A former UC Berkeley law professor has stirred up the academic world for 15 years with his assault on Darwin's theory of evolution, saying life on Earth is too complex to be created by random mutation
For his 50th birthday, Phillip Johnson's friends and family presented him with a cake topped with an icing portrait of the retired criminal law professor as Don Quixote.
A clever analogy, friend and colleague James Gordley remembers thinking, but a trifle unfair.
"Whatever Phil is tilting at, it's not windmills," Gordley, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said of his longtime friend.
Indeed, many of Johnson's supporters might say a more appropriate analogy would be that of David and Goliath: one man - 50 years old at the time - taking on the cultural titan that is Darwin's theory of evolution.
Johnson, 65, is often referred to as the father of intelligent design - the concept that the world of living things is too complex to have been created through random genetic mutation, as dictated by Darwin, and that a higher power must have been involved.
Fifteen years after his book ignited debate on the subject, Johnson still accepts speaking engagements to discuss intelligent design with new audiences. Though not a trained scientist, Johnson said the issue warrants discussion beyond the scientific field.
"The creation story is the most important piece of knowledge in any culture," he said during an interview in his Berkeley home. "Where you began is relevant to the question of where you are going. No wonder it's important to ordinary people."
His 1991 book "Darwin on Trial" is credited with setting into motion a movement that has spawned nationwide battles over how evolution should be taught in public schools.
"I don't think you can overestimate the power of his book and the way it's impacted the culture," said Larry Caldwell, a resident of Granite Bay in southeast Placer County and president of Quality Science Education for All, a nonprofit group that promotes the presentation of evidence against Darwin's theory in public schools.
Even some of Johnson's critics - and there are many - acknowledge the long-lasting repercussions of his work.
"Darwin on Trial" was born of a yearlong sabbatical Johnson took from UC Berkeley. While in London, Johnson said, he "stumbled" into taking a more critical look at Darwin's theory. What he discovered, he said, were faulty leaps in logic rather than conclusions based on scientific evidence.
He left London with a draft of the book, which continues to be blasted by many in the academic community.
Michael Ruse, a philosophy professor at Florida State University, said he reviewed the book so harshly that an editor axed his piece.
"I think the whole position is socially and internationally dangerous, as well as wrong," Ruse said.
But Ruse said he and Johnson share a mutual respect after years of traveling in the same circles and debating publicly. He describes Johnson as friendly, intelligent and fond of stories, as well as the occasional drink.
"I do like the guy," he said, adding with a hearty laugh, "At another level, I don't trust him as far as I can see him."
Chet Dickson is a science teacher at Granite Bay High School in the Roseville Joint Union High School District, where Caldwell led an unsuccessful push to require teachers to present challenges to the theory of evolution. Dickson is among those who worked to quash the effort.
Dickson said Johnson's book is well-written but that the author doesn't give scientific evidence to support his intelligent design theory.
"As a scientist, he falls real short," Dickson said.
But many who read "Darwin on Trial" say the book made a "devastating case" against the widely held theory. Among them is Johnson's former colleague Michael Smith, also a retired Berkeley law professor.
"I would have thought the weight of the so-called scientific consensus would have buried any dissension," Smith said. "But it hasn't buried" the intelligent design movement.
Johnson calls himself a mentor to the younger generation of people who subscribe to his theory, including the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, often considered the leading think-tank on the intelligent design concept.
His main disappointment is that the issue hasn't made more headway in the mainstream scientific community.
Johnson said his intent never was to use public school education as the forum for his ideas. In fact, he said he opposed the efforts by the "well-intentioned but foolish" school board in Dover, Pa., to require teachers to present intelligent design as a viable scientific theory.
Instead, he hoped to ignite a debate in universities and the higher echelon of scientific thinkers.
But Johnson said he takes comfort knowing he helped fuel the debate that has taken place so far. "Perhaps we've done as much as we can do in one generation."