Ken Miller and Joe Levine respond to creationist criticisms of their textbook

November 26, 2013 • 11:35 am

As I’ve discussed before, the Texas School Board approved all the biology textbooks submitted for public-school use save one—Biology by Ken Miller and Joe Levine (“M&L”), published by Pearson. Apparently one reviewer, Ide Trotter (one of the six creationists among the eleven individuals invited to review the books for the school board), objected to some of Miller and Levine’s statements about evolution. Trotter also quibbled about the time in the past when liquid water appeared on the Earth, which he flagged as an “error”.

Ken kindly sent me the 13-page list of Trotter’s criticisms and the authors’ responses, which I’ll be glad to send as a pdf file to anyone who inquires. But even before the authors had responded, a professor of anthropology at Southern Methodist University, Ron Wetherington, had written a devastating rebuttal of the “errors” supposedly appearing in M&L, a rebuttal you can find here.

At any rate, you can look through the Texas edition of M&L here if you want to see the pages referenced by Trotter.

His comments concentrated largely on two areas: punctuated equilibrium or “sudden appearance,” whose frequency, Trotter said, was underemphasized in M&L, and on Trotter’s contention that natural selection cannot explain the origin of evolutionary novelty. You’ll recognize both of these comments as common tropes of both intelligent design and garden-variety Biblical creationism, and they show Trotter’s true motivations.

I’ll simply give you an example of the famous age-of-Earth’s-water “error” along with an example of each of the two classes of criticisms given above—along with M&L’s responses.  It’s funny to see Trotter taken apart by two good biologists. As I said, the entire document includes 13 pages of these statements and rebuttals.

In the following, Trotter’s comments are in boxes, and M&L’s responses are below them:

Age of the Earth’s Water:

Picture 1

The origin of novelty:

Picture 1

The frequency of stasis:

Picture 1

Miller and Levine don’t give an inch, and they shouldn’t have.  Trotter’s comments pretend to be scientific but are obviously motivated by creationism, and an attempt to inject it into public schools by pushing “sudden change” and “no novelty through selection” into the public-school curriculum.  I’m 100% confident that the review board appointed to adjudicate this dispute will rule in Miller and Levine’s favor.

Again, email me if you want a copy of M&L’s responses, which he’s given me permission to not only post here (they’re in the public domain) but to distribute. But don’t ask me unless you’re gonna read the document!

59 thoughts on “Ken Miller and Joe Levine respond to creationist criticisms of their textbook

  1. Dr. Miller,

    I may — well, okay, I do — think you’re more than a bit silly in persisting in adhering to Christianity, and I find your continued allegiance to the Catholic Church rather disturbing.

    But I gotta admire and thank you for what you’ve done to expand human knowledge, both directly in the lab and indirectly through your inspiration of students who study with you and read your texts.

    Nobody else is perfect, as I say…and, frankly, if you were the typical Christian, I don’t think the rationalist community would view Christianity as any more pernicious than the Society for Creative Anachronisms.



    1. One benefit Ken Miller enjoys that many do not is his living as a Christian which lends credence to his scientific views. It’s important that many Christians have a view of god as nature. Lloyd Geering for example has moved from god to Gaia.

      There are no true Christians and no true Scotsmen… are there any true scientists?

      1. While I admire Ken Miller’s contribution to the advancement of science against creationism, I don’t think it is true that “living as a Christian” (whatever that means) lends credence to scientific views. (Possible exception: in the minds of confused believers who think it does due to bad reasoning.)

      2. Not quite sure where you’re going with that.

        There’s no credo or the like that defines who is and isn’t a scientist. A scientist is simply somebody who does science, with “science” being broadly defined as the rational analysis of objective observation. In that sense, a car mechanic is (typically) a scientist.

        However, the mechanic isn’t a particularly influential or innovative scientist. There are ways to judge the significance of a scientist, mostly through how often other scientists refer to publications of the one in question, and to a lesser extent through awards and notoriety.

        In that context, it should be obvious that there can’t be any notion of “purity” applied to a scientist. Outside of the context of the publications, there’re all sorts of things any given scientist might do that are irrational or ignore or defy objective observation. Unless and until they influence the person’s research, such foibles are irrelevant.

