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Philip Johnson's Darwin on Trial

  1. May 12, 2005 #1


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    [draft review…I may work this up into a Physics Post article…so all constructive comments are welcome!]

    The Intelligent Design (ID) movement has a growing presence in the long-time evolution vs. creation (EvC) debate. Philip Johnson may be a professor of law, but he is also considered to be the father of the modern ID movement which seeks to challenge the field of biology. His arguments often come up in the national debate as well in these Physics Forums (of course). In the spirit of giving both sides of the debate a fair shake, I ran down to my local library and picked up a copy of Johnson’s often-cited 1991 book entitled “Darwin on Trial”.

    Granted, my starting point in reading this was already from a position of disagreement with the modern ID movement, but I tried to keep an unbiased mindset. Johnson is a good writer and his book is sure to continue influencing laypeople into accepting ID for years to come. As you read it, you may find yourself questioning your own acceptance of the theory of evolution. However, as he is a practiced debater, you really need to evaluate Johnson’s arguments closely to get the full picture. In the end, I remain in disagreement with ID, as presented by Johnson. There are different types of creationism, ranging from a Bible-literalist “young-earth creationism” to a more science-friendly “theistic evolution”. Johnson is somewhere in the middle in that he accepts an “old Earth” and even “microevolution”, but won’t go so far as to accept “macroevolution”, even if by the guiding hand of God.

    Before I give my comments, I’ll point you to a very thorough review by Brian Spitzer called http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/johnson.html”]“The[/PLAIN] [Broken] Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth?”. I definitely recommend you read Spitzer’s review, as it really digs into many of Johnson’s claims and details the problems with his arguments. A brief, yet still good review, is also available from http://www.ncseweb.org/resources/resources/165252685546.asp”][/PLAIN] [Broken] Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education.

    Perhaps I should start with what is positive about his book. Johnson is well read on the popular literature for the EvC debate (but perhaps not in actual scientific journal information on evolutionary biology). He draws from many sources and discusses many of the key points in the debate. He acknowledges that he is not a scientist, but rather claims to be someone good at examining arguments and their logic. He accepts microevolution and rejects Young-Earth Creationism. He even goes so far to agree that archaeopteryx is a pretty good candidate for a transitional fossil demonstrating macroevolution, although the overall evidence is still inadequate in his eyes.

    Johnson’s primary concern seems to rest on philosophical naturalism (an atheistic worldview). He characterizes and accuses scientists (evolutionary biologists in particular) as promoting their philosophical views on matters of biological and cosmological evolution rather than sticking to the scientific facts. The problem, as Johnson sees it, is that scientists start with an “a priori” assumption that there is no divine influence on the workings of the world. With that unproveable axiom, Johnson is not surprised that scientists have developed a model of naturalistic evolution. But then he goes a step further and accuses such scientists as deliberately trying to squash a Godly worldview.

    However, like most ID strategies, the arguments do not focus on God. Instead, Johnson tries to poke holes in each of the scientific lines of evidence on evolution. It seems a lawyerly strategy of proving “reasonable doubt” so that the audience rejects evolution and accepts an alternative (and only one alternative he hints at is a Christian creation story). I think the book jacket text is particularly revealing to this end. It states:

    First, it seems to me (from this and from reading the book) that Johnson has just read the popular literature on evolution and is not familiar with the scientific research papers. Second, his goal is to affect the American society (why not the world?) in one fell swoop without any encouragement to dig deeper into the scientific evidence supporting the theory. This is mirrored by Johnson’s “ Wedge” strategy of supposedly trying to restore Western civilization to a Christian world-view by first getting so-called “creation-science” into public schools.

    As noted above, Johnson’s central argument seems to be that science should not a priori reject supernatural causes. By looking at only naturalistic explanations, then of course scientists would produce a naturalistic theory like evolution. The theory of evolution is a logical consequence of the naturalistic bias. However, Johnson argues that the bias is unfounded and that the scientific evidence does not support the theory of evolution. His strategy in creating reasonable doubt in each line of scientific evidence seems to rely on either (1) presenting a particular situation which does not seem to fit the mold (thereby attempting to disprove the whole), (2) presenting quotes from scientists that suggest uncertainties (“quote mining”, likely out of context), or (3) accusing scientists of being blinded by their naturalistic bias (i.e., Darwinism is accepted on faith as an absolute and then the evidence is fit to that mold).

