Doubting Rationalist

'Intelligent Design' Proponent Phillip Johnson, and How He Came to Be Published in The Washington Post

BERKELEY, Calif. — “The Washington Post is not one of my biggest fans, you know that.”


The Washington Post reporter has just walked out of a spray of Pacific-borne rain into the living room of a modest bungalow west of downtown. There’s a shag rug, an inspirational painting or two and Phillip Johnson, dressed in tan slacks and a sweater and sitting on a couch. He pulls a dog-eared copy of a Post editorial out of his shirt pocket and reads aloud:

With their slick Web sites, pseudo-academic conferences and savvy public relations, the proponents of ‘intelligent design’ — a ‘theory’ that challenges the validity of Darwinian evolution — are far more sophisticated than the creationists of yore. … They succeed by casting doubt on evolution.

The 65-year-old Johnson swivels his formidable and balding head — with that even more formidable brain inside — and gazes over his reading glasses at the reporter (who doesn’t labor for the people who write the editorials).

“I suppose you think creation is all about unguided material processes, don’t you? Well, I don’t have the slightest trouble accepting microevolution as the cause behind the adaptation of the peppered moth and the growth of finches’ beaks. But I don’t see that evolutionists have any cause for jubilation there.

“It doesn’t tell you how the moths and birds and trees got there in the first place. The human body is packed with marvels, eyes and lungs and cells, and evolutionary gradualism can’t account for that.”

He’s not big on small talk, this professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley’s law school.

For centuries, scriptural literalists have insisted that God created Heaven and Earth in seven days, that the world is about 6,000 years old and fossils are figments of the paleontological imagination. Their grasp on popular opinion was strong, but they have suffered a half-century’s worth of defeats in the courts and lampooning by the intelligentsia.

Now comes Johnson, a devout Presbyterian and accomplished legal theorist, and he doesn’t dance on the head of biblical pins. He agrees the world is billions of years old and that dinosaurs walked the earth. Evolution is the bridge he won’t cross. This man, whose life has touched every station of the rationalist cross from Harvard to the University of Chicago to clerk at the Supreme Court, is the founding father of the “intelligent design” movement.

Intelligent design holds that the machinery of life is so complex as to require the hand — perhaps subtle, perhaps not — of an intelligent creator.

“Evolution is the most plausible explanation for life if you’re using naturalistic terms, I’ll agree with that.” Johnson folds his hands over his belly, a professorial Buddha, as his words fly rat-a-tat-tat.

“That’s only,” he continues, “because science puts forward evolution and says any other logical explanation is outside of reality.”

Johnson and his followers, microbiologists and geologists and philosophers, debate in the language of science rather than Scripture. They point to the complexity of the human cell, with its natural motors and miles of coding. They document the scant physical evidence for the large-scale mutations needed to make the long journey from primitive prokaryote to modern man.

They’ve inspired a political movement — at least 19 states are considering challenges to the teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

None of which amuses evolutionary biologists, for whom intelligent-design theory inhabits the remotest exurb of polite scientific discourse. Darwin’s theory is a durable handiwork. It explains the proliferation of species and the interaction of DNA and RNA, not to mention the evolution of humankind.

The evidence, they insist, is all around:

Fruit flies branch into new species; bacteria mutate and develop resistance to antibiotics; studies of the mouse genome reveal that 99 percent of its 30,000 genes have counterparts in humans. There are fossilized remains of a dinosaur “bird,” and DNA tests suggest that whales descended from ancient hippos and antelopes.

Does it make any more sense to challenge Darwin than to contest Newton’s theory of gravity? You haven’t seen Phillip Johnson floating into the stratosphere recently, have you?

William Provine, a prominent evolutionary biology professor at Cornell University, enjoys the law professor’s company and has invited Johnson to his classroom. The men love the rhetorical thrust and parry and often share beers afterward. Provine, an atheist, also dismisses his friend as a Christian creationist and intelligent design as discredited science.

As for the aspects of evolution that baffle scientists?

“Phillip is absolutely right that the evidence for the big transformations in evolution are not there in the fossil record — it’s always good to point this out,” Provine says. “It’s difficult to explore a billion-year-old fossil record. Be patient!”

Provine’s faith, if one may call it that, rests on Darwinism, which he describes as the greatest engine of atheism devised by man. The English scientist’s insights registered as a powerful blow — perhaps the decisive one — in the long run of battles, from Copernicus to Descartes, that removed God from the center of the Western world.

