Intelligent Design’’s Public Defender

Published in The San Francisco Chronicle

The ghost of William Jennings Bryan, the most celebrated–and demonized–critic of evolution of the past century, inhabits a small California bungalow in a one-block cul-de-sac in North Berkeley.

There, 61-year-old Phillip Johnson is working full time to convince the world that an intelligent force–not evolution–is responsible for all forms of life on Earth.

Unlike Bryan, the three-time presidential candidate who took on Clarence Darrow in the 1925 Scopes trial, Johnson has never challenged evolution in a court of law–but he easily could have. Like Bryan, Johnson is a distinguished jurist. After graduating from Harvard in the 1960s, he clerked for Chief Justice Earl Warren. He rose to the top ranks of the professorate at the University of California at Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, where he taught for 35 years until he retired two years ago to devote himself to the anti-evolution cause.

In 1991, Johnson veered away from his copious writings on criminal law, including the massive textbook, “Criminal Law: Cases, Materials and Text,” to pen “Darwin On Trial,” a 218-page attack on the basic principles of evolution. Published by the conservative Regnery Publishing, it has become the manifesto for the burgeoning intelligent-design movement.

Unlike biblical “literalists,” Johnson accepts that life could have begun millions of years ago. But instead of Darwinian principles of natural selection and mutation, he argues, there is scientific evidence that an “intelligent designer” helped shape life.

It is an argument likely to appeal to almost anyone who has gazed at the stars or marveled at the variety of species in a zoo or aquarium. How is it possible that the dazzling complexity of life on Earth evolved simply by chance, as Darwinian theories of evolution would have it? Is it possible, or even probable, that a larger force, spiritual or otherwise, played a part?

In fact, intelligent-design theorists have popular opinion on their side. Americans seem to overwhelmingly reject the Darwinian view of evolution, despite its scientific hegemony. According to a recent Gallup Poll, 45 percent of respondents said they believed in the biblical view that God “created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years.”

An additional 37 percent believe that “humans have developed over millions of years from less-advanced forms of life, but God guided this process.” A mere 12 percent believe that God has nothing to do with it.

These days, Johnson is making headway with his crusade. The Ohio State Board of Education is considering requiring that “intelligent design” be taught alongside evolution. If the board goes along with a recommendation of its subcommittee on academic standards, Ohio would be the first state to mandate teaching intelligent-design theory as an alternative to evolution.

Johnson also was instrumental in getting the U.S. Senate to approve a resolution last year requiring schools to educate students about “controversies” surrounding evolution. Evolutionists succeeded in watering down the language in the final bill. But Johnson is encouraged by Congress’ simple act linking the words “evolution” and “controversy” in the same sentence.

Surprisingly, UC Berkeley has provided a receptive home not only for Johnson but for other intelligent-design proponents. “I do not complain of any persecution or ill treatment,” Johnson says. “If anything, I have been treated better than I deserve.”

The Berkeley campus also was where Jed Macosko, who received a doctorate in chemistry from Berkeley in 1999, taught a course in the chemistry department on intelligent design titled, “Evidence for Design in Nature.” “Berkeley is open to new ideas,” he said, in some amazement. “I had no idea it would be possible.”

Jonathan Wells, another leading intelligent design proponent, received a doctorate in molecular and cell biology from UC Berkeley. He is now a fellow at the Discovery Institute in Seattle, a conservative think tank that has sponsored several leading intelligent design advocates. His book, “Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth?” was published by Regnery Publishing, the same conservative publishing house that published Johnson’s work.

During a two-hour conversation in his living room, Johnson, arms folded, wearing wire-rimmed glasses and an open-necked shirt, took aim at what he regards as one of the central weaknesses in evolutionary theory: what he calls “the fossil problem.” If all life is a result of minute mutations, how does one explain the “missing links” in the evolutionary scale that paleontologists and physical anthropologists spend their lives looking for?

Another weakness, according to Johnson, is that if evolution is a constant process, how does one explain the fact that evolution sometimes seems to get stuck for millions of years? These long periods of “stasis” undercut basic Darwinian principles, Johnson insists. Either evolution occurs, or it doesn’t. “Stasis is the absence of evolution,” he says.

Moreover, says Johnson, evolution cannot possibly explain the development of complex organs such as the eye. The eye has so many parts, all of which have to function together in order for it to work at all, it is impossible to imagine how each part–the cornea, the retina, the lens, and so on–could have evolved separately, for no purpose, and then somehow come together to form a functioning eye. The same could be said about wings. So, the argument goes, an intelligent designer must be responsible.

“No one has confirmed by experiment that the gradual evolution of wings and eyes is possible,” Johnson argues.

