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Phillip Johnson on the Scientific Nature of Opposition to Darwinian Theory

Casey Luskin

While we have been celebrating the 20th anniversary of Darwin on Trial, I was reminded of the impact that Phillip Johnson has had in shaping the debate over Darwinian evolution and intelligent design (ID). Johnson’s work showed that there are credible criticisms of Darwinian evolution that come from a strictly scientific standpoint rather than a religious one. In fact, Johnson adamantly opposed attempts to characterize this debate as one pitting “religion vs. science.” In his book Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, he laments that the Darwin lobby has successfully stereotyped opposition to Darwinian evolution as little more than religious fanaticism:

Inherit the Wind is a masterpiece of propaganda, promoting a stereotype of the public debate about creation and evolution that gives all the virtues and intelligence to the Darwinists. The play did not create the stereotype, but it presented it in the form of a powerful story that sticks in the minds of journalists, scientists and intellectuals generally. …

Once upon a time, the story says, the world was ruled by cruel religious oppressors called Christians, similar to the wicked stepmother and stepsisters in “Cinderella,” who tried to prevent people from thinking and from marrying their true love. Liberation from this oppression came via Darwin, who taught us that our real creator was a natural process that leaves human reason free to make up new rules whenever we want. …

Inherit the Wind is therefore probably truer than its authors knew. There is nothing wrong with its basic story of liberation. That story itself becomes a vehicle of oppression, however, when it invites the people with power to cast themselves as the liberator. It’s like the dictators of the former Soviet Union calling themselves the champions of the poor working man. Whatever may have been the case a long time ago, by the time the movie was made, Bert Cates and Henry Drummond [the two main evolutionist protagonists in Inherit the Wind] were the ones with the power to shut people up.

…[S]ome of us are working to make it possible for evolution to be treated like other issues, where criticism of the official story can get a fair hearing. It is an uphill battle, because Darwinists can use their control of the microphone to cast their opponents as religious dogmatists regardless of what the opponents are actually saying. If critics object to the teaching of philosophical doctrines as scientific facts, the microphones say they are trying to prevent students from learning. If critics attempt to tell the other side of the story and bring out evidence that the textbooks ignore, they are accused of trying to insert religion into the science curriculum in violation of the Constitution. The rule of the microphone is “Heads we win, tails you lose.”

(Phillip Johnson, Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, pp. 25-36 (InterVarsity Press, 1997).)

Johnson’s widely read book, Darwin on Trial, showed that there are a multitude of legitimate scientific criticisms of neo-Darwinian theory, stemming from disciplines that range from anatomy to paleontology to biochemistry and phylogenetics. Some of his specific examples include:

  • Johnson presaged many of Behe’s ideas about irreducible complexity, explaining why complex features could not arise via step-by-step mutations because many parts would need to be present:

    “The fallacy in that argument is that ‘5 per cent of an eye’ is not the same thing as ‘5 per cent of normal vision.’ For an animal to have any vision at all, many complex parts must be working together. Even a complete eye is useless unless sit belongs to a creature with the mental and neural capacity to make use of the information by doing something that furthers survival or reproduction. What we have to imagine is a chance mutation that provides this complex capacity all at once, a level of utility sufficient to give the creature an advantage in producing offspring.” (Darwin on Trial, pp. 34-35)

  • Johnson cut to the heart of the issue pertaining to neo-Darwinism and the fossil evidence:

    Archaeopteryx is on the whole a point for the Darwinists, but how important is it? Persons who coming to the fossil evidence as convinced Darwinists will see a stunning confirmation, but skeptics will see a lonely exception to a consistent pattern of fossil disconfirmation. If we are testing Darwinism rather than merely looking for a confirming example or two, then a single good candidate for ancestor status is not enough to save a theory that posits a worldwide history of continual evolutionary transformation.” (Darwin on Trial, p. 81)

  • Johnson foresaw the great problems that conflicts between phylogenetic trees would cause problems for common descent, years before this problem was widely discussed:

    “Not all molecules show the same pattern of relationships, and in some cases molecular classifications differ from traditional classifications.” (Darwin on Trial, p. 92)

By opening countless minds to the fact that there are serious scientific challenges to neo-Darwinism, and then inspiring many of his readers to pursue scientific careers which have fine-tuned those scientific arguments, Johnson has probably done more than any other single person to knock down the Inherit the Wind stereotype.

