Ask Not For Whom the Bell Tolls

Ask Not For Whom the Bell Tolls

Reflections on Stanley Miller’s Death and Life

Chemist Stanley L. Miller died in late May (March 7, 1930-May 20, 2007).

Even if you don’t recognize the name, you are probably familiar with his famous experiment. Virtually every introductory biology text describes the work Miller performed in the early 1950s. Miller showed that the primitive atmosphere of early Earth could, in principle, generate amino acids, one of the key building blocks of life.

Miller’s work was the first experimental validation of the Oparin-Haldane hypothesis and launched origin-of-life studies as an experimental research program. His success prompted scientists to conduct similar experiments in the quest to discover chemical routes to other critical biomolecules.

Implications of the Miller-Urey Experiment

Beyond its scientific impact, Miller’s work has had profound philosophical and even theological consequences. For many people, the generation of amino acids from simple chemical compounds thought to be present in early Earth’s atmosphere meant that life could originate all on its own without the need for a Creator. I’ve met many people who have struggled with their faith as Christians after learning about this experiment in high school and college biology courses. And I’ve known many nontheists who use this experiment as part of the rationale to reject belief in a personal God.

It’s probably safe to say that next to Charles Darwin, Stanley Miller has probably been one of the most disliked and maligned scientists within the Christian community. His work and, unfortunately, his reputation have been the subject of attack and ridicule by Christian apologists for the last half-century. For many Christians, Miller—like Darwin—embodied atheistic materialism. By attacking Miller—his character and his work—Christians saw themselves striking back against the threat they perceived from science.

Miller’s death has prompted me to reflect on how Christians often inappropriately view and treat scientists, particularly evolutionary biologists. We must reconsider the way we engage in apologetics and evangelism. The bottom line: If we ever want to effectively engage skeptics within the scientific community, we must avoid alienating them with our apologetics methodology. We cannot treat them as the enemy of the Christian faith, but rather must regard scientists as people occupying an important mission field. We need to look for opportunities to build bridges, not erect walls, as we present the Christian faith to them.

An Amazing Story

The behind-the-scenes story of the Miller-Urey experiment is remarkable in many respects, and provides an opportunity for Christians to affirm Stanley Miller and Harold Urey, in spite of the profound philosophical and scientific differences on life’s origin. These points of affirmation represent shared values and common ground that many scientists and Christians can stand on.

Miller conducted his famous experiment as a young graduate student at the University of Chicago. After hearing Nobel Laureate Harold Urey lecture on the current ideas about the early Earth’s atmosphere, he approached the eminent scientist and asked if he could join his lab and attempt to verify the Oparin-Haldane hypothesis. Urey initially declined out of concern for Miller’s future, viewing the work as too risky for a graduate student to pursue.

Miller persisted, however, and Urey reluctantly agreed. But in Miller’s best interest, Urey gave him a time limit to show progress on the project. The rest is history. Miller was able to generate amino acids and alpha-hydroxy acids from a simple mixture of gases in short order and later determined that the reaction mechanism was closely related to the Strecker Reaction.

In an act of selflessness, Urey insisted that Miller publish the work as the sole author, contrary to standard academic practices. (Usually the research advisor is listed as the author on all papers generated within his or her laboratory.) Urey’s name rightfully belonged on the paper submitted to Science, but Urey recognized the significance of Miller’s work and wanted him to be the full beneficiary. If Urey’s name had appeared on the paper, he would have taken all the attention away from Miller.

And what attention Miller received! When published in Science, Miller’s results met with instantaneous and worldwide excitement and fanfare. Both the New York Herald Tribune and New York Times wrote about Miller and his discovery on the same day that his paper appeared in Science. A short time later Time, Newsweek, and Life wrote about his work. At twenty-three years of age, Stanley Miller was suddenly propelled to worldwide fame.

