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From the Nov/Dec, 2011 issue of Touchstone


Freed Science by Phillip E. Johnson

THE LEADING EDGE by Phillip E. Johnson

Freed Science

In August 2011, I attended a conference in Seattle, part of which was devoted to commemorating the 20th anniversary of the original publication of Darwin on Trial. This book, according to the conference participants, changed the world by redefining the terms of the debate between evolution and creation. Changing the terms of that long-deadlocked debate was exactly what I had intended to do, and I hope the conferees were not wrong to credit me with accomplishing so much.

I explained to the conferees, however, that I had not envisioned Darwin on Trial to be quite as provocative as it turned out to be. I had merely hoped to propose a framework for the stalemated evolution–creation debate that would satisfy everyone’s minimal requirements. I expected this framework to enable discussions between the contending parties to make progress toward truth, or at least toward finding a better understanding of why the controversy has been so difficult to resolve.

I believe that Americans overwhelmingly reject the Darwinism that is taught as unchallengeable truth in today’s textbooks, not because they are ignorant, but because they sense that the Darwinian claims go far beyond the evidence and, despite the pro forma expressions of religious neutrality, are aimed at replacing the God who creates everything with an inconsequential God who creates nothing. If this much-weaker God exists, he might just as well not exist, because the job of creating and sustaining the world gets done perfectly well without him. If mindless natural forces can do the whole job without assistance, God becomes superfluous, and hence is easily dismissed from consideration.

Thus, I sought to produce a framework for debate over the respective merits of evolution and creation, which would allow the arguments that were backed by the strongest evidence to prevail. In my naiveté, I thought that the desirability of such a framework would be apparent to all reasonable persons on both sides of the issue.

The Fundamental Claim

My first step in devising this framework was to decide that the all-important fundamental claim of neo-Darwinism, the ruling scientific (i.e., naturalistic) theory of biological evolution, is not that the theory contradicts the Bible, or that a pattern of relationship between species indicates that they derive from a common source. It is that Darwinian science knows of a mechanism that can and did transform the first single-celled microorganism into all the species of plants and animals that have ever existed—including our own Homo sapiens, from Conan the barbarian to Shakespeare, Bach, and Newton, with any intelligent causes both absent and unnecessary.

The theory of biological evolution does not in itself explain how the first living organism emerged from a soup of non-living chemicals, but evolutionary biologists are so encouraged by their supposed success in explaining the entire history of life after the mysterious appearance of the first organism, that they claim to know for sure that the ultimate origin of life also occurred by some combination of chance and chemical law, without the need for any participating intelligence. When knowledgeable critics are about, Darwinists sometimes pretend that the origin of life is not part of their theory, but when they think the coast is clear, they once again claim that the problem was solved in principle long ago.

The assumption that science knows of a naturalistic, mindless mechanism that could and did take life all the way from lifeless chemicals to Homo sapiens is so important that I concluded that critical analysis should, for the time being, put aside such distracting issues as the authority of the Bible or the age of the earth, so all attention could be focused on the naturalistic mechanism of biological creation. Is creative natural selection something that has been proven by evidence and experiment, or is it the product of an a priori philosophical dogma to which the evidence is required to conform? My overriding concern was to explain how this most fundamental question could and should be discussed in the mainstream scientific community and in secular universities.

The way the Darwinists responded convinced me that, for them, the all-important thing is to maintain a position of cultural power, rather than to seek a possibly unwelcome truth by employing truly scientific methods with intellectual honesty. There is too much wealth and influence at stake for those who hold the power to be willing to put their theories at risk of falsification.

A Courageous Team

Thus, one of the terms used when people spoke about me and Darwin on Trial was “courageous.” That is not a term I would apply to myself. I was a tenured professor in a field outside of biology when I published the book, so I was pretty unassailable professionally. Law professors understand that there are two sides to every question, so my colleagues did not feel threatened by my taking an unconventional stand.

However, the term “courageous” can be applied to those in the intelligent design (ID) movement who have come after me, including the people I met at the conference and those I have worked with over the years. They have risked their reputations and their careers to pursue what they believe to be the truth, and many of them have paid dearly for it. There is also a large group of young scientists who are “underground” at present, but who hope to contribute their own scholarship and research in the future.

