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Notre Dame honors Brown cell biologist with Laetare Medal

| Friday, May 16, 2014

Dr. Kenneth Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University, will join the prestigious lineage of Laetare Medal winners at Notre Dame’s 169th Commencement ceremony Sunday. dr_kenneth_miller_300

Miller, who works as a cell biologist with a research focus on “the structure and function of biological membranes and membrane proteins,” said he was humbled to receive the award, which has honored American Catholics since 1883. He joins the company of past winners that include actor Martin Sheen, Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement Dorothy Day and President John F. Kennedy.

“When you look at the list of people who have received this award … there are very few scientists on that list,” Miller said. “Most of the people on that list are national political figures, individuals who have been involved in social action … and when I initially got a phone call from one of the deans at Notre Dame, I … just couldn’t believe it. I still pinch myself.”

Miller said in thinking about what he will say in his acceptance speech at the commencement ceremony, he continuously returned to the idea of humility. 

“The one line I keep coming to again and again is a line from the old Latin Mass: ‘Domine non sum dignus,’ … ‘Lord I am not worthy,’” he said. 

Though Miller’s primary research concentration has led him to explore the structure of chloroplasts in plant cells and the connections between plant cells, he said he has also worked in evolutionary biology, specifically in defense of evolution from a religious perspective. He said this aspect of his career began in 1981, when he was challenged to debate against a “scientific creationist” in his first year as a professor at Brown. 

“As I did research on [creationist] points of view, there are two things that motivated me,” he said. “The first one was the number of distortions and outright falsehoods that these critics were saying about biology and about science in general, and as a scientist that really bothered me. 

“And then the second thing that really bothered me was their contention that science itself … [was] inherently anti-religious and that evolution was anti-Christian and that any person who wanted to remain true to the Christian faith had to reject evolution. I was raised a Catholic and I am a practicing Catholic, and I think Catholics are Christians, and I was very insulted by that, and that motivated me quite strongly.”

Miller said his positions on evolution are evident in the textbook he and former student Joseph Levine wrote together, entitled “Biology.” Originally published in 1990, the book and its subsequent editions have become “the most widely-used biology textbook in high schools all across the United States,” Miller said.

“Our book has a very strong treatment of evolution,” he said. “I would argue that it’s the best one available at the high school level, and that has made our book the target of critics of evolution.”

Miller’s defense of evolution also drew him to testify in several federal court cases regarding the teaching of evolution and creationism in public schools, including the highly-publicized Kitzmiller v. Dover case that banned the teaching of intelligent design in public schools. 

Miller said his attitude through the trials and his career has been that religion and science are not irreconcilable. 

“Throughout this, what I have maintained is that evolution is not inherently anti-religious, that one can indeed be a person of faith and defend evolution, and I’ve tried to do this from a very general point of view, but of course I have also done it specifically from a Catholic point of view, as well,” he said. 

Miller said he typically teaches two classes per year at Brown, an upper-level cell biology course in the fall and an introductory biology course of 300 to 400 students in the spring. After 34 years at Brown, Miller estimated he has taught over 15,000 students, some of whom have continued to esteemed careers in science. In 2006, one of Miller’s former students, Dr. Craig Mello, shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of RNA interference.  

Andrew Varone, a 2012 Brown graduate and current first-year medical student at Brown Medical School, took Miller’s introductory class and worked as a teaching assistant for Miller. He said Miller did not bring his religious beliefs into the classroom, but was always open to discuss his views outside of class.

“In the lecture hall, it is not his job to be commenting on religion or his own personal beliefs but rather teaching scientific facts supported by data,” Varone said. “Outside of class, he was very approachable and always willing to discuss and explain his own beliefs and exchange ideas.”

Varone said Miller’s books on evolution, including “Finding Darwin’s God” and “Only a Theory,” carry a message of the compatibility of religion and science.

“In his books, the main message he is trying to convey is that evolution and the existence of a higher power are not mutually exclusive at this point in our existence,” Varone said. “… To have someone step forward in his position in the scientific community and come out with this message and say that he is a devout Catholic is remarkable, and it seems fit that he is being honored with this prestigious award.”

Miller said he ultimately hopes his work has led to a greater appreciation of science and a realization that science and faith can complement one other.

