Challenges Advocates of Evolution
Insight on the News,
On a Sunday evening in September, more
than 700 people poured into the Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington to
hear Phillip Johnson challenge the Darwinian orthodoxy that dominates thinking
in the world of science. The speaker is a professor of law at the University of
California at Berkeley, but what brought the crowd to church that night--Johnson
regularly attracts such attention--wasn't his legal expertise but the series of
books he's published since 1991's Darwin on Trial attacking
Johnson accepts microevolution, the
changes that take place in living organisms that make possible horse breeding or
that cause bacteria to become resistant to antibiotics. But he calls
macroevolution--the notion that species change over time to become other species
(that reptiles developed feathers, becoming birds, for example)--pure
speculation on the part of scientists.
What disturbs Johnson most deeply about
current evolutionary theory is that it assumes God isn't necessary to explain
existence and that nature alone is sufficient to explain how we (and the
universe) came into being. This "naturalistic" approach to scientific knowledge
Johnson deems intellectually dishonest because it begins by saying only nature
itself can produce natural things and only after it asserts that proposition
does it add: Therefore, God isn't necessary to explain how things came into
being. Insight sat down with Johnson the morning after his Washington talk.
Insight: You became
seriously interested in Darwinism on a 1987-88 sabbatical in London?
Phillip Johnson: I was
generally aware of evolutionary science and curious about it. It just so
happened that on the way from the bus stop to my office at University College in
London was a scientific bookstore, and in the window was prominent British
Darwinist Richard Dawkins' book The Blind Watchmaker. It was new at the
time, and I gradually picked up one book and then another about evolution.
I became fascinated with the whole
subject. I saw that it purports to be a scientific theory. It is that, but it's
also something that is broader. Evolution is a creation story and as a creation
story, it's the main prop of the materialist explanation for our existence. It
gives the biological history on how you get life, the part that materialists
found unsolvable before Darwin.
So Darwin came along and gave this
creation story with all of these interesting consequences. Before Darwin, for
instance, there were atheists. They were a marginalized group. After the triumph
of Darwinism, you have the invention of the word "agnostic" by Darwin's disciple
T.H. Huxley, who described the agnostic view as one that says you can get
knowledge from science, but you can't get knowledge of God that way, so God is
something we inherently can know nothing about so there's no point in talking
about the poor fellow.
Agnosticism is a more effective
dismissal of God than atheism. The atheist raises the issue by saying that God
does not exist. But the agnostic very simply has nothing to say on the subject,
so you don't discuss it.
If you have a biblical creation story,
then getting the right relationship with God and getting to heaven are the most
important things. If you throw that overboard and you have a naturalistic
creation story, those things become unimportant and what becomes important is
how we apply scientific knowledge to make a heaven here on earth. That's a dream
of various kinds of reform programs--socialism, for example.
Insight: How did you, a
professor of criminal law, master the science necessary to debate the
PJ: Naturally, I get
asked all the time, "How can you do this when you're not a scientist?" The
answer is that it is not mainly about science. It is about a certain way of
The science part of it is easy to learn.
It's very repetitive. All the books cite the same examples: the fossil examples,
the genetic examples and so on. A relative handful of them is used over and
over. So a Darwinist will look at the evidence of finchbeak variation--the beaks
of finches on the Galapagos Islands have been found to vary in average size
between periods of drought and periods of plenty--and say, "This shows Darwinian
natural selection affecting a species. Doesn't that mean that given enough time
and the right circumstances a species can evolve into another species?"
But the theist will step back and say,
"All I see in the variation of finch beaks is a trivial variation within one
type of bird and can find no creative power there at work at all. You don't give
me any reason to think that variation can create a new species, that you don't
have a need for a preexisting supernatural power to do the creating."
So my point is that what carries the
whole project is not the scientific evidence. What carries the whole project is
the philosophy of naturalism which says that nature had to have the resources to
do its own creating, and the only question that we plausibly can ask is, "What
is the specific path that nature took to be able to do its own creating?" If
that really is the only question, then the Darwinian answer or the neoDarwinian
synthesis of today is the only plausible answer.
