will remain at the museum through May 29, then will travel throughout North America, arriving at its last stop, the Museum of Natural History in London, in time for the bicentennial of Darwin's birth in 2009.

John Kwok '82
Brooklyn, N.Y.

As a proponent of intelligent design, I have followed the writings of Professor Miller closely and with considerable sympathy as he's tried to balance his naturalistic and theistic inclinations. Miller the scientist is justly held in high esteem; Miller's theology, as reported in the BAM, falls woefully short. He seems to suggest that apart from evolution, a creator would deny his creatures any real opportunity to know and worship him.

Not so. The God of the Bible clearly gives to the Jew and the Christian a free will. God offers us the good, but gives us the freedom to choose what St. Augustine called the nongood. It is Darwin's evolution that denies people free will, leaving them as helpless pawns in a cold and brutal process of natural selection.

Professor Miller apparently believes that intelligent-design advocates are simply offering creationism by another name. That's wrong. I believe there are reasonable scientific questions that Darwinism has failed to answer. These ought to be introduced into classroom discussions and curricula so that students are free to pursue the truth wherever it leads. I believe in teaching more evolution, in fact, not less - the weaknesses along with the strengths.

The problem materialists have today is that they are wedded to naturalism as a philosophy. Science is defined as empirically observing that which is within the naturalistic world. But can all things be explained this way? What about things like love, conscience, guilt, altruism, or, for that matter, the mind?

All intelligent design is seeking to do is to wrest science free of the grip of naturalistic philosophy, just as Francis Bacon and others wrested science free from its Aristotelian presuppositions in the sixteenth century. When they did that, the result was the development of the scientific method and a golden era for science. It needs to be set free again from the materialistic straightjacket.

Professor Miller is too good a scholar not to want students to have the freedom to pursue truth, wherever that pursuit leads.

Charles W. Colson '53
Naples, Fla.

Thank you for the excellent cover story. Miller's proposition, as stated in the article, that God "can logically coexist with Darwinism," has been held in surprising places over the years. In the mid-1940s my husband, Rudolph Nelson '52, '71 PhD, and I were students at Providence Bible Institute, a fundamentalist/ evangelical school near Brown where Dean Terrelle B. Crum allowed for the possibility that God is the creative force behind that most remarkable "design," evolution. This idea never struck us as radical. In a school where many on the faculty nurtured independent thinking, it simply made sense as one alternative to hard-line creationist beliefs. Such an environment exists in a significant percentage of evangelical schools in the country, a fact not often recognized by the media.

Shirley Nelson
Amherst, Mass.

The citizen in me, alarmed by our country's strident culture wars, is glad to learn that Professor Miller is out and about arguing that belief in evolution is compatible with belief in God. The skeptic in me, however, wonders how compatible these beliefs really are. Why would an all-powerful, all-good God choose to create life via a bloody struggle for survival in which only the fittest survive? (Consider, for instance, that the fetuses of sand-tiger sharks develop teeth in the womb and fight to the death!) One might argue, as I gather Professor Miller does, that God refuses to intervene in evolutionary processes in order to give humans the independence we need to make free and meaningful choices. I doubt that is so, but even if it is, it portrays God as willing to inflict untold suffering on countless nonhuman animals, all for the end of helping his pet favorites, us. That doesn't sound "all good" to me.

Craig Duncan '91
Ithaca, N.Y.

Readers are treated to an impressivemedia blitz as proof that Miller, defending evolution, has trumped biochemist Michael Behe, who argues for intelligent design. I guess I'm supposed to find it significant that while Miller has worked at both Brown and Harvard, Behe teaches science at Lehigh University, wherever on God's green earth that might be.

Straw-man and outright false arguments have free rein in this glitzy BAM piece. Most noticeable are the claims that Behe and his folks aim to prove that creation took place in seven days, and that each and every real member of the scientific community adheres to evolutionary doctrine.

Having read Behe's Darwin's Black Box, I think that, while both men are skillful writers, Behe, with no Ivy League credentials, is probably the better scientist. Behe's book addresses Miller's arguments head-on. He does so not with any faith-based, kooky line of thought, but on a scientific and logical basis. There is no airy-fairy religion here. Behe is a biochemist who limits his battlefield solely to science. Before idolizing Miller and trashing Behe, BAM readers should take time to read what Behe actually presents.

