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The 20th Anniversary of Darwin on Trial

Phillip E. Johnson’s Darwin on Trial may be justly hailed as the revolutionary work of a revolutionary soul, and a standard in American protest literature. Originally published in 1991, the book has sold more than 250,000 copies and has been translated into French, Polish, Chinese, and Korean. Although Johnson wrote for a lay readership, his arguments proved captivating for many young scientists and other scholars who gathered around Johnson and developed the theory of intelligent design.
As its title suggests, Johnson’s book takes on the scientific theory inspired by Charles Darwin. In On the Origin of Species, Darwin proposed that the various forms of life we see in nature are the result of a blind and unguided process of natural selection acting on random variations. In the decades that followed, Darwin’s ideas merged with insights from the burgeoning field of genetics into a powerful synthesis known as neo-Darwinism. Naturalist at its inception and universal in its aims, neo-Darwinism spread quickly from evolutionary biology to the rest of the life sciences.
Not content to rule that kingdom only, naturalists seized on this early success to gradually export some form of neo-Darwinism or another from the life sciences to virtually all the knowledge-making and problem-solving disciplines, even law. There, Darwin-as-philosophy inspired sociological jurisprudence and legal realism before mixing in the late 20th century with dissident politics and continental critical theory to form the intellectual foundation of the Critical Legal Studies (CLS) movement, a loosely affiliated cadre of legal scholars who would characteristically step back from rules-as-givens to instead interrogate the sources and uses of law as held in the hands of the presently powerful. Deep into CLS writings dove Phillip E. Johnson, a Berkeley law professor who realized from his examination of CLS that the tools of critical theory and social constructionism had been used to destabilize everything except that which first gave them life: neo-Darwinism.
Against naturalist attempts to universalize neo-Darwinism, Johnson published Darwin on Trial, a direct challenge not only to the orthodox interpretation of the various lines of evidence for the standard evolutionary paradigm, but also to naturalist philosophy, the larger framework and rule-set within which objects of discourse are seen and declared by disciplinary leaders as evidence (or not) in the first place. Over the course of 213 pages, Johnson systematically deconstructs the key arguments offered in favor of the causal efficacy of natural selection and random mutation (to the exclusion of agency) while subjecting the underlying naturalist philosophy to a similarly withering critique.
By the book’s end, the careful reader would rightfully doubt that the Darwinian scientist or popularizer is any more objective, neutral and detached than the lawyer, teacher, or carpenter — each worker trained just like the other to see and do as he was trained, none especially enabled to stand outside his frame of reference to see the world as it really is, unmediated and plain.
Darwin on Trial revealed that the neo-Darwinists were bluffing all along, that the inroads neo-Darwinists made in the world outside the narrow confines of evolutionary biology were ill-gotten gains, and that these same gains were thus subject to challenge if not reversal. Even so, who could challenge the entrenched dominance of neo-Darwinism within the life science community?
Johnson showed laymen and upstart scholars outside the reigning paradigm how to maintain an intellectually satisfying skepticism toward neo-Darwinism. Yet establishment scientists and other academics were largely unmoved, for within that neo-Darwinian paradigm they live and move and have their being, knowingly or not. That is, even though natural causes don’t seem to do all that naturalists ask of them, for the scientific inquirer non-natural causes like designing agency are ruled out of bounds from the start, so nature and her deterministic ways must be causally sufficient to explain all phenomena, Johnson’s critique notwithstanding.
Darwin on Trial explained how such boxed-in thinking works and Johnson provided an antidote for it. He readily acknowledged that from the “inside” of a paradigm, it is hard to imagine how things could be seen or done differently. Yet this does not mean that the paradigm itself cannot — or should not — be questioned. In the case of neo-Darwinism, the naturalists’ rule that only physical objects are ultimately real and only reductionist and quantitative methods can be used to capture and express this reality is neither self-evident nor inevitable. Rather, it is an always-contestable, man-made rule used by naturalists to serve all-too-human purposes, as Darwin on Trial suggests.
Darwin on Trial offers a way out of scientific naturalism. Few other works have been designed to offer a genuinely liberating perspective, fewer still actually provide it, and only a handful have ever launched a movement just for that purpose. Of these, Johnson’s book goes right to the root of what man is and where he comes from, the most pressing and significant question we ask ourselves, as naturalists and design theorists both know. For its critical approach to the most critical matter, Darwin on Trial is in a class by itself.