Insight: So they've
predetermined the answer by excluding God from the question and requiring an
answer that is entirely naturalistic.
PJ: So long as there is
only the one question on the table, "How does nature do it all alone?," the
neoDarwinian answer stands, no matter how much refutation it encounters, because
any alternative would have to be fundamentally different and would have to
involve a creator or a preexisting intelligence, a life force, something that is
involved, a directing intelligence, which would be by definition supernatural
and hence unacceptable to the world of scientific naturalism.
So there you have the standoff. To the
scientists the unbelievers in Darwinism and evolution are irrational because
they're asking the wrong question: They're not asking, "How does nature do it
alone?" But this question is incredible to people who reject the naturalistic
premise and who find limiting ourselves just to that question unsatisfactory.
Insight: What do you
regard as the strongest argument of Darwinism?
PJ: Their strongest
argument isn't really an argument in the strictest sense. It's authority. These
are all the people our culture regards as wise. They're the scientists and
engineers we rely upon to make sure our airplanes don't crash and to see that
our diseases are cured.
So how could they be wrong about
something so fundamental? Naturalism is identified with the scientific culture
and forms its basis. It's assumed that it's because of their naturalistic
assumptions that these wizards are able to work their wizardry. So to undermine
their naturalistic assumptions is to try to undermine all science, and all
science can't be wrong because it has achieved such wonders.
Insight: How strong is
PJ: It doesn't really
bother me because I know what's wrong with it. What's wrong with it is that the
wonders of scientific technology do not come out of naturalism at all. They come
out of the metaphysical assumption that nature is rational, that it is something
that can be understood by the human mind. It comes out of the assumption that
God created nature and created our minds in his own image, the assumption that
we can understand the nature that God created because God created it and created
how it works.
So you can be an electrical engineer, an
aeronautical engineer, a particle physicist, a quantum chemist--you name
it--without making any naturalistic assumptions.
Insight: Early science
assumed that the world had been designed rationally in a way man could
comprehend because it had been created by a God who also had created us?
PJ: Of course science
historically grew out of a Christian theistic environment. Science was not
invented by pagans or pantheists or anything like that. It grew out of an
environment in which the world was understood as regular and comprehensible
because it was the product of a mind.
It is extraordinarily paradoxical to
say, as mainstream scientists do say today, that the world can only be
rationally comprehensible if it were made by an irrational force, but that if it
were made by a rational mind it would be incomprehensible.
But that actually is what they are
saying and it is an absurdity, in my view. In my view, effective science rose
out of what effectively are theist premises: God made the world and made our
minds so that we can understand the world He made. Our understanding often is
dim or distorted. We see through a glass darkly because we're not as God meant
us to be.
conversion to Christianity came in your midthirties?
PJ: I often say I was
raised as a nominal Christian and I graduated from being a nominal Christian to
being a nominal agnostic, which is to say that I don't believe I had any
absolutely firm convictions.
I grew up in the late 1940s and 1950s
when religion and churchgoing were part of the American way of life. I went away
to Harvard University very young, right after my 17th birthday, and I went away
with the attitude: I'm going into the real world now, and I'll adopt the
thinking of Harvard professors and other leading intellectuals of the culture.
I saw that as my path to worldly
success, which is the only kind of success I had any knowledge of or interest
in, and I did pretty well in the academic world. I was graduated at the top of
my class in the University of Chicago Law School. I was law clerk to Chief
Justice Earl Warren; then I got a professorship at Berkeley, which is extremely
attractive in terms of the quality of the university and the quality of the
lifestyle of Northern California.
I was married. I had kids, and I
thought: "I've got it made; all I have to do is build on this." But, as time
went on, I became eventually quite disillusioned in the kind and quality of
thinking that was going on in academic life. It seems to me that basically
academic life is the business of showing that you're more intelligent than other
people by publishing papers hardly anybody reads.