Tom Derby '63
Newtown Square, Pa.

I commend Professor Miller for his continuing effort to keep mysticism out of his science. He teaches the fundamentals in his classes and confronts the "posse comatose" on wrong-wing TV, on screech radio, and in other temples of ignorance.

Therefore, he should do better than to shove mysticism upon his colleagues in behavioral science. Author Linda Heuman writes that Miller believes in a world of free will. Free will, indeed! This explanation is every bit as mystical as divine intervention, and has no place in the scientific pursuit of an understanding of behavior.

There is an ongoing political struggle to preserve popular mythology and the comfort that comes with understanding our world in this manner. While scientists can be petty about appointment, tenure, and publication, I know of no instance in which they have banded together to burn an adversary at the stake. Scientists have been murdered, shunned, reviled, and fired for presenting the results of their inquiries.

Science acknowledges wide gaps in understanding, but rather than inventing untestable explanations, it gathers relevant experience and proceeds to formulate and test explanatory concepts. This may not provide adequate comfort for everyone, but science has produced a remarkable legacy of useful explanation.

Richard A. Lambe '68 PhD
Chepachet, R.I.

Although Miller clearly states science is not about belief, he leaves out that religion is all about belief. There can be no evolution/creationism debate. The stances are mutually exclusive. The whole issue is a waste of time and energy.

The real issue for American society is not the definition of science, and it has nothing to do with philosophy. It is about what is to be public policy and what is to be kept private. Creationists want their beliefs to determine public policy. We need to stop debating the believers and take the stand that beliefs, no matter where they are derived, have no place in public policy.

Dan F. Umanoff '67, '70 MMS
Sarasota, Fla.

Miller's story reminds me that this once-great nation, with its many caring teachers, should be embarrassed because, as far as I know, we're the only industrial state that's even debating the issue of Darwinian evolution. And, after spending $780 billion per year on "education," 90 percent of adults still believe, without one scintilla of evidence, in the existence of some Higher Power. So I'd suggest we certainly have a long ways to go.

Robert E. Kay '53

Unless I missed something in the article, I do not understand how Miller, being a scientist, can believe in God. Unlike his "belief" in evolution, which he bases on facts and testable observations and experiments, his belief in God appears to be based on his "personal experiences of God" (whatever that means) and, I guess, on faith. As a scientist myself, I cannot accept anything on faith. As for "personal experiences of God," I need proof.

Vladimir Atryzek '76 PhD
Medway, Mass.

Professor of Biology Ken Miller '70 ( replies: Given the intensity of thought and emotion that surrounds evolution, it's hardly surprising that readers greeted Linda Heuman's profile of my work in the many ways they did. Along with some praise, there was (a) support and opposition to the view that science and religion are compatible, (b) criticism of faith and free will, and (c) despair about the state of science education in the country. All this shows that my fellow alumni approach these issues with thoughtful care and passion.

Tom Derby's letter, on the other hand, makes a claim about Heuman's article that I cannot support. Mr. Derby is free, of course, to rank Dr. Michael Behe of Lehigh University and me in any order he might choose in his own scientific pantheon, and I will not quarrel with his choice. However, I am unable to find even a hint of condescension toward this non-Ivy school in Heuman's writing, and wonder how Mr. Derby draws this conclusion.

Personally, I would note that I have the highest regard for Lehigh University and its science faculty. Lehigh's biology faculty have taken the extraordinary step of dissociating themselves from Dr. Behe's ideas, taking the "collective position that intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally, and should not be regarded as scientific," according to a statement on the university's Web site. I think that Lehigh's faculty are absolutely right on this point, and am honored to stand with them in this important struggle for scientific integrity.

Puzzling Puzzle

The always challenging acrostic by Michael Vuolo was made even more so in the November/December issue by the swapping of definitions for clues M and N. This made Gottfried a "lobster preparation named for a month of the French Revolutionary calendar" and Thermidor a "squawky, shrill comedian who voiced the part of Iago in Disney's Aladdin." Perhaps swapping two definitions should be a regular part of the puzzle to keep us all on our toes.

David Rosenbaum '56
Arlington, Va.

I love that you feature an acrostic puzzle every issue. Please give my gratitude to puzzle creator Michael Vuolo '92 for his good work. You should count him as a treasure.

