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Darwin in the Dock

I first met Phillip Johnson in a small Greek restaurant on Free School Lane, next to the Old Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge in the fall of 1987. The meeting had been arranged by a fellow graduate student who knew Phil from Berkeley. My friend had told me only that his friend was “an eccentric but brilliant law professor” who “was on sabbatical studying torts,” and that he “had become obsessed with evolution.” “Would you talk to him?” he asked. His description led me to anticipate a very different figure from the one I encountered. Though my own skepticism about Darwinism had been well cemented by this time, I knew enough of the stereotypical evolution-basher to be skeptical that a mid-career non-scientist could have stumbled onto an original critique of Darwin’s theory.

I should have known better, but only later did I learn of Johnson’s full intellectual pedigree: Harvard B.A.; top-of-the class University of Chicago law graduate; law clerk for Chief Justice Earl Warren; leading constitutional scholar; occupant of a distinguished chair at the University of California, Berkeley. In Johnson, I encountered a man of supple and prodigious intellect who seemed in short order to have found the central pulse of the origins issue.

Suspicions Aroused

Johnson told me that his doubts about Darwinism had started with a visit to the British Natural History Museum, where he learned about the controversy that had raged there earlier in the 1980’s. At that time, the museum paleontologists presented a display describing Darwin’s theory as “one possible explanation” of origins. A furor ensued, resulting in the removal of the display, when the editors of the prestigious Nature magazine and others in the scientific establishment denounced the museum for its ambivalence about “established fact.”

Intrigued by the response to such an (apparently) innocuous exhibit, Johnson decided to investigate further. He began to read whatever he could find on the issue: Stephen Jay Gould, Michael Ruse, Mark Ridley, Richard Dawkins, and Michael Denton’s Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. What he read made him more suspicious of Darwinist orthodoxy. “Something about the Darwinists’ rhetorical style,” he told me later, “made me think they had something to hide.”

His examination of evolutionary literature confirmed his suspicion. Darwinist polemic revealed a surprising reliance upon arguments that seemed to assume rather than demonstrate that life had evolved via natural processes. Johnson also observed an interesting contrast between biologists’ technical papers and their popular defense of evolutionary theory. When writing in scientific journals, he discovered, biologists acknowledged many fundamental difficulties with both standard and newer evolutionary models. Yet, when defending basic Darwinist commitments (such as the common ancestry of all life and the creative power of natural selection) in popular books or textbooks, Darwinists employed an evasive and rhetorical style to minimize problems and belittle critics. Johnson began to wonder why, given mounting difficulties, Darwinists remained so confident that all organisms had evolved naturally from simpler forms.

Opening the Trial

In Darwin on Trial (Regnery, 1991) Johnson first made his skepticism public. There he argued that evolutionary biologists remain confident about neo-Darwinism, not because empirical evidence generally supports their theory, but because their perception of the rules of scientific procedure virtually prevents them from considering any alternative view. Johnson cited, among other things, a communiqué from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) issued to the Supreme Court during the Louisiana “creation science” trial. The NAS insisted that “the most basic characteristic of science” is a “reliance upon naturalistic explanations.”

While Johnson accepted that the use of naturalistic explanation describe the method in much of science, he argued that treating it as a normative rule when seeking to establish that natural processes alone produced life, assumes the very point that Darwinism does not just claim that evolution (in the sense of change) has occurred. Instead, it purports to establish that the major innovations in the history of life arose by purely natural mechanisms-that is, without any intelligent direction or design. He thus distinguished various meaning of the term “evolution” from the central claim of Darwinism, which he later identified as “the Blind Watchmaker thesis,” following Richard Dawkins, the staunch modern defender of neo-Darwinism.

Yet if the design hypothesis must be denied consideration from the outset, and if, as the NAS also asserts, exclusively negative argumentation against neo-Darwinism is “unscientific,” then, Johnson asserts, “the rules of argument . . . make it impossible to question whether what we are being told about evolution is really true.” Defining opposing positions out of existence “may be one way to win an argument,” but, says Johnson, it scarcely suffices to demonstrate the superiority of a protected theory.