At the conference, after the session about Darwin on Trial and my own influence, I was pleased to hear from Stephen Meyer about all the people and research projects and books that are advancing the ID movement. It was encouraging and exciting to learn how each aspect of the Darwinist argument is being worked on and addressed.

From the beginning, the process of building a movement on the basis of Darwin on Trial was one of picking up friends and allies as they came along. My first partner was Meyer, who was then in the process of attaining his Ph.D. in the philosophy of science from Cambridge University. Steve and I found that our minds were moving in the same direction during a long conversation as we walked along the “backs” at Cambridge.

The next ally was a professor of biochemistry from Lehigh University, Michael Behe, who wrote a splendid letter to the editors of Science magazine after Science published a dismissive review of Darwin on Trial. This was my first indication that Mike, among other talents, writes the best letters to editors of anyone I know.

My third ally was William Dembski, a muscular philosopher with two Ph.Ds.—in philosophy and mathematics. He was already well along in developing the ideas that inspired his many books.

So, from the start, the ID movement was a team effort in which I was for a while first among equals, but never a celebrity. Now that I am 71 years old and in retirement, leadership of the movement has passed into other hands. This is not a disappointment for me, but a fulfillment of what I had planned all along.

Confusing Evolution with Adaptation

One of the things that keeps me positive is the sort of articles I read from the Darwinist side. For example, in 2005, the eminent Harvard professor Edward O. Wilson published an article in Harvard Magazine titled “Intelligent Evolution.” Despite that title, Wilson emphatically did not concede that intelligence had played any role in evolution. Here is how he explained the process:

Evolution by natural selection . . . states simply that if a population of organisms contains multiple hereditary variants in some trait (say, red versus blue eyes in a bird population), and if one of these variants succeeds in contributing more offspring to the next generation that the other variants, the overall composition of the population changes, and evolution has occurred. . . .Think of red-eyed and blue-eyed birds in a breeding population, and let the red-eyed birds be better adapted to the environment. The population will in time come to consist mostly or entirely of red-eyed birds. Now let green-eyed mutants appear that are even better adapted to the environment than the red-eyed form. As a consequence the species eventually becomes green-eyed. Evolution has thus taken two more small steps.

Wilson calls his example “evolution,” but in fact it is merely adaptive variation, not something that could produce a new kind of creature. Species have the ability to vary in some characteristics to cope with a temporary environmental crisis, and then to go back to their original form when the crisis is past. Natural selection in this sense is a conservative force that allows a species to thrive in different environments without undergoing any basic change, and thus to avoid extinction. As a witty critic explained the point, despite its title, Darwin’s Origin of Species explained the survival of species, not the arrival of species.

Wilson implies that his relatively trivial example of adaptive variation is the same process by which humans supposedly evolved, over geologic eons, from single-celled predecessors like bacteria or amoebae. This illustrates the characteristic Darwinian use of equivocation, employing vaguely defined terms like “evolution” and switching definitions whenever it is convenient.

Truth Will Prevail

I must admit that Edward Wilson’s logic is prevailing over my own for the present, not only in the politicized institutions of big science, but even among the professors at many Christian colleges. This situation would worry me if I did not have a childlike faith that science really is a self-correcting enterprise in the long run, even though its self-correcting mechanism may be lifeless for long periods when a way of thinking has become universal among the most powerful scientific leaders.

For the time being, the situation is discouraging for those of us who would like to set science free from the metaphysical bondage that still limits the thinking of otherwise admirable men like Edward O. Wilson and Francis Collins. But the present situation will not long endure, because the cracks in its foundations are even now visible and growing.

I am confident that when we finally get a fair hearing before a scientific community that concurs with the principle that important terms must be defined clearly and used consistently, then the better logic will prevail and Darwinism will be relegated to intellectual history. My effort is not aimed at getting a popular majority to overrule the scientific community, but at appealing to the community of scientists to strive for freedom from those prejudices that interfere with clear-headed, logical thinking. In this era of springtime liberations, surely intellectual freedom will be restored in science. •

Phillip E. Johnson is Professor of Law (emeritus) at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of Darwin on Trial, The Wedge of Truth, The Right Questions (InterVarsity Press), and other books challenging the naturalistic assumptions that dominate modern culture. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.

“Freed Science” first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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