When you transposed the clues M and N in the November/December issue, were you seeking to find out how many of us alums work at the puzzle? You sure threw me for a loop. I erased everything, started from scratch, and figured out what was wrong only after a long struggle.

Now I think it was just an added problem to this wonderful monthly treat. But, please, don't think it such a good idea that you'll do it again!

Tom Generous '63
Carrboro, N.C.

Politics or Science?

I fear that Ralph Miech's research onfatal C. sordellii infections in women who took the abortion drug mifepristone, also known as RU-486 ("How One Man's Research Turned Political," Under the Elms, September/October), is more politics than science. After reading about his research in the BAM, I reread his article in the Annals of Pharmacotherapy and the press coverage that followed its publication. I was astounded by the unquestioning acceptance of his conclusions.

Dr. Miech conducted a limited review of the literature and then proposed sweeping hypotheses not supported by existing data. C. sordellii infection is very rare in the United States, occurring in less than one in 100,000 uses of mifepristone. In Europe, women receiving medical abortions take three times the amount of mifepristone commonly used in the United States, yet no such fatal infections have been reported there. Nevertheless, the antichoice press lauds Dr. Miech for "proving" that mifepristone caused four deaths. Rarely does similar unsubstantiated research receive such attention and quick acceptance. I might expect it in circles where intellectual inquiry is not common practice, but certainly not at Brown.

As a public health professional at Gynuity Health Projects, I am eager to understand these deaths. However, the FDA reiterates that no one has established a causal relationship between the women's deaths and the pills to induce their abortions. Medical abortion remains a safe option for pregnancy termination. It presents risks similar to miscarriage and surgical abortion, and is many times safer than carrying a pregnancy to term.

I believe in the peer-review process to ensure the accuracy and rigor of research. Personal beliefs and moral positions should not matter as long as researchers practice sound science. I wonder, however, whether Dr. Miech did, in fact, conduct rigorous research, or whether he compromised science to manipulate public opinion. It is important to understand the potential biases of scientists before we accept and act on new information. Blaming mifepristone because of one suggestion by an active antichoice individual could unjustifiably harm the lives and health of women nationwide.

Ilana Dzuba '96
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Ralph Miech, retired professor of pharmacology at the medical school, replies: Ilana Dzuba takes umbrage with my article published in September in the Annals of Pharmacotherapy. For nearly forty years, Annals has been an independent, peer-reviewed journal dedicated to advancing the safe, effective, and economical use of medications. Four independent reviewers approved the publication of my article in this prestigious journal.

Two months after the article appeared online, James A. McGregor, MD, of the University of Southern California at Los Angeles, presented a poster session at the annual meeting of the Infectious Diseases Society for Obstetrics and Gynecology. His session corroborated my findings that mifepristone may interfere with the innate immune system, and that this interference can lead to the Clostridium sordellii infection and septic shock. On November 4, the FDA confirmed that in California all four deaths related to ingesting the abortion drug were due to septic shock caused by C. sordellii. A fifth death had been reported earlier in Canada.

My hypothesis is supported by animal experimentation. A single dose of mifepristone given in an animal model of septic shock blocked the glucocorticoid receptors. Administering the drug dramatically lowered the survival rate in mice to 15 percent, compared to 71 percent in the control group.

Ms. Dzuba asserts that in the United States C. sordellii infections following the use of mifepristone as an abortion drug are very rare. However, she fails to note that during the period in which the women died from the infection, no fatal case of C. sordellii was reported after surgical vacuum-aspiration abortion.

Rather than engaging in ad hominem attacks on those who have noticed and wondered about the highly unusual fact patterns surrounding these five North American deaths, Ms. Dzuba should focus her criticisms on the science, not the scientist. The hypothesis presented in my article may be wrong, but it is neither unreasonable nor the product of political prejudice.

Simmons and Katrina

While I faithfully read each BAMissue, never before have I been moved to write. I was incredibly proud to be a Brown graduate when I read about the University's commitment to the students and institutions of higher learning affected by Hurricane Katrina ("Seeking Higher Ground," November/December).

I greatly admire President Ruth Simmons for her bold response to the immediate crisis for students. Her personal and institutional commitment to the more far-reaching goal of assisting historically black universities on the Gulf Coast is even more impressive.

My time at Brown was an exciting era of change. However, I envy the current members of the Brown community for the dynamic leader they have in Dr. Simmons.

Nancy C. Yedlin '75
New Haven, Conn.