Johnson’s critics–some of them former colleagues throughout the University of California system–dismiss intelligent design as nothing more than a sophisticated restatement of creation science that hews to the biblical view of creation. “The intelligent-design theorists are the latest recycling of an anti-evolution movement that is effectively masquerading as science,” said Tim White, a renowned UC Berkeley paleoanthropologist who has discovered fossils of some of the oldest human ancestors.

White says that the fossil record is far more complete than Johnson argues is the case. “By definition, any fossil record will have breaks in it, because we don’t have a videotape of the last 4 billion years,” he says.

White concedes that science doesn’t have all the answers, especially regarding the origins of life. “If you ask me: ‘What is the ultimate cause of this?’ my answer to you as a scientist is ‘I don’t know,’ “ said White. But that is the essence of science: to continue to search for explanations, not to invoke God as responsible for everything science has not yet explained. “The creationists have answers, and no ways of testing them,” he says. “We have questions and ways of answering them.”

As for the eye, Lawrence Lerner, professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at California State University, Long Beach and author of a national study on the teaching of evolution, says that the mammalian eye was developed long before humans appeared, so there is no way that more primitive forms of the eye could appear in the fossil record.

The intelligent designer’s preoccupation with the eye is a continuation of a centuries-old controversy started by William Paley in 1802 in his book “Natural Theology.” Paley argued that the eye’s irreducible complexity could only be explained by divine intervention–a view evolutionists say was shattered with the publication of “The Origin of Species” in 1859.

The most sustained criticism of intelligent-design theory comes from Francisco J. Ayala, a widely respected evolutionary biologist at the University of California at Irvine. Ayala refused to come to Berkeley in 1991 to debate Johnson when “Darwin on Trial” was published, a refusal that still rankles Johnson.

Ayala says that Johnson’s argument that a superior being designed human organs and other parts of the anatomy amounts to blasphemy. “If our organs have been designed by somebody, that person was very clumsy, outright stupid, and much worse than any human engineer,” says Ayala.

Take the human jaw. The jaw is simply too small for all our teeth, Ayala notes. The reason is that 2 million years ago, through natural selection, our brains started to become larger. The head grew–and something had to give because the birth canal is not big enough to allow a larger head to pass through. So, again through natural selection, the human jaw became smaller. The larger brain has also made childbirth extremely painful.

“Millions of babies continue to die as a result of the mother’s birth canal not being big enough for the head. What engineer would do such a lousy job? I would not want to do anything with a God who would design things so badly,” Ayala says.

Johnson thrives on rebutting criticisms such as these, including the frequent charge that as a nonscientist he is hardly in a position to take on evolution. He argues that his law background actually puts him in a better position than a biologist to critique evolutionary theory. His critique of evolution is “a matter of logic, not a matter of detailed knowledge.”

In addition, biologists who have any hope of getting a job in academia have no choice but to toe the Darwinist line, he says. As a tenured law professor at Berkeley, he was freed to think outside the bounds of scientific orthodoxy.

Johnson says he is an ordinary Christian who regularly attends the First Congregational Church in Berkeley. But when pressed, he avoids answering pointed questions, including his views on just who the intelligent designer is.

“It certainly could be God, a supernatural creature, but in principle it could be space aliens of high intelligence who did the designing,” he says.

He won’t say whether he is or isn’t a creationist. “I won’t answer that. That’s like asking me if I was ever a member of the Communist Party.”

Nor will he say just how old he thinks the Earth is. “We do not take a position on the age of the Earth, because it is not something we are addressing,” he said.

By avoiding central questions such as these, Johnson clearly wants to keep the focus of his attacks on evolutionary theory itself and not get sidetracked onto emotional theological issues. He wants to erect a big tent to hold the disparate elements of the anti-evolution movement.

By keeping God out of the argument, Johnson and others are able to promote the teaching of intelligent design in schools and skirt fundamental constitutional issues of separation of church and state.

Johnson’s fuzziness on central questions like these has critics apoplectic.

“God did something, sometime. But what did God do and when did he do it? That is something they have been singularly unwilling to tell us,” said Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, an institute created by pro-evolutionists to rebut attacks such as those mounted by Johnson. “The beauty of intelligent design is that Phillip Johnson has persuaded people to keep their mouths shut about what they believe really happened.”

Johnson isn’t bothered by critics like Scott, with whom he has been doing battle for years. Imagine you’re traveling on a road, Johnson likes telling visitors, and you come across a log blocking your way. The only way to move beyond it is to find a crack in the log, and to insert a wedge into it and try to split the log that way.

“The log is the materialistic philosophy that dominates science and all intellectual life,” he explains. “That is the log to be split. The wedge has a sharp edge, or the leading edge. That is my own work.”

E-mail Louis Freedberg at