"Intelligent Design" Proponent Phillip Johnson
and How He Came to Be
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:
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
"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 within evitabilities?
"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."
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
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
"I wasn't working very hard
intellectually. My motives were shallow," Johnson says. "I was a
typical half-educated careerist intellectual with conventional
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
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
"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
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."
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
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
"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
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
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."
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
It sounds so tidy. But
evolutionary theory -- like most scientific theories -- trails
behind it no small number of unanswered questions, lacunae and
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
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
"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.
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."
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
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
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
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."
©2005 The Washington Post Company.
File Date: 5.16.05