What’s this? A lawyer debating philosophy with scientists? If you keep close tabs on the creation/evolution debate, you’ve probably already heard the name Phillip Johnson. If not, but you’re interested in seeing how one Christian is challenging the dogma of Darwinism, you’ll want to know about this man.
Phillip Johnson is a law professor at the University of California, Berkley. In 1997 InterVarsity Press published Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, Johnson’s third book in his debate with naturalistic evolution. His first book, Darwin On Trial, examined the scientific evidence for evolution and launched a series of lectures and debates across the United States and overseas in universities and on radio and television. His second book, Reason in the Balance, examined the influence of naturalism in the spheres of science, law, and education. Defeating Darwinism brings his case to high school and early college-level students and their parents.
So, what prompted a law professor to take on the evolutionists? It seems that Johnson became aware of a significant difference between the way the theory of evolution is presented to the public and the way it’s discussed among scientists. To the general public, evolution is presented as being settled with respect to the really important questions. Among scientists, however, there is still no consensus as to how evolution could have occurred. As another author said, evolution is a theory in crisis. Professor Johnson studied the literature closely and concluded that what keeps the “evolution-as-fact” dogma alive is not scientific evidence at all, but rather a commitment to the philosophy of naturalism.
Naturalism is the belief that everything that exists is on the same basic level, that of nature. There is no God who created the universe whether in six days or in 40 million years.
One needs to be cautious here. Many scientists believe in God. However, the rule of the day in the laboratory and the classroom is a commitment to the philosophy of naturalism or at least to practical naturalism. Consequently, whether there is a God or not, no reference can be made to Him in the realm of scientific study.
Two reasons come to mind to explain why Johnson has received such a wide hearing in secular academia. First, he keeps the focus on evolution, not on a particular theory of creation. This is annoying to evolutionists. But Johnson knows that as soon as he allows his views to be put under the spotlight, the debate will be over. Why? Because the evolutionists will immediately label his views as “religious,” and he will be dismissed out of hand. Second, he is a legal scholar with years of experience in the logical analysis of evidence. He has the skill to carefully dissect the arguments of evolutionists, show their weaknesses, and reveal their unargued presuppositions.
In this essay we’ll take a closer look at Johnson’s book Defeating Darwinism. We’ll see how evolution gained dominance as a theory of origins, and we’ll learn how Johnson exposes its UNscientific foundations. I urge you to get a copy of this book even if science isn’t your area, just to learn one way to engage our culture in the realm of ideas.
Where’s the Beef?
In his new book, Defeating Darwinism By Opening Minds, Phillip Johnson seeks to help high-school and college students and their parents evaluate the claims of Darwinism.
In his first book, Darwin on Trial, Johnson described the evidential problems with evolution in some detail. In Defeating Darwinism, he simply notes that possible transitional forms in the fossil record are very few in number and they are not found where fossil evidence is most plentiful. The problem, he says, is that textbooks and museums often present evidence in a way that implies there is more evidence available than there really is. As an example, Johnson points to an exhibit in San Francisco called the “Hard Facts Wall” which fills in gaps in the fossil record with imaginary ancestors. Says Johnson:
Visitors to the museum at first take the exhibit at face value; after I explain it to them, they are astonished that a reputable museum would commit such a deception. But the museum curators are not consciously dishonest; they are true believers who are just trying too hard to help the public get to the right’ answer.(1)
Even though the physical evidence is not there, and there is no known mechanism for the transition from one type of organism to another, the scientific community clings to evolution as fact. The reasoning seems to be this: Since science studies the natural order, scientific theory must remain within naturalistic bounds. Since neo-Darwinism is the best naturalistic theory, it must be true. This commitment extends beyond simply influencing scientific study; it is indoctrinated into students as the way things are. Johnson says that, “When students ask intelligent questions like ‘Is this stuff really true?’ teachers are encouraged or required not to take the questions seriously.”(2)
A fifteen-year-old high school student found out about the power of Darwinist orthodoxy when he challenged a requirement to watch a program on public television which promoted the “molecule to man” theory as fact. When school administrators showed an inclination to go along, the bottom fell out. Johnson stated, “the Darwinists, . . . flooded the city’s newspapers with their letters. Some of the letters were so venomous that the editorial page editor of the Denver Post admitted that her liberal faith had been shaken.”(3) When CBS carried the story, a prominent evolutionist made the teenager out to be an enemy of education. Orthodoxy is not to be questioned.