Nonetheless, critics of intelligent design often try to misuse Johnson’s work to turn back the clock and reframe the debate according to the old Inherit the Wind stereotype. Johnson has written about many topics, and ID critics have dug up quotes from his writing about God or religion proving, so they claim, that ID is nothing more than religion and creationism. Here’s what Johnson says in response:

Q: Isn’t intelligent design just a newer version of creationism?

Johnson: When people ask me whether this is creationism relabeled, one thing that always occurs to me is that the real creationist organizations are highly critical of intelligent design, because they say it doesn’t do the job that is the very essence of creationism. It doesn’t defend the Bible from the very first verse. It doesn’t defend the Bible at all, and it doesn’t even defend Christianity. It’s saying that there’s an intelligence, but the intelligence could be natural as well as supernatural. And that if you assume it’s supernatural, what the God is — well, we have nothing to say about what kind of God it is. It isn’t limited to one particular kind of religion, to Christianity or to a particular kind of Christianity. If you want, it can be the Muslim god.

Q: But if it’s a supernatural cause, isn’t that outside the realm of science?

Johnson: It’s true that supernatural causes are a subject outside of science. But intelligent versus unintelligent causes is a subject very much within science. For example, forensic scientists and pathologists regularly determine whether a death was due to natural causes or intelligent causes. If somebody dies of a purported heart failure, and then they do an autopsy on the body and find signs of arsenic poisoning, they say this was not a death by natural causes; it was a poisoning. That is perfectly legitimate as a scientific inquiry. Now, if the intelligent cause turns out to be supernatural, that’s a determination that is outside of science. But that you need intelligence is not a determination that’s outside of science. It’s the regular business of science, like deciding whether a drawing on a cave wall is a painting by prehistoric cavemen or a product of natural erosion and chemistry in the wall.

(Phil Johnson, Defending Intelligent Design, interview with NOVA)

This comment from Johnson is significant. You can see how he fully recognizes that “supernatural causes are a subject outside of science,” yet he also maintains that ID is a scientific theory. How is that possible? Simple: ID doesn’t draw inferences to supernatural causes. Instead, it refers to intelligent causes. Here’s another noteworthy comment from Johnson in which he explains that ID respects the limits of science:

Although the IDM [Intelligent Design Movement] did not identify the designer as anything more than a source of biological information, there was little doubt that believers in the Christian God, including me, would find scientific acceptance of ID highly encouraging. … [M]y personal view is that I identify the designer of life with the God of the Bible, although intelligent design theory as such does not entail that.

(Phillip E. Johnson, “Intelligent Design in Biology: The Current Situation and Future Prospects,” Think (The Royal Institute of Philosophy), 2007).)

While Johnson would be the first to admit that ID has religious implications for many people, he also recognizes that the scientific theory of ID does not address religious questions about the identity of the designer. The theory keeps itself within the scientific domain. This is Johnson’s position, and any fair analysis of ID will join him, reaching the following four conclusions:

  • ID does not address religious questions about the identity of the designer, and in fact ID proponents have diverse views about the identity of the designer;
  • ID proponents give principled reasons why ID does not identify the designer, stemming from ID’s intention to respect the limits of science and not attempt to address religious questions that go beyond what can be scientifically inferred from the empirical data;
  • Whether traditional theists or not, most ID proponents are entirely open about their own personal views on the identity of the designer;
  • ID proponents make it clear that their views about the identity of the designer are their personal religious views, and not conclusions from ID.

For drawing these distinctions that we now take for granted, for carefully showing what ID is and what it’s not, we all owe Phil Johnson a debt of gratitude.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



Darwin on TrialPhillip E. Johnson