“What I hope I’ve done throughout my life, because I’ve been a researcher and a teacher and a writer, is to spread an appreciation and an affection and an embrace of science and for science among my students and among those that I worked with, and certainly among the people who’ve read my books,” he said. 

“To the extent possible, I think I’ve also worked to try to fit the scientific view of life into my faith in a way that makes it very clear that science and faith are not opposites … that religious faith can inform and can validate the practice of science,” he said. “If I’ve done that well, then I’m very grateful for all the people who have helped me to do it.”

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About Jack Rooney

Jack is a 2016 graduate of Notre Dame, and The Observer's former managing editor. He is currently spending a year living and working for the University in Ireland, and writing columns to keep him busy. For more random thoughts and plenty of news links, follow Jack on Twitter @RooneyReports.

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  • NDaniels
    • Let’s stop and think

      On the missing pair of chromosome: chromosome 2 is a very large chromosome in humans. There is very strong evidence that this chromosome is made up of two ancestral chromosomes that fused together generations ago. Losing a pair of chromosomes WOULD be fatal; however, we didn’t lose a pair of chromosomes. Two pairs of chromosomes stuck together and became one pair, so all of the genetic information on each chromosome was retained and life would still be possible.

      Again, I highly suggest you read up on the topic of evolution. You are making arguments based on false premises. Scientists have already thought of the questions you are posing, and they have done countless experiments to answer those questions. Your rhetorical questions have real answers; you just need to open your eyes and look for these answers.

      • NDaniels

        My questions are not rhetorical. There is no evidence that “two pairs of chromosomes stuck together and became one”; there was no moment when ape became man. Let’s stop and think, did the moment of the fusion occur inside or outside the womb? Being similar is not the same as being the same.

        • Let’s stop and think

          What? Of course there is. A quick search on Google shows many papers supporting the chromosome fusion model that are highly-cited, basically showing that the research was 1. done and showed evidence for chromosome fusion, 2. rigorously peer-reviewed, and 3. linked to new research and experiments that also support the chromosome fusion model. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7063861, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1587535, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1924367, to name a few.

          It is unlikely that there was one “moment” of fusion in one individual that gave rise to all humans. Rather, this fusion may have happened to many individuals over time. Individuals with this fusion had a selective advantage (maybe less DNA to copy, less room for errors?) that made them live longer and reproduce more than their non-fusion counterparts, and the next generation had more fusion individuals, until you have a species of human today with a fused chromosome. This fusion would have had to occur in an egg or sperm cell. If it occurred in a plain old body cell, like a skin cell, the cell would never be a part of an offspring and would just die off. If it occurred in an egg or sperm that went on to be fertilized, it would produce an offspring with a fused chromosome, and every cell in that offspring’s body would have that fused chromosome, and that offspring would give fused chromosomes to its offspring.

          I’m not sure what you’re getting at with “being similar is not the same as being the same”. I’m not trying to say that humans and apes are the same. Are you trying to say that just because human chromosome 2 isn’t identical to two ape chromosomes, the theory is false? Look, you can’t keep trying to have this discussion if you refuse to look at the evidence in front of you. Please learn more about evolution and the process by which it works. You are asking questions that operate on false premises and a false understanding of evolution.

          • NDaniels

            Something to think about:


          • Let’s stop and think

            1. That is a blog post
            2. This is not science. In science you do experiments and draw conclusions from the results; the author is selecting results that helps him reach the conclusion he wants. Not science.
            3. He is misrepresenting research and drawing inappropriate conclusions from a limited number of studies
            4. A third of his sources are from young-earth creationist journals. Those journals are funded by interest groups and rejected by most scientists; their articles do not stand up to the same rigor as every other article in science.

            This source is not proof of anything except the author’s agenda.

          • NDaniels

            Using evidence for micro evolution to claim that man evolved from something other than human persons and thus “misrepresenting research and drawing inappropriate conclusions” while selecting results that appear to reach a particular conclusion, is not science.

          • Let’s stop and think

            There is no such thing as a distinction between “micro and macro” evolution. You can’t accept “microevolution” but reject “macroevolution”. Little changes from generation to generation cause big changes over time.

