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How Good is Phil Johnson’s Biology?

We’ve recently been discussing whether Berkeley law professor Phil Johnson (author of Darwin on Trial) is ill-informed on biology. After I posted my previous article, a friend directed my attention to this passage from Thomas Woodward’s book Doubts About Darwin: A History of Intelligent Design. Woodward writes,

A group of Berkeley professors gathered in September 1988 to discuss the original paper on ID framed by Phil Johnson. This remarkable encounter — retold in detail in chapter four of Doubts About Darwin — served as a public debut of his major theses, which would prove to remain substantially constant during the book’s evolution.

During the early stage when Johnson was circulating copies of his paper to wider circles of scientific critics, there looms one other huge milestone: the private 1989 meeting of a dozen scholars at the Campion Center in Boston. Emerging from this was an unexpected defender of Johnson, David Raup, a well-known evolutionary paleontologist with a reputation of brutal honesty about empirical gaps in the neo-Darwinian scenario.

Raup had already read Johnson’s original Berkeley paper and had used it in a graduate seminar at the University of Chicago. He and his students had found no factual errors as they reviewed the paper. As an open-minded scientist, he came to respect Johnson’s scholarship, although he was not persuaded to abandon hope that evolutionary explanations would ultimately be found for the nagging anomalies.

In a phone call to Thomas Woodward, Raup stated “Johnson’s work is very good scholarship, and of course, this is widely denied. He cannot be faulted; he did his homework, and he understands 99 percent of evolutionary biology.” (Darwin’s Nemesis, p. 63-64)

Johnson on occasion exposes his bias as a philosophical theist and a Christian. He says; “I believe that a God exists who could create out of nothing if He wanted to do so, but who might have chosen to work through a natural evolutionary process instead.” Also, “Why not consider the possibility that life is what it so evidently seems to be, the product of creative intelligence? Science would not come to an end, because the task would remain of deciphering the languages in which genetic information is communicated, and in general finding out how the whole system works. What scientists would lose is not an inspiring research program, but the illusion of total mastery of nature. They would have to face the possibility that beyond the natural world there is further reality which transcends science.” (Darwin’s Nemesis, p. 75)

The claim that ID proponents are “ignorant” is very frequently heard in Darwinian circles. Yet it is patently obvious that ID advocates, for the most part — certainly those with scientific training and credentials — are not ignorant of the subjects on which they speak.

Phil Johnson may not have the scientific credentials of many of his colleagues, but he is a skilled thinker and philosopher. His training as a lawyer imparted to him an expertise in evaluating the strengths and merits of arguments — an expertise that many biologists lack. As far as the biology itself is concerned, I would agree with David Raup’s conclusion: “He did his homework.”

Jonathan McLatchie

Resident Biologist & Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Dr. Jonathan McLatchie holds a Bachelor's degree in Forensic Biology from the University of Strathclyde, a Masters (M.Res) degree in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Glasgow, a second Master's degree in Medical and Molecular Bioscience from Newcastle University, and a PhD in Evolutionary Biology from Newcastle University. Previously, Jonathan was an assistant professor of biology at Sattler College in Boston, Massachusetts. Jonathan has been interviewed on podcasts and radio shows including "Unbelievable?" on Premier Christian Radio, and many others. Jonathan has spoken internationally in Europe, North America, South Africa and Asia promoting the evidence of design in nature.



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