Book review: “The Human Instinct” by Kenneth Miller


I have long had a habit of looking in used bookstores for copies of a 1999 book by biologist and best-selling textbook author Kenneth Miller entitled Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution, which I then give to friends. Miller’s book is one of the few scientifically-competent books about evolution that is written with the sensitive perspective that some readers require of “I know you’re having trouble reconciling your religious tradition with evolution, so here is my take.”

More famous biologists like Richard Dawkins have written important books on evolution, but Dawkins’ “in your face” attitude often turns off even those religious believers who are amenable to a better understanding of the topic. Ken Miller’s long experience in writing high school science books (also a difficult audience) comes through in his more accessible approach and writing style. Miller was a key witness in the critical Kitzmiller v. Dover court case that exposed “intelligent design” proponents as just substituting those words for religion-based “young-earth creationism” in evolution-denial textbooks, and his credibility with Christian audiences has been important to this ongoing discussion.

Miller’s newest book has just been published, and with this one he takes his reader from the first book’s basics into the more controversial topics of how the human brain evolved. Entitled The Human Instinct: How We Evolved to Have Reason, Consciousness, and Free Will (Simon & Schuster, 2018), his book starts out acknowledging the difficulty of reconciling traditional creation narratives about how human consciousness and free will came to be with the Darwinian perspective that underlies modern scientific understanding of brain evolution and function.

This book parallels, in many ways, From Bacteria to Bach and Back, a 2017 book by philosopher/neuroscientist Daniel Dennett. Dennett dives deeply into the philosophical implications of human consciousness and creativity, while Miller takes a biologist’s tack, and that of a good textbook writer as well, introducing only as much biology as you need to get to the next step, leaving the tougher discussion on gene biochemistry to an appendix. While both books are well worth reading, The Human Instinct is probably more accessible to those who have not spent a lot of time in this discipline.

Readers of this blog have seen my take on the “free will” debate between the “Determinists,” represented by Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett, who represents the “Compatibilists.” In short, the Determinists see free will as an illusion, while the Compatibilists preserve a role for volition (a less politically-charged term than “free will” or “choice”) as a critical human function, even if their conception of how it works does not match that of many religious traditions. In The Human Instinct, Miller sides with Dennett (as do I, for all that matters).

Human volition is inextricably tied to our conception of human consciousness. Determinists usually assert that our conscious self is also an illusion, created by our brain to ex post explain (often incorrectly) what our brains and bodies have already “decided” to do. Compatibilists, on the other hand, leave room in our consciousness for some form of “nudge” that can push us probabilistically in one direction rather than another. In either case, if you are looking for “yes-no” switches in the brain that map directly to choices, you won’t find any. But the human brain does have marvelous capabilities at evaluating many thousands of probabilities on the fly, and that may a be sufficient “engine” for for the perception of volition.

While Christians who hold to a more literal reading of the Bible are still fighting the “Genesis Wars” over the nature of evolution, my contention is that basic Darwinian evolution is a relatively easy problem to get past with two changes of assumptions. The first is that the Biblical accounts were written in Bronze Age language with a Bronze Age understanding of “science” (which is to say, virtually none). Even by the 5th century CE, the church father Augustine of Hippo was advising Christians to avoid “talking nonsense” about creation, and he treats the “six days” account as an allegory.

The second adjustment required for reconciliation, in my view, is to grasp a broader definition of “God’s Time” (however you define God, or not) as going backwards as far into “eternity” as many religious believers view life going forward. Time, at least 3.5 billion years of it for carbon-based life on this planet (and 13 to 14 billion years for the known universe as a whole), plus tiny probabilities of mutation in replicating carbon-based molecules, is all you need mathematically to project some sort of molecular evolution.

Google “promiscuous carbon” and you will find a lot serious science using that descriptor of the sixth element so central to “life.” Given Siméon Denis Poisson’s Law of Large Numbers, the millions of ways in which carbon can combine with other elements will eventually yield a self-replicating molecular structure. Once a piece of self-replicating biochemical chain like DNA comes into the picture, we’re on our way to town, and you are the winner of this “lottery.”

In my view, the “Creation” question is a far easier hurdle for religious believers to get over than is the “Mind-Body Dilemma,” which Miller also tackles head-on. In the common scientific assumption, the mind is a creation of the body. There is no (as Dennett calls it) “homunculous” (or “little person”) inside our heads separate from our brain, that controls our actions. For many religious believers, however, the denial of the homunculous is a denial of the existence of “the soul” as a separate “self” from our mortal bodies. The world’s religions really haven’t even started that debate.

Miller does not get as personal in The Human Instinct as to his own reconciling of science and religious faith as he does in Finding Darwin’s God. My own views on this “wrestling match” have “evolved” since his 1999 book came out, and I will assume his have as well. However, he closes the book with this hopeful statement:

“If we truly accept the validity of science, as I think we must to say anything about the natural world, our view of the human animal cannot help but acknowledge its exceptional nature. Yes, there are elements of our ancestry that depended, in a sense, upon “random” chance. But it is also true that we emerged in a way dictated by the laws of physics and chemistry and by conditions that have prevailed over eons of change on this planet. We are children of the Earth. We are sons and daughters of the Cosmos in every sense that matters.”

Leave a Reply

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