Just Turn It Off

Justin Elliott's heart is in the right place ("The Last Man Standing," Student P.O.V., November/December) when he says he won't buy a cell phone because he's "not ready to give up the therapeutic pleasure of an uninterrupted walk up Prospect Street." But doesn't he trust himself to have any willpower? My cell phone has a power button that is quite easy to use. My son's approach is just as effective: he leaves behind his phone when he doesn't want to be bothered.

Martha Cutler '70
Todd, N.C.

Media Manipulation

"Bearing Witness" (September/October) was disturbing and edifying reading. Perhaps most unsettling was the fact that author Brian Palmer '86 returned to Iraq as an "embed" even after seeing the embedding of journalists as the blatant and deplorable manipulation of the media that it is. Presumably, he had no choice in the matter. Or did he think he could somehow render himself immune to that manipulation?

For every deployment of the U.S. armed forces is there an American journalist out there who identifies and sides with that cog in the war machine? How frightening, and, for the Bush administration, how wonderfully effective.

Kerry E'lyn Larkin '98
Galway, Ireland

To Tax or To De-tax?

I disagree with Robert McCullough '43, who wrote ("Tax Cuts: Good or Bad?" Mail Room, November/December) that our economy has rebounded, that tax cuts have led the wealthy to contribute more to charity, and that because Democrats voted against funding the war in Iraq, it is "far-fetched to think that tax money would go to the war effort."

The Federal minimum wage was last increased to $5.15 per hour in 1996, and wage increases for the average worker have barely matched inflation. In addition, the "economic rebound" has not benefited the increasing number of households in which one salary isn't enough to maintain a relatively decent lifestyle. And, let's not forget the outsourcing of skilled jobs.

No one has demonstrated a direct relationship between a decrease in taxes and an increase in charitable donations. More likely, a tax increase would make a charitable contribution cost less to the donor, who would be able to write off part of the donation, thereby encouraging more donations from wealthy individuals.

The Republican Party has consistently refused to pay for the war with tax dollars, instead borrowing primarily from foreign governments. These debts will come due one day, much to the chagrin of our children and grandchildren.

It's unfortunate that supporters of the Bush administration cannot appreciate what has happened to us in the last five years. This country is hardly recognizable.

Lawrence Ross '52
Tucson, Ariz.

I nearly dropped my uppers to read in Mail Room ("Tax Cuts: Good or Bad?" November/December) Linda Alston's amazing claim: "Because people in the upper-income brackets tend to save rather than spend, the money É realized in tax cuts did not enter the economy."

I have to conclude the writer is regrettably (a) not among the high earners, (b) not among those who ever took a course in economics, and (c) not aware that even savings, unless they are stuffed under a mattress, help to grow the economy.

I pray for her enlightenment, and that she will refrain in the future from referring to others' opinions as dumb and disingenuous, at least until she discovers what high earners really do with their money.

Dick Downes '45
Atlantic Beach, Fla.

Cut the Hype

"Boldly Brown," labeled as a special supplement to the BAM, is merely promotional hype that has no legitimate place in your pages.

Harry Smith '57
Brooklyn, N.Y.

The supplement is not BAM editorial content but advertising the University has purchased to promote the Campaign for Academic Enrichment. The BAM relies on ad sales for about 20 percent of its budget. - Editor

Charm and Wit

Professor Paul Symonds, who died on March 28, deserved more than the small note published in the July/August BAM. Thanks to Clinton J. Andrews '78 ("A Gentle Soul," Mail Room, September/ October), Paul will also be remembered as a generous and gentle soul by the very many students and colleagues he met during his long career at Brown.

After graduating in 1938 from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as a bachelor of science in physics, Paul attended Cornell, where he earned a master's and PhD in engineering in 1941 and 1943. After four years at the Naval Research Laboratory, in 1947 Paul became a Brown assistant professor in the Division of Engineering, serving as chair of the division from 1959 to 1962. He retired in 1983. In 1988 he received an honorary degree from the FacultŽ Polytechnique de Mons in Belgium.

Paul was not only a brilliant scientist and a pioneer in the field of plasticity and nonlinear dynamics, he was also a charming man, simple and modest, who helped and encouraged young scientists, colleagues, and students. Many of us will remember him for his legendary wit and sense of humor.

Andre Pilatte '67
Mons, Belgium

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January / February 2006