    Some other examples of problems with his book:
    (1) Spin doctoring. He will choose wording that makes scientists look bad and creationists look good. Aside from obvious things such as using positive/negative word connotations (e.g., scientists “attack” whereas creationists “question”) he’ll also plant incriminating comments without explaining them. For example, he briefly mentions the Piltdown Man hoax and the Nebraska Man error, but does not explain how evolutionary biologists dealt with these issues properly or how those examples play no role in the modern theory of evolution. When I was reading Johnson’s book, which frames the history of evolution as a losing argument against creationism, I was also listening to one of the “Great Lectures” series about the history of the theory of evolution and its controversy which cast evolution as the winning argument. For example the latter describes how Darwinism and Lyell’s uniformitarianism successfully supplanted the long-held catastrophism view in geology. Whereas the former frames the historical summary as the body of the world’s scientific experts of the time disagreeing with Darwinism. Johnson does provide the same history, but cherry-picks events and quotes to support the picture he paints.
    (2) Similarly, his word choices depict creationists as honest/honorable and evolutionists as scheming/clinging/dishonest, even though it is he who is advocating the “wedge” deception and who engages in improper arguments as outlined below.
    (3) Johnson wants to inject ID into public schools without first going through the peer review process. ID’er talk about the fair play of letting science students hear both sides, but what’s fair about side-stepping the scientific process which the theory of evolution did go through?
    (4) Johnson paints the theory of evolution (and much of science) as dogmatic faith, essentially equating naturalistic evolution with a religion.
    (5) Johnson seems to believe that evolution implies progress, which is not the case.
    (6) Johnson seems to equate evolution with aggression.
    (7) Johnson seems to believe that evolution is a random process, whereas natural selection is a non-random process.
    (8) Much of his argument is through the selective use of quotes rather than discussing the evidence.
    (9) He often argues through personal incredulity rather than discussing the evidence (i.e., if something seems unreasonable to him, then it can’t be true). For example, he makes the big claim that “odds are there was no prebiotic soup” but then offers little or no argument/evidence to support that claim.
    (10) Johnson doesn’t seem to understand (or perhaps agree with) exaptation in which new biological features are adapted from existing ones.
    (11) Johnson claims that there are no living intermediates. And how does he know the future? Are mudskippers and lungfish making the transition from water to land? Are hippos making the transition from land to water? Are flying squirrels making a transition from land to air? Only time will tell. And those are only possible examples of dramatic transitions (so-called “macroevolution”). Examples of smaller, “microevolutionary” transitions also are available (e.g., different breeds or subspecies).
    (12) He further claims that there is no evidence of macroevoloution in the fossil record. He admits that archaeopteryx is one possibility but (1) he tends to see it as an odd bird and (2) he argues showing examples of transitional features is not the same thing as showing actual ancestry. Of course, transitional features appearing at the right time period and in the right geographic location are strong evidence supporting theories on the history of particular evolutionary lineages.
    (13) In typical ID’er fashion, he does not present an alternative theory to the theory of evolution. His goal is to get the audience to reject Darwinism so that they automatically accept his unstated position. Of course, there are not only two alternatives. On example is that Johnson provides no description of the “kinds” of species which were mentioned in Genesis 1 as an alternative to common descent of species.
    (14) Johnson seems to believe that Darwinism requires a simple line of descent rather than the bush-like view of evolutionary history under the modern theory.
    (15) Johnson mixes in arguments about non-biological evolution (e.g., cosmological evolution), which is beside the point and mainly reflects his argument against philosophical naturalism.
    (16) Irony. Johnson equates evolution with a religion and thinks that scientists do not attempt to falsify their theories (i.e., scientists just look for evidence that agrees with world view). It is plain that, as a man of faith with no scientific arguments, he is guilty of this himself. He claims that the theory of evolution is too flexible, catch-all theory, which of course could also be said about his beliefs.
    (17) He often attempts to use just 1 example to disprove a broad idea.

    Some other typical creationist arguments that appear in his book include:
    (1) Questioning evolution as a “fact”. This confuses the difference between the fact that evolution occurs and the theory that explains how evolution happens and what the history of it has been.
    (2) Claims that artificial selection is evidence of intelligent design.
    (3) Claims that natural section only modifies within a type (kind) and does not create new kinds without evidence to support that claim or any definition what a “kind” means.
    (4) Claims that there is no evidence that microevolutions can add up to macroevolution. What mechanism prevents small changes from adding up to a big change?
    (5) Claims that some biological processes/features are irreducibly complex, even though there are no confirmed instances of this. This is more an argument from personal incredulity.
    (6) Claims that seeing trends in natural selection and changes in the fossil record is based on speculation/logic (from philosophical naturalism) and not from the physical evidence itself. It would seem that he has not actually reviewed the fossil/genetic/selection evidence and is instead guilty of arguing from his own philosophical bias.
    (7) Claims that natural selection (evolution) is a tautology (the fittest survive and those that survive are the fittest) and is therefore meaningless. However, natural selection is more than just that overly simplistic characterization.
    (8) Claims that natural selection is not proven. For example, he claims that population shifts are not shown to be permanent, even though large scale modifications take enormous time periods and cannot be directly observed in the lab. He claims that fossil evidence is that of stasis, even though there is fossil evidence of changes through time and periods of stasis may be well explained by Gould/Eldridge’s theory of punctuated equilibrium. He also points out that living fossils exist (e.g., ceolocanth), even though evolution does not necessitate constant change.
    (9) Claims that natural section is a philosophical necessity from a naturalistic bias (no test of a supernatural hypothesis has been conducted).
    (10) Johnson questions the probability of abiogenesis/evolution through the Hoyle’s old 747-jet-plane-from-a-tornado-hitting-a-junkyard canard. This, of course, is a strawman (false caricature) of the actual theory of evolution. The theory of evolution does not state that a random process threw together a complex creature in one sudden event. Rather, long time period elapsed during which creatures were modified bit by bit through trial and error (with “error” decisions cast against non-random selection processes of survivability and fecundity).
    (11) In order to refute all of science’s identifications of genetic relationships, Johnson provides only 1 example of gene stasis across species (“cytochrome c” protein) in order to refute an overall branching relationship.

    Since he accepts microevolution (something which can be directly observed) and an old earth, he need only provide reasonable doubt against macroevolution, which is, due to the timescales involved, necessarily a matter of deduction based on various lines of evidence. Without the direct observation, there is much more room for debate. But Johnson is unlikely to be convinced by any evidence of macroevolution. He points out that showing examples of transitional features in the fossil record is not the same thing as proving actual ancestry, although he fails to comment on the converging lines of evidence that link the transitional features to the locations of the fossils in the geographic and temporal range of appearance in the fossil record.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 2, 2017
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