        It’s also worth noting that there are a great many people who reject, for whatever reason, the rational analysis of objective observation, generally in preference of “faith.” When they compartmentalize such a rejection — as Dr. Miller does when he leaves his brain behind to go to Mass on Sunday, and leaves the Church behind to do real work the rest of the week — such people can still be very significant and influential scientists. But when they don’t make that distinction — the overwhelming majority of religious leaders plus charlatans such as Chopra and their respective marks would be the prime examples — then it’s fairly reasonable to not describe them as scientists. If your mechanic does his job by swapping out the most expensive parts he’s got replacements for on the shelf until he can convince you that the car is working, he’s not a scientist.



        1. My co-PhD thesis adviser was one of the finalists for the Nobel Prize in physics this year. At least when I knew him, he was a born again Christian, rather more conservative in his religious views then Ken Miller or Francis Collins.

      3. There are true scientists. Most children, if properly educated and given the chance to explore the world, are very nearly the best examples of scientists among us even if what they discover has been discovered before.

        There are no true Christians. Even among themselves, no one person has lived up to the definition that another may require for true Christianity. This is independent of the fact that there, truly, are no Christians as the religion is demonstrably false.

  2. Interestingly, the Prentice Hall book Biology (M&L) has a unit called “Evolution” which contains four chapters. The Prentice Hall book Life Science (for younger students) has a single chapter called “Changes Over Time”. Hmmmm.

  3. Nitpicking dating is a silly attempt to cast doubt. Especially since it was so inept:

    We note that several estimates exist for … the presence of liquid water

    Worse for Trotter, there are observations.

    – IIRC Mojzsis et al is the find of diamonds encapsulated in Jack Hills zirconia, which points to the presence of a large reservoir of liquid water @ 4.3 Ga bp.

    – But from 2008 there were also isotope results from the zircon’s themselves, that tells of extensive water weathering of continental crust @ 4.3 Ga bp. [ ]

    Besides, ~ 4 Ga bp is rather the latest estimates for first life. It could be an artifact of the methods, because they tend to push the root as far back as you allow it (in my layman take). But if you accept the latest Isua findings you are forced there anyway. Now either life started before the late bombardment and survived nicely (which btw is another Mojzsis (et al) model), or it was a *really* easy process.

    Seems to me creationists want to have it both ways. [Yes, yes, tell us something new…]

    1. Seems to me that “about four billion years ago” is perfectly consistent with “4.3 GA +/- whatever.” Precision isn’t that important in casual language like that. It’d be equally reasonable to state that the Big Bang was about a dozen billion years ago, or a baker’s dozen if you’re feeling especially nit-picky.

      There are contexts where precision matters, and (of course!) even contexts within evolutionary biology where the precision of these values matters. But in an overview of the subject given in an introductory text? Get the order of magnitude and the most significant digit right and call it a day.

      When you drill down into the details, follow the same pattern: just enough significant figures to distinguish events, and don’t worry about the rest. Photosynthesis arose a billion years after the first organisms, animals arose a half billion years ago, and so on.



      1. Seeing how cooling times are estimated to ~ 100 million years, it pushes into an order of magnitude error to put it as 500 – 600 millions of years.

        But what Miller et al, and so I, was responding to was Trotter’s attempt to cast doubt by nitpicking, not that he would be incorrect to suggest less precision. The necessary precision depends on context, if the rest of the text discuss dating oceans, fossils, estimates of first life, et cetera.

        If Miller et al had written ~ 4 billion years ago, Trotter would likely have complained about extrapolating from references. =D

  4. It’s great that Trotter’s “misunderstandings” are so easily refuted and clearly demonstrate that there is no need to change the text. Honestly, I don’t know why I’m shocked at the arrogance of these reviewers. If I were going to quibble about something like 4.2 billion, I’d make sure I had done my research and I would have cited said research….then probably formed it in a question referencing said research. In other words, I wouldn’t walk in all cock sure with nothing to back it up.

  5. I once saw Ken Miller eagerly destroy some of the pantheon of creationists (i.e., Philip Johnson, Michael Behe, and David Berlinski) on a PBS program with William F. Buckley. It was an awesome sight to behold and I’ve held him in the highest regard ever since. I liked it so much I showed part of the program to the Evolution discussion section for which I was a teaching assistant in grad school around that time. Good stuff. I think it’s the same program I found on YouTube: Search for “Firing Line: Creation and Evoultion Debate” if you want to check it out.