            I showed three (real) sources that suggest one conclusion on one piece of evidence for the evolution of one species. There are thousands, even millions of other papers out there that support the theory of evolution. I can’t post every single one. Moreover, it would be useless, since you don’t seem to understand even the basic tenets of evolution. Go back and check out the source I posted previously, which can provide you with an overview of evolution. We can’t have a discussion about evolution if we aren’t on the same level of understanding.

            I can’t stress this enough: religion isn’t science. Science works by reaching conclusions from the evidence. Millions and billions of pieces of evidence have been gathered, studied, and pieced together to construct the theory of evolution. This theory has been modified over time as new discoveries are made and pieces of the puzzle are put together. You are trying to work backwards, starting with the conclusion that “humans beget humans” and rejecting any evidence that might threaten that conclusion. That isn’t science, and do not try to pass it off as such. Keep scientific models and religious principles separated.

            P.S. the Catholic Church accepts the theory of evolution anyway, so trying to “debunk” evolution with Catholic beliefs is wrong for scientific AND religious reasons.

          • NDaniels

            With all due respect, The Catholic Church affirms the truth about the essence of the human person, from The Beginning, when God created man separate from all other living things.
            If you begin with the truth, you will end with the truth, unless you add a false assumption. From the moment of conception, nothing is added to or subtracted from the DNA of a human person; from the moment of conception, every son or daughter of a human person is wholly human.
            This is a fact, it is not a theory.

          • Let’s stop and think

            “If you begin with the truth, you will end with the truth, unless you add a false assumption.” – You’re mixing a lot of disciplines here. This is a philosophical and/or religious statement. You can’t extrapolate that to science.

            What makes us human? Is it dignity that has been bestowed on us by God, or is something that is a result of our DNA? Saying that our dignity is dependent on some molecules is ridiculous. What is the “standard” DNA sequence? If your DNA differs from this norm, does that mean you have less dignity? If life begins at conception, and since upwards of 50% of conceptions end in miscarriage due to chromosomal defects, does that mean all of those lives had less dignity because their DNA was very wrong? If dignity is dependent on our DNA and not on God’s love, does He even matter anymore? By mixing genetics and Catholic teaching like this, you bastardize both fields.

            “This is a fact, it is not a theory.” – What you said is NOT a scientific fact, as I have elaborated countless times. What you said MAY be a religious principle, that humans beget humans, and all humans are made in God’s image. You will have to defend that idea using Catholic teaching, Tradition, scripture, writings of religious scholars and theologians, etc. You are trying to make a point with the wrong tools: you can’t make a religious statement using a botched understanding of genetics and evolution.

            I am not trying to attack you or Catholicism. I really am not. The point I am trying to make is that science and religion are separate disciplines and that you are mixing them inappropriately. When you mix a poor understanding of one field with the other, all you end up doing is ignoring basic laws of science and/or making heretic statements.

          • NDaniels

            The Universe, which God created is Life-affirming and Life-sustaining. We exist in this material world, but from The Beginning, man is not an end in himself, nor is man a means to an end, man was created for communion with God, Who Willed us worthy of Redemption.

          • NDaniels

            If the fusion did happen according to this erroneous hypothesis, then where is that missing link, or where are all those missing links, those apes and the human beings you claim they would have given birth to?

          • Let’s stop and think

            What do you mean “where are the missing links”? We have plenty of links. Refer to the family tree of humans that I posted earlier. Obviously we don’t have the genetic profile of every single primate that ever existed, and there are plenty of unanswered questions in evolution. However, we have more than enough evidence to construct an outline of the progress of evolution. With evidence from molecular biology, archaeology, embryology, and a host of other disciplines, we can construct the “family tree” of all the species of primates that evolved from a common ancestral species.

            Also, you can’t just dismiss the fusion theory as an “erroneous hypothesis” with no evidence to the contrary. It’s not a hypothesis; it’s been tested in many ways, and this is a model with lots of support. Saying that it’s erroneous doesn’t make it erroneous; you’re going to need a lot of solid, peer-reviewed research in order to prove your point. I provided evidence; you didn’t.

          • NDaniels

            P.S., I suppose most self-evident truths, such as a human person can only conceive a human person, and thus a son or daughter of a human person can only be a human person, may seem to be “pithy”, but at the end of the Day, in essence, this self-evident truth is profound.