One of the most significant factors in establishing the reign of evolution was the movie Inherit the Wind, the imaginative re-telling of the story of the Scopes “Monkey Trial” of 1925. The trial is presented as a David-and-Goliath match between the few reasonable and enlightened advocates of progress and the forces of ignorance and oppression who are shackled by their “Old Time Religion.” The important players were caricatured and significant details were completely falsified, but the point was made: religion can co-exist with science, but only if it minds its own business.
The book Defeating Darwinism is an important contribution not only because of the questions it raises about evolution, but also because it teaches the reader how to think about issues. Next, we’ll look at some fallacious arguments evolutionists use.
Baloney Detectors Wanted
In his book Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, Phillip Johnson analyzes the role Inherit the Wind played in our thinking about the relation of religion and science. This was the play–and later the movie–which retold the story of the Scopes “Monkey Trial” of 1925. One significant character who only appeared for a few minutes was the Radio Man, the radio announcer who made a live broadcast from the courtroom.
Near the end of the play, when the prosecuting attorney launches into a long speech denouncing the evils of evolution, the radio program director decides that the attorney’s speech has become boring, and Radio Man turns off the microphone. This is the only microphone in the courtroom. Johnson sees this move as symbolic. He says: “That is why what happened in the real-life Scopes trial hardly matters; the writers and producers of Inherit the Wind owned the microphone, making their interpretation far more important than the reality.”(4)
This example illustrates one of several logical fallacies evolutionists sometimes commit which Johnson exposes in his chapter “Tuning Up Your Baloney Detector.” This first fallacy is the selective use of evidence. Radio Man could broadcast what he wanted people to hear without giving the other side equal time. What we hear about today, says Johnson, are the evidences which seem to support evolution. What we don’t hear about is the absence of significant evidence in the fossil record as a whole. Seeing the entire picture can, and should, easily give one doubts about the story we’re now being told by the evolutionists.
Another fallacy evolutionists sometimes employ is the ad hominem argument, or the argument “against the man.” If a doubter can be labeled a “fundamentalist” or a believer in “creation science” (meaning creation in six, twenty-four hour days), his doubts can be set aside on the grounds of religious prejudice.
Johnson cautions us to watch out also for “vague terms and shifting definitions.” The word evolution, for example, can mean different things. Are we speaking of microevolution, small changes within a species, or are we talking about macroevolution, major mutations from one type of organism to another? As Johnson says, “That one word evolution can mean something so tiny it hardly matters, or so big it explains the whole history of the universe.”(5)
Johnson notes that fewer than 10 per cent of Americans actually believe that “humans . . . were created by a materialistic evolutionary process in which God played no part.”(6) Nonetheless, the vast majority who doubt this are not allowed to think for themselves on the matter of the fact of evolution. Rather than being educated to think for themselves, students are indoctrinated with the dogmatic claims of evolutionists.
In response, Johnson urges students to discern whether what they are being taught is simply assumed or whether it is based on real evidence. When evolutionists insist on the fact of evolution without having concrete evidence, and without having any idea of the mechanism of evolution, they’re revealing a faith commitment.
Although Johnson’s particular strength is in exposing the flaws in evolutionists’ arguments, he also presents a positive case for intelligent design in the creation of life. We’ll look at that subject next.
When Charles Darwin presented his theory of evolution, little was known about what goes on inside living cells. They were “black boxes,” objects the insides of which were unknown. With the development of molecular biology, scientists have come to realize that cells are extremely complex.
In his book, Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, Phillip Johnson introduces the reader to some exciting new discoveries in biology which he believes deal a significant blow to Darwinian evolution.