  6. Please email me the doc, I would love to read it.

    Do you think they only rejected Miller’s text as reprisal for his work/testimony against creationism over the years?

  7. Curious of the context in which the Earth cooling/liquid water (p 552) is mentioned in the book? My guess would be in relation to abiogenesis…but with Late Heavy Bombardment pummeling the earth (and possibly bringing much of that water to early earth) till about 3.8 bya not sure that earlier time frame is even relevant to origin of life?

    1. Here’s the context on page 552, as derekw requested:

      “Geological and astronomical evidence suggest that Earth formed as pieces of cosmic debris collided. For millions of years, volcanic activity rocked the Earth, as comets and asteroids bombarded its surface. About 4.2 billion years ago, Earth cooled enough to allow solid rocks to form and water to condense as rain, forming oceans. This infant planet was very different from Earth today.”

      This is the opening paragraph in a passage describing conditions on the pre-biotic earth.

    2. It is an open question.

      If, which seems likely, it is possible to push abiogenesis to within the main peak of the late bombardment, then the question becomes if it wasn’t more likely to arise before. More mature cells could survive better.

      That even mesophiles could survive was suggested by various results of Mojzsis et al as I mentioned above. Life is a plague on a planet and prokaryotes proliferate and spread faster than reasonable estimates of the impactor sterilizing rates.

      If the rates or impactors are larger, there is a Goldilock crustal survival zone ~ 1 km down, where ocean vaporizing crust busters would be survivable.

      And for even larger impactors, newer models of impact spread shows that a large fraction of crustal ejecta returns after a few thousand up to a million year. Flash frozen cells may this way potentially reseed an impact wasted planet.

      1. Do you have reference to Mojzsis’ model (paper/article?) Just studied this in my Biola University course and I’m curious to whether he sees mesophiles as the original lifeforms (and kept safe in crustal deposits during LHB) or subscribes to LUCA being based on an extremeophile (thermophile, barophile?)

  8. Sounds like, knowing they’ve lost this fight, they are grasping for whatever straws they can; vigilance must be maintained!

    “The death of an old idea, however, is a protracted and ungainly thing.”

    “The Blue Death”, by Dr. Robert D. Morris

  9. I guess they think that by moving the date of water up from 4.2 to 4.0 billion years, it is just a matter of time before they get it to 5 thousand years.

    1. Yeah, that’s what was bugging me. What is the point of their argument? 8 billion is still way too long for most fundamentalist/evangelical chronologies. I imagine Darwin would have been delighted to have had even 3 bn. to work with back in his day.

  10. The problem with these books are they draw conclusions about origins without scientific evidence. That is the creationist complaint.
    This book is not a book of science regarding origin issues,
    its methodology that is its failing.
    Not just errors in its conclusions.
    Anyways in schools its about equal time. Creationist books should be, must be, included if its a full education on origin subjects in science class and its illegal to censor creationism. jUst more court cases are needed and public attention.
    the fact that these textbook writers must defend themselves demonstrates the rising challenge to these ideas. times are achanging in America.
    Down with censorship.

    1. The problem with these books are they draw conclusions about origins without scientific evidence.

      I see you have yet to read the book that gave its name to this Web site. Said book lays out that evidence clear as day in a manner most accessible to the novice. Indeed, there likely isn’t a better introductory text to the subject to be found.

      That, and the seminal masterpiece which first detailed the Theory, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, is itself chock-full of evidence, far more than enough to place the Theory on solid ground. In the century and a half since then we’ve piled the evidence on so thick that no human will live long enough to personally review it all, but nobody has yet uncovered even a single bit of evidence that does anything other than further strengthen the Theory.

      And it would have been trivial for such evidence to have existed, too; the proverbial rabbit in the Precambrian would have done the trick. Once we started doing DNA analysis, if it didn’t reveal the same family tree as had been determined by morphology and geographical dispersion and all the rest, that would have done in the Theory as well. But the DNA evidence has instead removed any last possible reservations any sane individual could have.



      1. Suggesting that booby Byers read books on evolution, such as Prof. Coyne’s excellent tome is a waste of time. Booby’s mind is made up, the evidence to him is irrelevant. The only book that booby is interested in is the not-Holy Scriptures, which I doubt that he has read.