          • Let’s stop and think

            That is a totally valid religious belief, and you are free to have that religious perspective on humanity. However, that is not a valid scientific theory, so don’t try to pass it off as such.

  • NDaniels

    My question to Dr. Kenneth Miller:

    You said we were not decedent from monkeys, but now you are saying we are decedent from apes? Are you saying that whenever an ape and an ape with a fused set of chromosomes mate, you end up with an apeman? If this was true, why doesn’t the scientific evidence support the apeman theory? Are you saying at the moment of the fusion of the chromosomes an ape became man and that is why there are no missing links?

    Can we at least agree, we being those persons who recognize that Nature’s God is the most Intelligent Designer, who gave us the Gift of Free Will, so that we can come to know, Love, and serve God, The ordered, complementary, Communion of Perfect Love that Is The Blessed Trinity, Who Was In The Beginning, Is Now, and Forever Will Be, having created The Laws of Physics, and thus not being subject to The Laws of Physics? After all, at the end of the Day, we can know through Faith and Reason, that although our understanding of God’s created Universe is evolving, the truth about The Laws of Nature and Nature’s God, remains the same.

    • Let’s stop and think

      Let’s clear some things up:

      “You said we were not decedent from monkeys, but now you are saying we are decedent from apes?” – Hominids (humans), apes, and monkeys are all primates. They are descended from a common ancestor. Millions of years ago, one species of primate changed over time and/or diverged into multiple new species of primates.

      “Are you saying that whenever an ape and an ape with a fused set of chromosomes mate, you end up with an apeman?” – Absolutely not. Although there are lots of similarities in the DNA of apes and humans (DNA between two humans is 99% the same, DNA between a human and a chimpanzee is 98% the same), they are too different to produce viable offspring. The DNA is too different, and the RNA/proteins/other genetic products it produces are too different. Two populations of organisms are defined as different species if they cannot reproduce together. Humans and chimps can’t make an “apeman”; therefore, they are different species.

      “If this was true, why doesn’t the scientific evidence support the apeman theory?” – It’s not true, and that’s not a theory.

      “Are you saying at the moment of the fusion of the chromosomes an ape became man and that is why there are no missing links?” – I’m not sure what you’re trying to get at here. Are you asking if there is a sharp divide in the family tree between apes and human? The answer is no. Our ancestors were a different species of human similar to us, and their ancestors were another species of human a little more different than us, on and on back to our common primate ancestor. The lines between species are blurry; populations of early humans changed over time into new species slowly and through many generations. Various subspecies of humans existed throughout history. Our species is the only one that remains today.

      “No doubt, we both can agree, based on both Faith and Reason, that Science has confirmed that from the moment of our conception, nothing is added to or subtracted from the DNA of the son or daughter residing in their mother’s womb, thus from the moment of conception, we have always been wholly human.” – science has confirmed that there are thousands of changes to our DNA, brought about by copying errors that add to, subtract from, or change our DNA. The DNA I have from my mother is not 100% identical to hers, and same for my father. Small changes occur from generation to generation, changing the makeup of the DNA of the entire population. I am human and my offspring will be human. 100s of generations from now, my descendants may be “human” by the definition of the time, but the genetic makeup of humans at that time will likely be different from the genetic makeup of humans now.

      Let me mention something: science can only explain HOW evolution happens, not why. Science can describe evolution down to the molecular level, but they can’t explain the theological or philosophical implications of how evolution relates to humanity. If I say that my generation’s DNA is 0.01% different from the generation before, that does NOT mean we are 0.01% less like Jesus, or that we deserve 0.01% less dignity.

      It is important to make sure you ask the right questions of the right disciplines. I cannot use a scientific experiment to develop an algorithm to quantify God’s love, and I cannot use the Bible to explain how antibiotic resistant bacteria have evolved. Keep science and religion adequately separated.

      There is an incomprehensible amount of evidence supporting our understanding of evolution and human origins. It doesn’t seem like you understand evolution fully. I would suggest you learn more about it. Rejecting evolution like this is disrespectful; you are insulting God’s mechanism for bringing about the great diversity of creation.

      Introduction to evolution: http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evosite/evo101/IIntro.shtml
      The human family tree: http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-family-tree.

  • NDaniels

    That should read, …having created The Laws of Physics, cannot be subject to The Laws of Physics.