Most graduate students are drawn to science because of their fascination with nature and a deep desire to understand how it all works. This allure provides the motivation to work long, hard hours in the laboratory. I am sure that this was true for Miller. Still, in the back of the minds of most young scientists resides the hope that their research will lead to a breakthrough so significant that it will propel them to worldwide fame. More often than not, this great expectation never happens.

But Stanley Miller lived the dream.

This story endears Miller and Urey to me. As a scientist, I can’t help but marvel at Miller’s accomplishments and impact on science as a young chemist. And as a Christian, I am impressed with the compassion and generosity Urey displayed toward Miller, and his sincere concern for the young scientist’s interests and career. This painfully reminds me that sometimes non-Christians do a better job at living out these Godly qualities than many Christians, including me.

Miller’s persistence and courage are to be admired as well, whether one is a Christian or not. As a young scientist, Miller pursued a question that many established scientists shied away from, because it was too risky. He was not dissuaded by a Nobel Laureate’s protests. As Christians, persistence and courage are two virtues that we need to strive for as we seek to live out our faith, particularly in pursuit of God’s calling on our lives. Miller’s life reminds me that sometimes non-Christians manifest these types of virtues to a greater extent than Christians.

A Poignant Encounter

The first time I saw Miller was at the 1999 meeting of the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life (ISSOL ’99) held at the University of California, San Diego. Even though I disagree with the views Miller held about the explanation for the origin of life, I was thrilled to be in the presence of such an important figure. I saw him at a poster session, walking around the room reading and discussing the presentations with the participants.

It was clear that Miller was a mentor to many younger scientists, offering his insights and constructive feedback about their work and encouraging them. Miller willingly and selflessly invested himself into the lives of others, a quality that merits admiration.

The next time I saw him was at ISSOL ’02 held in Oaxaca, Mexico. My reaction was very different this time around. Instead of excitement, I felt a strong sense of sorrow and compassion for him. Miller was confined to a wheelchair and was clearly suffering from a debilitating sickness. He appeared feeble and required the constant attention of a caretaker. While other conference participants made their way to the veranda of the conference hotel to enjoy a coffee break or have lunch, Miller remained behind.

During the sessions, a special place was reserved at the front of the room for him. It was sad to see him wheeled in right before each session started, a constant reminder to all of us of the struggle he faced. Miller appeared to be in the last years of his life.

One particularly heartrending moment came during a session on prebiotic chemistry, when the session chairman pointed out during the introduction that Miller’s work was no longer relevant. He was quick to extend respect to Miller and qualified his assessment by emphasizing the work’s historical value, but the harm had been done. The painful reality was that Miller had devoted his life to understanding the origin of life and, at the end of his life, his most important contribution was no longer regarded as genuinely significant to the current paradigm.

At that time, I truly saw Miller as a human being, not as a caricature to be ridiculed or an embodiment of atheism to be assaulted. He was someone like me, confronted with disappointments and frustrations that arise from life’s challenges and difficulties so severe that they bring the ultimate questions about life’s meaning and purpose to the forefront.

Stanley Miller and the Gospel

As Miller reached the end of his life, was he troubled about his fate after death? Was he concerned about his life’s meaning and purpose? I have no way of knowing if he asked questions like this. But if he did, it would be hard for me to imagine that he would have turned to the Christian faith to see if it had any answers, if for no other reason than the vitriol spewed at him by Christians for the last half century.

Peter reminds us (1 Peter 3:15) that when we raise apologetics issues with non-Christians, it should always be with gentleness and respect. Tragically that has not been how Christians have treated Miller and other skeptics in the scientific community. I wish I could say that I have never been guilty of these offenses. But I am.

Stanley Miller’s death deeply saddens me.

For more detailed discussions on problems confronting the evolutionary paradigm for the origin of life and the astounding evidence for a Creator’s role in the life’s beginnings, see the article “Origins-of-Life Predictions Face Off: Evolution Vs. Biblical Creation” and the book Origins of Life: Biblical and Evolutionary Models Face Off