Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS, USA
Interview conducted August, 2008
Dr. Keith Miller is a Research Assistant Professor at Kansas State University. His research interests include cyclicity in sedimentation, event stratigraphy, sea level and climate change during the Late Paleozoic, and taphonomy and paleoecology of benthic faunas. In addition to his geological research, Dr. Miller is also an Evangelical Christian. He is particularly interested in examining the relationship between science and Christianity, and is a strong advocate of quality public science education and science literacy. Dr. Miller has been featured in the "What about God?" episode of WGBH's documentary Evolution.
Q: What brought you to the field of paleontology?
Keith Miller explains what we can learn about Earth's history by studying rocks and the fossils they contain.
A: I have always been interested in the natural world. As a child growing up I enjoyed collecting rocks, fossils, shells, insects and other natural objects. My interests became more focused in the area of geology when in junior high as a result of a good Earth science teacher. By the time I graduated from high school I knew that I wanted to study geology with the goal of being a secondary school Earth science teacher.
I became excited about paleontology during college. Dr. Roger Thomas opened my eyes to see how fossils can help answer a wide range of questions about the Earth's past from reconstructing past ecosystems, to determining past ocean temperatures, to finding the directions of maximum stress in a deforming mountain range. After completing my undergraduate work at Franklin & Marshall College, I wanted to have the experience of doing research. The challenge and reward of doing independent research and of learning more about the history of the natural world led me to pursue a career at the university level rather than the high school level. However, the dual interests of Earth science and teaching have stayed with me. I remain strongly committed to teaching and public science education.
Q: How would you describe a typical day for you?
A: That varies from season to season and year to year. During the school year I focus on teaching a fairly large load of introductory courses. I really enjoy these classes. I am also invited to give public talks in a variety of settings: high schools and public or community gatherings, among others. I do field work whenever possible, and consider myself a field geologist. Most of my research takes place in the field, making detailed descriptions of stratigraphic sections and studying how fossils have been preserved. It's pretty low tech, focused on observation of rocks and fossils.
Q: What are some of the problems or activities on which you're currently working?
A: My research interests are very broadly in the area of paleoecology and sedimentation/stratigraphy. That is, I enjoy reconstructing the history of past interactions between organisms and their environments. My graduate work focused on the impact of depth-related storm events on the composition of marine invertebrate communities in the Devonian. By looking at the internal structure of shell beds in rocks over 360 millions years old, I could reconstruct ecological processes that occurred over time scales of only years to centuries.
I later became interested in the preserved fossil and sedimentary record of cyclic, or periodic changes, in environments on time scales from tens to hundreds of thousands of years. That interest led me to Kansas to study the famous cyclic rock sequences called "cyclothems" that record fluctuating sea level and climate during the early Permian the period just before the rise of dinosaurs.
I very much like questions that require the synthesis of a wide range of data and perspectives. Paleoecology demands knowledge from not only geology, but also chemistry, biology, and ecology to solve particular questions about the past history of life. It is the process of putting together all the various seemingly disconnected observations into a fuller integrated big picture that I find to be really fascinating, and enjoyable.
Q: What is the most exciting or interesting thing that has happened to you in your career?
A: It wasn't so much a particular discovery, more a realization, when I was working on my Masters degree, that I could make real and important contributions to science. At that point I moved from being a recipient of knowledge to someone who could make unique contributions, even if small, to science. I first came to this realization in a seminar with faculty and graduate students. Each week we posed a new question or problem, and we all just talked about it. I was accepted as an equal. I discovered I could come to reasonable conclusions and make my own interpretations of data.
A similar realization came with my first professional publications in paleontology in which my own original ideas and interpretations were made available to the scientific community. It is very exciting and rewarding to be a contributor, even in a very small way, to the ongoing efforts of science to better understand our world and its history.
Miller with youngsters during a field trip to view local fossil localities.
Q: Since we are on the topic of educational experiences, is a Ph.D. necessary for someone who wants to be a paleontologist?
A: That really depends on what you want to do. It's good to be broadly trained. I have this bias because I'm interested in a synthetic view; bringing together ideas from disparate areas. This requires a breadth of knowledge. But gaining a broad knowledge of many subjects is good regardless. It can lead you to different paths, some of which will require further education. You may find yourself teaching or having opportunities in the petroleum industry. Laying a solid, broad foundation is the beginning; it gives you flexibility, the ability to take advantage of opportunities that arise. I'll make a plug here for people to go into education. I originally intended to go into secondary education, and I do have my certification, but I became interested in the science itself. It is always disappointing when I see people who intended to go into education get sidetracked into other areas. We need good science teachers in high schools and elementary schools.
Q: You mentioned your public speaking. What topics are you asked to speak about?
A: I am a professing Christian and I commonly address three main issues: (1) the relationship between faith and science; (2) explaining how the fossil record supports common descent and evolutionary change people often think that the fossil record is a "weak link" for evolutionary theory, and not that it can answer questions; (3) and the nature of science. I discuss the ground rules of science, and speak about the kinds of questions we can ask and try to answer.
My interest in public science literacy is twofold. Firstly, misunderstandings of the nature and claims of science have led many people to fear science, or to see it as a source of conflict with their faith. Such concern is misplaced, and deprives people of deepening their understanding of the natural world as well as of their faith. Secondly, false caricatures of science have turned kids away from indulging their innate curiosity about the natural world, and from pursuing science.
I also enjoy helping people learn how to unlock the history that is available to them through the landscape and rocks where they live. Geology is story telling, and the tools to read the history of the Earth and life are easily accessible. It is simply fun to be able to look at a fossil specimen, a rock outcrop, or a landscape and see a readable record of the Earth's past.
Q: How do you, as both a person of faith and a paleontologist, reconcile your religious beliefs with your acceptance of evolutionary theory?
A: Simply stated, my position is that there is no inherent conflict between evolutionary theory and a Christian faith with a high view of scripture. By evolution I mean the theory that all living things on Earth are descended from a common ancestor through a continuity of cause-and-effect processes. I believe that there are no necessary breaks or gaps in causal explanations. That is, all transitions in the history of life are potentially explicable in terms of "natural" cause-and-effect processes. Evolutionary theory is no mere guess or hunch, but an extremely well-supported explanation of the observed record of organic change. It has great explanatory power in drawing together an incredibly wide range of data from many disciplines in an explanatory framework. It has been very effective in generating fruitful and testable hypotheses that have driven new discoveries and advanced our scientific understanding of the history and dynamics of our living world.
I also fully and unhesitatingly accept the doctrine of creation. God is the Creator of all things and nothing would exist without God's continually willing it to be. Creation was not merely a past accomplished act, but rather is a present and continuing reality. God acts in and through natural processes. The best term for this view of God's creative activity is "continuous creation." A cause-and-effect description of natural processes is not in conflict with this understanding of Godís action in nature.
I believe that God's existence can be known in the creation through faith. However, scientific observation provides no proof of the existence of a creator God, indeed it cannot. Neither does scientific description, however complete, provide any argument against a Creator. Since God acts through process, evolution and the theology of creation are perfectly compatible. In fact, I see them as positively reinforcing. An evolutionary understanding of creation illuminates our theological understanding, and theology places our scientific discoveries in a more comprehensive context. I see science as an expression of our biblical mandate to be stewards of God's creation contributing to our understanding of the natural world.
Q: What else would you like people to know about you or about paleontology?
A: One of the things that attracts me to Earth science in general, and to paleontology specifically, is that it brings together lots of different kinds of ideas and information to bear on a particular question. Paleontologists take many disciples and bring them together under one umbrella. To be able to do this you need to know something of meteorology, climatology, biology, and ecology.