Examining the Evidence

To establish that such philosophical gerrymandering lies behind the success of the evolutionary program, Darwin on Trial evaluated the scientific arguments that ostensibly establish the “fact of evolution.” Johnson trained his considerable facility for analysis upon the whole edifice of Darwinist argumentation. He found a panoply of euphemisms and wishful thinking masquerading as evidence: the pattern of gaps and sudden appearance of new species in the fossil record described as “rapid evolutionary branching”; superficial variations in moths or fruit flies cited to substantiate the possibility of grand “macroevolutionary” changes; elaborate depictions of human ancestors based on scanty bone fragments; and biochemical observations laden with Darwinist assumptions used to justify Darwinist claims.

Along the way, Darwin on Trial asked a good many questions rarely asked in polite biological society. Given the fossil evidence, how do we know that hypothetical “transitional” organisms existed? How do we know that natural selection can create complex organs and organisms when genetics suggests the vast improbability of random mutations producing advantageous and novel structures? How do we know that the first cells did arrange themselves from simple chemicals if we haven’t yet established that they could? In each case, Johnson argued that “we know because we have equated scientific method with a philosophy of naturalism (or materialism).” We know because the rules of science require that some form of strictly naturalistic evolution must be true.

Johnson’s attempt to re-open such questions angered many members of the biological establishment who had grown accustomed to offering the public what Johnson called “proof through confident assertions.” His criticism of Darwinist orthodoxy initially earned him dismissive reviews in Science, Nature, and Scientific American, the latter written by Stephen J. Gould. Yet these reviews also helped publicize Johnson’s thesis and attracted many skeptical scientists to his cause. For example, biochemist Michael Behe of Lehigh University first came to Johnson’s attention after Behe wrote a letter defending Darwin on Trial in response to its review in Nature.

Debating the Verdict

Even so, some prominent neo-Darwinists, such as Michael Ruse of the University of Guelph and William Provine, welcomed the spirited challenge that Johnson has provided to their views. Ruse and nine other scientists and philosophers (including both defenders and critics of modern Darwinism) joined Johnson at Southern Methodist University in the spring of 1992 to debate the central thesis of his book. The success of that event has led to many other academic symposia, including three high-profile conferences last year, entitled “The Nature of Nature” (at Baylor University), “Design and Its Critics” (at Concordia University), and “Science and Evidence of Design in the Universe” (at Yale University).

Johnson’s intellectual leadership has inspired a growing movement of scientists and scholars (which Johnson has dubbed “the wedge”) willing to examine the issues that he first raised in Darwin on Trial. Since its initial publication, Johnson’s younger colleagues have published over twenty books extending his critique within their areas of technical expertise. These include such books as Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box (The Free Press, 1996), Jonathan Wells’s Icons of Evolution (Regnery, 2000), Paul Nelson’s On Common Descent (University of Chicago Evolutionary Monograph Series, 2001), and William Dembski’s The Design Inference (Cambridge University Press, 1998). Two recent anthologies also showcase the scientific and intellectual breadth of “the wedge”: Mere Creation (InterVarsity Press, 1998) and Signs of Intelligence (Brazos Press, 2001) (the latter based on a special July/August 1999 issue of Touchstone).

Johnson’s leadership of “the wedge” has derived from his fearless challenge of the Darwinian establishment and his trenchant critique of its philosophically tendentious rules of method. Darwin on Trial, where Johnson first presented this critique, launched a sophisticated challenge of Darwinist orthodoxy written by a well-informed biological outsider. The scientific research program that Darwin on Trial has inspired will continue to make it difficult for biological insiders to ignore Mr. Johnson and his ever-thickening wedge.

Copyright © 2001. The Fellowship of St. James. All rights reserved.

Stephen C. Meyer

Director, Center for Science and Culture
Dr. Stephen C. Meyer received his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in the philosophy of science. A former geophysicist and college professor, he now directs the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle. He is author of the New York Times-bestseller Darwin’s Doubt (2013) as well as the book Signature in the Cell (2009) and Return of the God Hypothesis (2021). In 2004, Meyer ignited a firestorm of media and scientific controversy when a biology journal at the Smithsonian Institution published his peer-reviewed scientific article advancing intelligent design. Meyer has been featured on national television and radio programs, including The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, CBS's Sunday Morning, NBC's Nightly News, ABC's World News, Good Morning America, Nightline, FOX News Live, and the Tavis Smiley show on PBS. He has also been featured in two New York Times front-page stories and has garnered attention in other top-national media.