What I Saw at the Counter-Reformation: A Personal Reminiscence of Phil Johnson

Tom Bethell

Darwin statue

I first heard about Phillip Johnson from a retired lawyer named Norman Macbeth. Two decades earlier Norman had written a marvelous book called Darwin Retried and it made a big impression on me. We became friends. He lived in Spring Valley, north of New York City and I stayed with him several times.
More than once we went to see a friend of his, Ron Brady, who taught philosophy at Ramapo College. He too was a Darwin doubter. Macbeth would take me along to meetings at the American Museum of Natural History, where he introduced me to curators at meetings of the Systematics Study Group. Some were amazingly critical of Darwinism.
One day, in the fall of 1990, Norman told me that he had recently heard from a lawyer at UC Berkeley’s law school — “Boalt Hall,” but I hadn’t heard of that. The lawyer’s name was Phillip Johnson. He had just written a book critical of Darwin, and had sent it along so that Macbeth could render a verdict. He didn’t show it to me, but he told me it was excellent.
We were both delighted to know that another lawyer would be entering the lists and helping to make the case against Darwinism. Macbeth died about a year later. It was as though he knew that he had passed on the baton.
It wasn’t until the following summer that I met Phil Johnson at his house near Berkeley. By then I had read Darwin on Trial, now celebrating its 20th anniversary. Curiously, the concept of “intelligent design” wasn’t explicitly invoked in the book, and ID certainly didn’t exist as a movement. An odd parallel is that the word “evolution” doesn’t appear in Darwin’s Origin of Species. (The word “evolved does occur, once, and it is the last word in the book.)
I was familiar with some of the arguments in Darwin on Trial but I now realize that the key to the book’s influence was that religious objections to Darwinism were replaced by scientific and philosophical ones. Macbeth’s book had done the same but it never achieved the resonance of Phil’s book.
Johnson also began to gather allies around him who became influential in their own right; notably Stephen Meyer, Bill Dembski and Paul Nelson. Michael Behe’s book Darwin’s Black Box was published in 1996, with encouragement from these new allies.
The Internet still barely existed at the time, but as far as the supporters of Intelligent Design were concerned the new technology was crucial. Making use of it effectively was Johnson’s greatest technical achievement. It created the community that we know today. We became aware that many others of like mind were out there. They shared our doubts that intelligence could be achieved mindlessly, by random mutation and selection. The blanket hostility of the press toward any criticism of evolution had until then made it difficult for us to reach each other.
Furthermore, Phil Johnson was a highly skilled and tactful electronic correspondent — an important gift where email, then a novelty, could give rise to immediate, overheated responses and prompt regrets.
In 2001-2002, the New York Times published a surprisingly straightforward series of articles on Intelligent Design; as though realizing that the troops must be warned about this new enemy. A front-page article by James Glanz in the Times [April 8, 2001] discussed Bill Dembski’s “mathematical explanatory filter,” among other matters, and noted that Johnson’s Darwin on Trial was the “manifesto” of the movement.
Creationism could be ignored or ridiculed, but Intelligent Design obliged Darwinians to defend evolution in the scientific terms that they had insisted were essential. That turned out to be a much more difficult task than anyone (perhaps including Darwin’s defenders) had imagined.
Dr. Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland warned that ”the most striking thing about the intelligent design folks is their potential to really make anti-evolutionism intellectually respectable.”
That was the great worry. Condescension and name-calling soon followed. Darwinists’ repeated use of the phrase “intelligent design creationism” showed how much they missed their old foe.
Jerry Coyne said that ID was “devilishly clever,” while Leonard Krishtalka of the University of Kansas Natural History Museum said that it was “nothing more than creationism dressed in a cheap tuxedo.”
A letter writer responding to Glanz’s article said that intelligent design was “intellectually barren.” He would have expected that Phil Johnson and Michael Behe’s books in the 1990s would have been “followed by others exploring the boundaries of this ‘new’ theory.”
But no. “As a scientific enterprise it is stillborn.”
Of course, there have been lots more books since 2001. And there will be many more. Those published by Behe, Meyer, Dembski and Jonathan Wells, not to mention others by Phil Johnson, have gone largely unanswered. Moreover, as the complexity of molecular and cellular life becomes ever more daunting, the Victorian-era mechanisms of faith in progress and “laissez-faire economics applied to the animal and vegetable world,” as Bertrand Russell described natural selection, will come to seem ever more threadbare and unequal to the task.
Darwin’s great promoter Thomas Henry Huxley, anticipating the dawn of evolutionism in the 1850s, knew that he was living through a New Reformation. Today we are witnessing a new Counter-Reformation, I believe, and Phil Johnson will be seen to have been its leading light.