It seemed to me I had a genuine talent
but I had wasted it. Then I went through a divorce, a period of
single-parenting, and these experiences combined to convince me to a large
extent, at least that people like me were not superior because of our higher
rank in the intellectual hierarchy. I began to think this Christian Gospel could
be true for me, which is something that before that time I had been unable or
unwilling to consider.
Insight: You have lived
in two very different worlds, that of the highly esteemed university and that of
a committed Christian.
PJ: There's a great
cultural divide here. It is the cultural arrogance of intellectuals that I think
is one of their big problems. And it's always the case with the Christian Gospel
that it is more attractive to people on the bottom of the ladder than to people
on the top of the ladder. Paul says in First Corinthians, "Not many of
you are wealthy, not many of you are of high rank, not many of you are wise as
the world counts wisdom."
That's always been true about
Christianity, and that's why the Gospel is often denigrated as slave religion.
There's an element of truth in that. It's the slaves who really see this
reality, so it is nothing peculiar to me that a person who is intellectually
gifted and well rewarded for it would think more highly of himself than he ought
The experience of having marriage and
family life crash under me, and of achieving a certain amount of academic
success and seeing the meaninglessness of it, made me listen and give myself to
Christ at the advanced age of 38. And that aroused a particular level of
intellectual interest in the question of why the intellectual world is so
dominated by naturalistic and agnostic thinking.
Insight: Why is the
intellectual world so attracted to naturalism and agnosticism?
PJ: It follows along on
my own experience of the intellectual arrogance that comes naturally to an
academic winner, an academic goldmedal winner such as myself. Scientific
naturalism is a thing that's attractive to that sort of people because it says
that the secular intellectuals are the people to whom the world should look for
The secular intellectuals become the
priesthood. Their cultural story dominates. It feeds their sense that they have
a wisdom the masses don't have. Naturalism is their vehicle to replace the
religious clergy with the scientific and intellectual professionals, the
priesthood being the people who tell a society its creation story, and in this
case the creation story being the naturalistic one.
Insight: So challenging
the evidence for Darwinian evolution isn't merely an intellectual challenge,
it's attacking the scientific and intellectual elite on the very points they
believe distinguish them from the average man, their superior knowledge about
how the world works, their superior wisdom?
PJ: Sometimes I put
that point this way. Suppose you really want to be dogmatic. You lay down the
law with no back talk allowed. Well, if you're a Christian fundamentalist,
there's an inherent limitation on your ability to be dogmatic: You might be able
to do that with your own flock, but of course they listen to the radio, they
watch television and those outside authorities creep into your world, and they
have to be taken into consideration because they, too, are governing
authorities. This is a check on any desire to be dogmatic that you might have.
But if you're a member of the scientific
elite, you can go much further. You can indulge your passion for dogmatism much
more completely because you never meet anyone who thinks differently from you
that you have to take seriously.
So, honestly, if you want to see real
dogmatism unrestrained, you must go to the higher reaches of the academic world
and the scientific profession because the natural checks on dogmatism aren't
there. Now, you're aware that out there in the culture there are people who are
thinking differently than you, but they're not authority figures, they don't
have any authority over you, so you don't have to take them seriously if you're
in the higher reaches of the academic world and the scientific profession.
of law, University of California at Berkeley; author of books challenging
Darwinian evolution and naturalistic philosophy.
BORN: June 18, 1940; Aurora, Ill.
FAMILY: Wife, Kathie; three children. Member, First Presbyterian Church of
EDUCATION: B.A. in English, Harvard University; J.D., University of Chicago.
BOOKS: Darwin on Trial (1991); Darwinism: Science or Philosophy?
(1994); Reason in the Balance: The Case Against Naturalism in Science, Law,
and Education (1995); Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds (1997)
and many works on criminal law.
FAVORITE READING: Currently, the novels of Anthony Trollope. "I think if young
people read a lot of him while they were growing up, they would get a superb
grounding in moral reality, and Trollope's very witty, too."
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