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Surviving Darwinism

Published in San Francisco Chronicle

University of California at Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson enjoys taking on the theory of evolution … even if it means swimming against the tide in a place not exactly known as a bastion for anti-Darwinist views.

He has written a new book, which has sold nearly 50,000 copies, aimed at giving parents and students material to counter Darwinism in the classroom and its close relative, modernism, in the culture.

Johnson’s main gripe, which he pretty much keeps out of the classroom, is: Scientists “propagate (Darwinism) as fact to every schoolchild in the country when the doctrine goes way beyond the evidence.”

Today, Johnson will take his case to the airwaves, when he debates Darwinism on PBS’ “Firing Line” with Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education.

For the 57-year-old Johnson, expressing his views is made easier by the fact that he’s been teaching at the liberal university for more than 30 years and been part of “the established club.”

Johnson, in fact, says he has been treated fairly and that his colleagues at the Boalt Law School are “broad, fair-minded people.”

But this, after all, is Berkeley.

One of his former criminal-law students, 24-year-old Eric Wolff, says that when a group of Christian students at Boalt put up flyers about Johnson’s speaking engagements, someone defaced them and tore them down.

“These same people, if you did that to their posters, you’d be some kind of hatemonger,” said Wolff, describing himself as a political moderate who is not religious.

Johnson’s central argument is that Darwinism rests on faulty logic and flawed evidence … such as fossil records with gaping holes.

More important, he says, the theory is based on the philosophy of naturalism, which includes the assumption that the physical world is all that exists. Darwin, he notes, attributes “randomness” to the universe and, it troubles him, that in doing so, makes “purposeless” the only acceptable scientific explanation for existence.

Johnson is on friendly terms with this week’s debate opponent, Eugenie Scott … the two even went to lunch recently. But the congeniality ends when Darwinism comes up.

“His scientific errors are legion,” says Scott, who holds a Ph.D. in physical anthropology.

According to Scott, Johnson uses terms like “theory” and “fact” as lawyers use them, not scientists. And, she says, Johnson is “dead in the water with the academic community” with his claims that evolution by biological descent didn’t happen and that natural selection doesn’t work.

Scott and Johnson do agree on one thing.

“Just as I don’t want a fundamentalist teaching that God created the world in a science class,” Scott says, “I don’t want a philosophical materialist teaching students that there’s no possibility that God created it.”

Johnson says special-interest groups keep promoting Darwinism for their own benefit.

“Scientists want the public to accept a naturalistic picture of evolution because then they think the public will trust the scientific priesthood to solve all problems and will finance them,” he said.

The media, he says, also are part of the problem.

“Reporters challenge the authority of generals, police chiefs, and elected officials, but if it’s a representative of the scientific elite, they say “yes, sir’ and they report it that way.”

Johnson is a Christian, although he doesn’t hold to a literal six-day creation. He came to his faith when he was in his late 30s, and in 1987, began delving into books on Darwinism while he was on sabbatical in England.

“I decided to see whether God was just a part of human subjectivity and the imagination, as the educated world thinks,” he said. He discovered that his critical mind, the same one he used to dissect criminal cases, was at home reading scientific theory.

“I found I knew a lot about it from my legal analysis and jurisprudence. I know how that thinking is done. How you give an impression of fair-minded consideration of things, but you’ve actually decided all the important questions in the definition of the term … how you make assumptions and hide them.”

He wrote his first book, Darwin on Trial, in 1992, and then followed it in 1995 with Reason in the Balance, an extension of his anti-Darwinism argument to law, education and the culture wars. His latest book is Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds (Intervarsity, $9.95).

Johnson said his faith and views rarely come up in the classroom but it’s not something he hides.

“I talk about it in passing where subjects have concern or interest,” he said. “I think many of them think it’s rather odd, but I don’t find people getting really upset.”

Eric Wolff, Johnson’s former student, said, “I think there are a lot of students at Boalt who know about him very vaguely, and I think they sort of come into his class with an ax to grind … you know, they see him as a social conservative target so I think they come into class watching his every word, waiting to find some hint of oppressive speech.”

Wolff concurred that Johnson doesn’t talk about his views in class, but “he’ll always point out some of the contradictions in the predominant liberal orthodoxies on certain issues.”

Balance is something that Boalt needs, Wolff said. “You need a couple people who are going to sit in unorthodox camps. I think Phil Johnson is one of them.”

Copyright © 1997 Marla Freeman. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.