At which point a cautionary flag should be waved.

Scientists tend to be a secular lot. But science and religion are not invariable antagonists. More than a few theoretical physicists and astronomers note that their research into the cosmos deposits them at God’s doorstep. And evolution’s path remains littered with mysteries.

Is it irrational to inquire if intelligent life is seeded with inevitabilities?

“Give Johnson and the intelligent-design movement their due — they are asking terribly important questions,” says Stuart A. Kauffman, director of the Institute for Biocomplexity at the University of Calgary. “To question whether patterns and complexity, at the level of the cell or the universe, bespeak intelligent design is not stupid in the least.

“I simply believe they’ve come up with the wrong answers.”

Faith From Doubt

Johnson’s early life was, by his own accounting, a rationalist lad’s progress. He grew up in Aurora, Ill., a cocky kid so razor sharp that after his junior year in high school he packed off to Harvard. “I attended church in high school, but it was just part of the culture, like the Boy Scouts,” he says. “We’d drop my father off at the golf course on the way to church.”

He finished Harvard and then law school at the University of Chicago, where he graduated first in his class. He dabbled in Christian philosophy, read some C.S. Lewis. “I found it mind-stretching but I remember thinking: It’s a real shame it’s not true.” Johnson became a clerk to Chief Justice Earl Warren at the Supreme Court. In 1967, with a wife and two young children, he went west to Berkeley, where he would gain international renown as a teacher of criminal law and legal theory.

His life was marching to an up-tempo beat.

“I wasn’t working very hard intellectually. My motives were shallow,” Johnson says. “I was a typical half-educated careerist intellectual with conventional liberal politics.”

Johnson possesses a tenured professor’s inability to hold his tongue, whether assaying a reporter’s dumb question or his own life’s arc. In the 1970s, Berkeley was roiling. Johnson opposed the Vietnam War but grew disillusioned and turned right. His wife, an artist, found feminism and wandered another way. Their marriage swept away like flotsam.

“I had been very happy for a long time,” he says. “I was shaken to my core.”

Johnson’s daughter, Emily, remains close with each parent. She recalls a time of upendings. “Men of my father’s generation really expected that if they did their job, and provided, how could their marriage fall apart?” she says. “They didn’t know what to make of the new questions and new demands.”

The night his wife decided to leave in 1977, Johnson attended a church supper with Emily, who was 11. The pastor spoke passionately of Christ and the Gospels. The professor doesn’t remember a Lord-sundered-the-heavens moment; he wasn’t rending his tweed jacket.

He just heard the words, perhaps for the first time in his life. “I wasn’t convinced,” Johnson says, “but I said to myself: ‘The minister’s presenting me with a real option.’ “

Johnson drove home that night and pulled out his books of law and philosophy. If this was to be his epiphany, he would experience it with his rationalist lights on.

“I was concerned that I could be just throwing my brain away,” he says. “I needed to know if I was adopting a myth to satisfy my personal hunger.”

He was nudged along by his interest in “critical legal studies,” a left-wing movement that holds that the law is prejudice masquerading as objective truth. Asked to contribute a conservative critique for the Stanford Law Review, Johnson embraced the movement — sort of.

“I disliked intensely their infantile politics,” he says. “But their critique of liberal rationalism and the sham neutrality of rationalism helped me become a Christian. I became the entire right wing of critical legal studies.”

In time, he converted and married his present wife, Kathie — who also was an adult convert. They met at the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, which was, like most everything in that town, a very liberal institution. “We have never felt,” Johnson says, “a need to be around only people who agree with us.”

London Calling

All of which laid the groundwork for Johnson’s sabbatical in 1987. He traveled to London nagged by the sense that his intellectual gifts had been put to mediocre ends. One day while browsing in a bookstore, Johnson picked up a copy of “The Blind Watchmaker” by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins argued that life was governed by blind physics, that free will was illusion, that religion was a virus.

Johnson devoured dozens more evolutionary texts. He found extraordinary minds and polemics, but the evidence didn’t much impress him.

“I was struck by the breadth of Darwin’s claims as opposed to how scanty were the observable changes.” He peers at you with that unwavering gaze. “I said to my wife that I shouldn’t take this up. I will be ridiculed and it will consume my life.

“Of course, it was irresistible.”

This was more than a middle-age exercise in mental gymnastics. Johnson discerned in Darwinism a profound challenge to the faith he had embraced so passionately.

“I realized,” he says, “that if the pure Darwinist account was accurate and life is all about an undirected material process, then Christian metaphysics and religious belief are fantasy. Here was a chance to make a great contribution.”

The image remains a tad incongruous, this tweedy law professor from Berkeley with the hair combed carefully to the side of his pink forehead, making the rounds of London’s scientific conferences, ambling up to prominent biologists and paleontologists and peppering them with questions. He was not impolite, just persistent. “Sometimes they pinned my ears back,” Johnson recalls. “Sometimes I made friends.”

Stephen C. Meyer, then a young graduate student studying the philosophy of science at Cambridge, got word of this “law professor who was getting some odd ideas about evolution.” Meyer, who harbored his own doubts, walked to a tavern with Johnson and they talked for hours.

“Phillip understood that the language of science cut off choices: Evolution had to be an undirected process or it wasn’t science,” says Meyer, who today directs an intelligent-design think tank affiliated with the Seattle-based Discovery Institute. “He knew the rhetorical tricks.

“By the end of that day I knew we could challenge Darwin.”

Roll Over, Darwin

So what does that mean, “to challenge Charles Darwin”?

Darwin wrote “The Origin of Species” in 1859. In the broadest terms, Darwin had three insights: Evolution is responsible for the vast profusion of life, as all living organisms descend from common ancestors. Species are not immutable — new species appear gradually through micro-mutations known as speciation. Natural selection guides all of this, acting as nature’s drill sergeant, culling the flawed genes.

It sounds so tidy. But evolutionary theory — like most scientific theories — trails behind it no small number of unanswered questions, lacunae and mysteries.

Darwin, for instance, noted that different species tend to have similar body features, and attributed this “convergence” to a common ancestor. But that often isn’t the case. The complex eye of a squid and a human are nearly identical yet lack a common genetic inheritance. The renowned biologist Simon Conway Morris has found many such examples in nature and proposed that it’s “near inevitable” that species converge toward an intelligent “solution” to life.

Morris’s theory treads a touch too close to Heaven for many biologists.

Then there’s the inconvenient fact that most species evolve little during the span of their existence, which leaves the mystery of how to account for evolutionary leaps. The late biologist Stephen Jay Gould speculated that species become isolated and mutate in revolutionary transitions of a few thousand years. That remains a controversial explanation.

“Some biologists still argue that you can get to high evolutionary forms purely through natural selection,” says Theodore Roszak, a noted historian of science. “That involves more faith in chance than religious people have in the Bible.”

Darwinian theory also presupposes an “inconceivably great” number of links between living and extinct species. But paleontologists have discovered only a relative handful of such fossils. And scientists still puzzle at the great explosion of life known as the “Cambrian explosion,” when thousands of multicellular animals appeared over 10 or 20 million years (a blink of the eye in evolutionary terms).

Johnson composed a sort of prosecutor’s brief. Natural selection? It strengthens existing species, but there’s “no persuasive reason for believing that natural selection can produce new species and organs.” Mutations as a driver of new species? Much too slow to account for grand changes.

By the end of his 1991 book, “Darwin on Trial,” Johnson was convinced that he had peppered Darwinian theory with intellectual buckshot. So he posed the question: Why won’t science consider that an intelligent hand operates alongside chance and physical law?

Let it be said that Johnson’s book did not change the world. The scientific reviews weren’t so hot and a few law school colleagues looked at him as if he had lost half a brain lobe. But Meyer, director of the Center for Science & Culture, remembers reading it and feeling a sense of relief.

“A lot of creationists are unctuous and earnest and begging for a place at the scientific table,” says Meyer. “Not Phil. He was a star academic, he conceded nothing, and he’s got rhino hide for skin.”

The building blocks of the intelligent-design movement slowly took form. A few like-minded souls in academia e-mailed Johnson. He called back, connected one with the other, and often traveled to meet them.

“I found a lot of people ready to challenge the culturally dominant orthodoxy, but they didn’t know how,” Johnson recalls. “They thought if they just dutifully presented evidence, the Darwinists might listen. I said we have to think more strategically.

“I evolved — if I may use that word — as a leader of that group.”

After all those years in Berkeley lecture halls, he had a thespian’s feel for a crowd. Once he debated the famed biologist Gould. Gould was learned and merciless, but most critics say Johnson held his own. “It was like playing Jack Nicklaus and losing in a playoff,” Johnson says.

As Johnson explained to Touchstone magazine, a Christian journal: “I do not want my audience to go away thinking: ‘That’s one clever lawyer who can make you look like a fool. . . . I want them to go home saying . . . ‘There’s more to intelligent design than I thought.’ “


You want to talk Cambrian explosion? Fine. But how about a little perspective?

“We have to acknowledge the reality that it took place more than 500 million years ago,” says Kenneth Miller, a Brown University microbiologist and author of “Finding Darwin’s God,” arguing that theism is not at odds with evolutionary theory. “It’s not as if there was some sort of instantaneous injection of complexity into an ordered world.”

Miller pauses a moment.

“Look, I can admit that fossils might be the result of a super-intelligent or supernatural form — I’m a Red Sox fan. But it’s surely not very likely.”

Johnson finds precious few fans in the scientific establishment, particularly among biologists. They see conservative money spent on academic conferences and publicity and public debates. Johnson thrives, they say, by the law professor’s tactic of attacking soft targets and then raising his hands in victory.

The best scientific theories, scientists say, offer overarching explanations for natural phenomena even while acknowledging that many details remain to be worked out. If Einstein supplants Newton, that’s the joy of science.

“Anytime the intelligent-designers find a mystery that scientists can’t yet explain, they shout: ‘See!? See!?’ ” says Provine, the Cornell biologist. “I like having Phil come to Cornell to debate. He turns a lot of my students into evolutionists.”

Maybe mysteries aren’t so mysterious. Intelligent life, Provine says, is understandable as adaptations accrued over hundreds of millions of years. And the cell falls short of miraculous.

“A lot of the DNA in there is not needed — it’s junk,” says Phillip Kitcher, the Columbia University philosopher of science. “If it’s intelligently designed, then God needs to go back to school.”

Harvard professor Owen Gingerich has studied the cosmos as senior astronomer emeritus at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and is a devout Christian. He enjoys talking to Johnson and doesn’t care for the insistent secularism of many Darwinists. But he doesn’t buy intelligent design’s utility as a scientific theory, not least because he sees no way to test its ideas.

“Johnson tends to avoid questions he doesn’t want to answer — such as what accounts for mankind if not evolution?” Gingerich says. “If he says that the first man literally came out of the mud like Minerva from the brow of Zeus, he knows he would be ridiculed.

“Looking for God’s direct hand is a very fuzzy business.”

God’s Fingerprints

So what of God?

Isn’t there, Johnson is asked, a risk inherent in trying to toss out Darwin and discern God’s footprints? Why would He use his hand to create the tyrannosaurus and the Cro-Magnon only to discard them in great extinctions? What of gamma blasts and dead stars, and the cold maw of the universe?

If science proves that the wonders of the cell and the machinery of the eye are the result of a material process, what becomes of faith?

Johnson listens and folds his hands in his lap and remains silent. He’s had two strokes, the latter a few months back. His mind remains a fine instrument, the levers and wheels spinning sure as ever. But putting thoughts into words can be laborious. He shakes his head and dislodges a stream.

“One answer is that it’s hard to evaluate unless you know what the Designer was trying to create,” he says. “I suppose the Creator could have made it so that we would live forever and be bulletproof. Flawless design may not be his point.”

Many in the intelligent-design movement shy from overt talk of religion, wary of handing a rhetorical gun to their critics. God, Gaea or super-intelligent alien: They do not presume to pierce the veil of the Designer.

Johnson pays no heed to these worries. Darwinists and Christians alike, he says, “start from faith, just as every house has a foundation.” His friend Provine, Johnson says, has found faith in materialistic atheism. Johnson has found Christ.

Johnson, who is already back on the lecture trail, is not content with a Creator so deferential to natural processes as to fade into the cosmic woodwork. Johnson is convinced, intellectually and emotionally, that His hands have shaped human life — and the evidence likely is there if only science will look for it.

Johnson works his way to his feet and walks slowly to his living room window. The lemon trees are in bloom. Mist rises off the sidewalk. “I think it’s very possible that God left some fingerprints on the evidence,” Johnson says, his words rattling out now. “Once you open science to that possibility, we’re poised for a metaphysical reversal.”

He smiles and catches himself. “I’m content just to open science up to an intellectual world that’s been closed to it for two centuries.”