Johnson says it’s now recognized that there’s information encoded in cells which can’t be reduced to matter. The evolutionist Richard Dawkins writes,
Each nucleus . . . contains a digitally coded database larger, in information content, than all 30 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica put together. And this figure is for each cell, not all the cells of the body put together.”(7)
This information is distinct from the physical structure in the same way that the message of a book is distinct from the ink and paper which records it. The question biologists must answer is, Where did this genetic information come from? Information implies intelligence. It can’t be explained by physical mutations and natural selection. This is a serious problem for Darwinists.
Another finding which also is a major problem for Darwinists is what is called the irreducible complexity of living organisms. Johnson explains what this means: “Molecular mechanisms . . . are made up of many parts that interact in complex ways, and all the parts need to work together. Any single part has no useful function unless all the other parts are also present.”(8) The eye, for example, requires the coordinated working of many different parts to do its work. Each of these parts, however, can accomplish nothing on its own. That being the case, why would the individual parts have been preserved through time by natural selection? If there were gradual development, there must have been some intelligence behind it to know what to retain and what to destroy.
These two factors, then–information content and irreducible complexity–are strong physical evidence for intelligent design. Information implies intelligence, and complexity can’t be accounted for by mutation and selection. It requires design.
In spite of the evidence, however, Darwinists still insist that the origin of life can’t lie in supernatural creation. As we noted on earlier, the key issue for them is their prior commitment to a naturalistic philosophy. As geneticist Richard Lewontin said, “[W]e are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, . . . Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”(9)
It’s Phillip Johnson’s project to expose this prior commitment and to convince evolutionists to acknowledge it. Now we’ll turn to look at Johnson’s overall project and see what lessons we can draw from it.
Johnson calls his basic strategy for addressing the issue of evolution, the “wedge.” He wants to drive a wedge into the “log” of scientific materialism so as to separate the facts of scientific investigation from the naturalistic philosophy which dominates science.
One of the criticisms of Johnson’s work is that he wants to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Theistic evolutionists, for example, say that one needn’t accept a materialistic theory of evolution to recognize the gradual development of life on our planet. Indeed, Johnson seems to be fighting two battles: the first against those who insist upon doing science in a thoroughgoing naturalistic framework; the second against macroevolution of any sort.
I noted earlier that Johnson argues against separating the so- called fact of evolution from the mechanism of evolution. He insists that before we can know that evolution happened, we need to know how it happened. This certainly isn’t a universal logical principle. I don’t need to know precisely how a camera and film produce pictures to know that they do. Nonetheless, Johnson is correct in pressing for conclusive fossil evidence for gradual change or for a plausible explanation for sudden macromutations.
Johnson’s challenge to the scientific community boils down to this question: “What should we do if empirical evidence and materialist philosophy are going in different directions?”(10) In other words, Are you willing to abandon a theory of purposeless processes if the evidence weighs against such a theory? When scientists are willing to do this, then science will be free to discover–as far as it’s able–what nature is really like apart from personal prejudices.
It’s evident that Johnson has struck a nerve in the scientific community. He’s debated well-known scientists and has spoken at prestigious universities across America and overseas. He has not allowed opponents to pin him down on a particular theory of creation and then to dismiss him with the usual “religion vs. science” argument.
Johnson notes that Marx, Freud, and Darwin were three of the most influential men in this century. Marxism and Freudianism have both passed into history. Says Johnson, “I am convinced that Darwin is next on the block. His fall will be by far the mightiest of the three.”(11)
But this will only happen, he says, if we “step off the reservation”(12) and do the work necessary to prove our case. We must encourage our young people to take up the challenge of thinking for themselves on this matter and not be intimidated by those who wish to maintain the status quo. This will involve a risk, but as Johnson says: “We will never know how great the opportunity was if we are afraid to take the risk.”(13)
This book is valuable for any Christian who wants to learn how to think critically, whether the reader is scientifically-minded or not. Here we find a model for turning the tables on those who want to keep us on the defensive. If we have to give an answer for what we believe, it’s only fair that our critics should do the same. Defeating Darwinism is an example of how to get them to do it.
1. Phillip E. Johnson, Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsityPress, 1997), 38.
©1997 Probe Ministries