        1. We could give him a bit more credit, though, and suggest that he’s adult enough to be capable of reading Jerry’s book for himself to see where it goes off the rails rather than relying upon the Discovery Institute’s book review. Who knows? He might even discover some embarrassing inaccuracy that the Disco ‘Tute itself missed.

          Unless, of course, he’s afraid that he’ll catch cooties from what he reads within its pages….



    2. I’m all for equal time for creationist books as soon as there is real science showing creationist claims. Until then, they do not belong in a science class. Creationist books can be used in a history of religion class or a philosophy/religion class.

      Censorship has nothing to do with it – I’d be all for disallowing geology books in a Latin class too (unless they were in Latin, which would be AWESOME!).

      Ben makes some excellent points about the validity of evolution. I suggest you read Jerry’s book because it is very accessible and outlines all this stuff very clearly.

      1. [Sidebar] There’s one geology book, actually a treatise on mining – De Re Metallica – that was finally translated from Latin after many failed attempts by a pair of geology grads from Stanford. If you’re not familiar with it, it’ll surprise you who the translators were.

        1. Okay, at first I thought maybe Metallica translated but I looked it up on Wikipedia & I am impressed with who did the translation. They don’t make presidents like they used to it seems! 🙂

          I thought it was clever that the author, was Georg Bauer & he Latinized his name to Georgius Agricola. 😀 Excellent!

          So I was right, a Latin Geology book is AWESOME!

      1. And Kitzmas is right around the corner! A nice unadulterated biology textbook makes a wonderful present for the science geek on your list.

    3. Can we get equal time to demonstrate that the “God” concept is so incoherent that there is essentially zero chance that there is any “God” available to do any universe creating?

      The thing you forget is that we don’t talk, in classes, about what total nonsense Christianity is in almost all respects. Scientists are generally politely quiet about religious issues when going about their professional business. You should be glad. We’ll stick to science, but we will present the fullest scientific picture we can. If you want to drag in religion, then we might be tempted to start telling the scientific truth about religion. The evidence that Jesus ever existed is a lot weaker than the evidence for evolution, for example. Don’t get us started.

    4. Anyways in schools its about equal time.

      I refute your argument thus! (it’s the last of the cartoons on the page; larger version here:

      The same cartoon also appears on page 348 of the hardcover edition of Donald Prothero’s Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters, a book I strongly recommend for your education.

    1. Who ever would have thought that there would be considerations OTHER THAN how well the math books present math! It IS all about the students, right? No one is looking to make a buck at their expense, are they…?

  11. I wonder if textbook reviewers are supposed to read an entire book front to back before passing judgment or do they just skip straight to the chapter that annoys/offends them the most?

    1. As I assume everything in these kinds of books is offensive to these textbook reviewers, I think they would have to read the whole book in order to decide exactly what is the most offensive chapter.

      But who knows, they might just speed-read through it and catch the most offensive keywords.

  12. I find it curious and interesting (and possibly ironical) that Levine & Miller’s book is strongly defended by a professor of anthropology at Southern Methodist University. Just from the name of the institution I would have expected the opposite.

  13. About 4, NOT 4.2, billion years ago, Earth cooled…

    Oh Jeez. Picky, picky, picky. What we would expect from someone with a fundamentalist bent. As if 200 million years are not within the margins of error in dealing with the science of dating such extreme ages.

    My first reaction on reading this was that “about 4 billion years” and “about 4.2 billion years” are saying essentially the same thing. It is more a matter of statistical interpretation than anything dealing with hard facts.

  14. Please email pdf.

    I have known Steve Mojzsis since he was a PhD student; even then he was already getting mail from creationists pointing out to him the error of his ways.

    We thought it was all a big joke back then.

  15. The papers cited by Miller and Levine on the frequency of stasis are a bit odd:

    The McFadden paper on horses is fine, except that it is a very general overview, not a detailed presentation of data documenting varied rates of evolution.

    The Saylo et al (2011) paper is a very weird choice: The first author has only a Master’s degree in biology and is working toward an education PhD. The second author has degrees in accountancy and management. The third author has a B.S. in elementary education. The paper presents no data and cites either old Eldredge papers, textbooks, or websites. I’m not sure how they even found this paper, but it is more like a Wikipedia article than an authoritative treatment of punctuated equilibrium and phyletic gradualism in the fossil record.

    I am disappointed in Miller and Levine: Surely they could cite more robust sources in support of these topics.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *