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Maligning Phil Johnson, with Lots of Rhetoric but Little Substance

We recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of the publication of Phillip Johnson’s groundbreaking book, Darwin on Trial. Phillip Johnson’s meticulous skill in scrutinizing the metaphysical assumptions undergirding much of evolutionary naturalism launched the modern intelligent design movement and set in motion a chain of events that must inevitably lead to the toppling of Darwinism in scientific academia.

Phillip Johnson has now come in for criticism from mathematician Jeffrey Shallit and biochemist Larry Moran. Both criticisms concerned this video, featuring an interview with Johnson on topics pertinent to design and evolution.

Jeffrey Shallit writes,

The most significant misunderstanding Johnson repeatedly exhibits is that he thinks modern evolutionary biology is synonymous with his understanding of the meaning of the term “Darwinism”: all biological change is due to mutation and natural selection. The fact that other mechanisms, such as genetic drift and endosymbiosis, are now an essential part of the picture seems to have escaped him completely. Ignorance or dishonesty? I’m not sure; maybe it’s a mixture of both.

This is the type of condescending rhetoric that is so prevalent in anti-ID writings. Does Shallit really think that we haven’t heard of processes such as genetic drift and endosymbiosis?

I think it is legitimate to use the word “Darwinism” provided that one is clear on what one means by it. Like the words “evolution” and “creationism,” “Darwinism” can be construed to mean a variety of different things. Most ID proponents use the term to refer to the common scientific view that all of life is explicable by mechanisms of unguided chance and necessity. The most frequently cited examples of such processes are random mutations and natural selections — but we recognize that there are other mechanisms at play as well (such as symbiosis and genetic drift). The key point is that the mechanisms undergirding the evolution of life, according to Darwinism, are non-intelligent.

Shallit subsequently quotes Phil Johnson’s statement that Charles Darwin (trained in medicine and theology) and Charles Lyell (a lawyer) were amateurs in the field in which they are renowned. Shallit writes,

Very deceptive. Science as an institution at the time of Darwin and Lyell was quite different from modern science. It is extremely hard (although not impossible) for an amateur, untrained in science, to make a significant contribution to science today.

As for Lyell, it is quite misleading to just say that he was a lawyer and not also mention that at Oxford, Lyell attended lectures by Buckland; at Edinburgh, by Jameson; and he was a colleague of Mantell. Lyell gave up law, travelled extensively and did geological research on the ground in many locations, publishing his papers in scientific journals. If Phillip Johnson ever did any geological research on the ground, and published papers on his research in geology journals, he might be accorded some respect. As it is, he’s just a laughingstock.

Phillip Johnson is trained as a lawyer. He’s got a very sharp mind for analytic philosophy and the evaluation of the logical structure of arguments. Indeed, many philosophers have become involved in this debate, many of whom take the Darwinian side (e.g., Michael Ruse, Daniel Dennett) — are they out of their element as well?

With the advent of the Internet age and readily accessible print media, it is now possible to train oneself to master a discipline without formal academic training simply by reading textbooks and the relevant primary literature. One can be a well-educated layperson in an area, even if lacking in professional expertise, and I would place Phillip Johnson into this category. I suspect that most of what Jeffrey Shallit, as a mathematician, knows about biology is also self-taught. After all, according to Wikipedia, his professional interests are combinatorics on words, formal languages, automata theory and algorithmic number theory.

In the video, Phil Johnson states that “There aren’t really any specialists in evolution; it’s a generalists’ country.” In response, Jeffrey Shallit writes, “This is simply false. Any evolutionary biologist is a specialist in evolution. There are, ferchrissakes, many annual conferences on evolution.” Actually, most evolutionary biologists are “specialists” in a very narrow area of evolution. Because it covers such a wide range of material, evolutionary biology is one of the most difficult subjects in which to acquire a broad knowledge base. In the context of my postgraduate education in the subject, I interact with evolutionary biologists virtually on a daily basis, and I can attest that there are very few people who have a good handle on the literature across the span of the discipline.

Shallit quotes Johnson’s statement from the interview that,

[I’m] explaining to them [evolutionary biologists] what they overlooked. That in fact, their books are not convincing because they’re assuming at the beginning of the inquiry the point that they claimed to have demonstrated at the end, and so there’s a thinking flaw. So instead of responding to that, naturally they say, “Oh, why don’t you shut up? And leave us alone, so we can continue to get away with this.”

In response, Shallit writes,

This is just the usual Christian martyrdom lie. No scientist has said anything remotely like the quote Johnson gives. Biologists have laughed at Johnson’s ignorance, that is true. But scientists have also written detailed rebuttals of Johnson’s bogus claims. Also, the implication that biologists know they are being deceptive is an outrageous slander. But that’s not the only slander Johnson casually tosses off.

No scientist has said anything remotely like this? Really? I suspect that the minds of most readers are, at this point, going to the controversial book of the atheist philosopher Jerry Fodor and cognitive scientist Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, What Darwin Got Wrong. In the prologue to their book, they write,

We’ve been told by more than one of our colleagues that, even if Darwin was substantially wrong to claim that natural selection is the mechanism of evolution, nonetheless we shouldn’t say so. Not, anyhow, in public. To do that is, however inadvertently, to align oneself with the Forces of Darkness, whose goal is to bring Science into disrepute. Well, we don’t agree. We think the way to discomfort the Forces of Darkness is to follow the arguments wherever they may lead, spreading such light as one can in the course of doing so. What makes the Forces of Darkness dark is that they aren’t willing to do that. What makes Science scientific is that it is.

Shallit further quotes Johnson’s statement about the conservative nature of natural selection, complaining,

Johnson seems completely confused here. One kind of natural selection, stabilizing selection, does indeed act against extreme changes. But to imply that this is all that natural selection can do is either extremely ignorant or extremely deceptive; there is, for example, directional selection that is very good at producing change. And, of course, I hardly need point out that natural selection does not act to remove neutral mutations, as Johnson claims.

I think Phillip Johnson is, in fact, referring to stabilizing selection (in response to a question concerning whether there exists any mechanism which serves to prevent extreme changes). I’m sure Phillip Johnson is aware of the various kinds of selective process: balancing selection, stabilizing selection, disruptive selection, directional selection to name just a few. In any case, strictly speaking, even in the case of directional selection (where selection favours a particular phenotype and thus causes a change in allele frequency to result in the advantageous gene variant becoming fixed), natural selection is not a creative process. It is the variations in the population (generated by mutations) that provide the potential for genetic novelty. Natural selection merely preserves the most successful phenotypes.
The next statement from Johnson to be quoted by Shallit is the assertion that “Some creatures become extinct, some species become extinct, and others come into existence somehow — no one knows how.” Shallit responds,

Another lie. Maybe Johnson doesn’t know how speciation occurs, but biologists do. All Johnson has to do is pick up a biology textbook or, for example, Coyne and Orr’s book, Speciation (admittedly not yet published when the video was made). Mechanisms of speciation include geographic isolation, founder effects, sexual selection, polyploidy, hybridization, and others. We may not know all the causes of speciation yet, and scientists argue about the relative importance of the mechanisms I’ve mentioned. But to say “no one knows how” is a gross misstatement.

Indeed, the mechanisms underlying the process of speciation are very well documented. But I don’t think this is what Johnson was talking about here. I think Johnson is referring to the mechanisms that underlie evolution more generally. As we have argued countless times here at ENV, there is no reason to think that unguided mechanisms based on chance/necessity possess the necessary causal power to account for many of the features we find in living systems — particularly when multiple non-adaptive mutations are required to facilitate some innovation in function which can then be conserved by selection.

Johnson also states in the video that “The fossil record hasn’t gotten any better, in the intervening century and a third… [since 1859].” In response, Shallit writes,

Another blatant lie. Archaeopteryx was discovered in 1861. Since then, we have thousands and thousands more discoveries that add significantly to our understanding of evolutionary history: Diplodocus, Maiasaura, Paranthropus, Australopithecus, Ardipithecus, Pakicetus, just to name a few.

So we do. But Phillip Johnson discusses many such examples — including Archaeopteryx and Australopithecus — in Darwin on Trial. Has it not crossed Jeffrey Shallit’s mind that Phillip Johnson is aware of those examples but doesn’t find the case for the intermediate or transitional nature of those fossils very convincing? See my discussion of the fossil record here for more information.

Larry Moran’s remarks are in a similar vein. He writes that,

Phillip Johnson’s understanding of evolution is inferior to that of the average high school student in Canada. His friends at the Discovery Institute don’t recognize this because their understanding of science is no better. They think there’s still a debate about the science when, in fact, that debate was lost a long time ago.

Such rhetoric — pervasive in Moran’s writings in general — continues throughout the duration of his comments. He repeatedly makes assertions such as that Johnson “is way out of his element,” calling him an “IDiot.” But he does not provide any real substantive scientific or philosophical rebuttal to Johnson’s stated position.

ID critics like Shallit and Moran have grown very fond of the routine ridicule and insults. But just look below the surface, at the actual content of their argument. As you’ll see, it reveals that their grounds for dismissing ID are fundamentally lacking in scientific substance. Their rhetoric may be impressive to some, but for those of us who are earnest seekers of truth, the repeated substance-free name calling and insults of many members of the anti-ID lobby will continue to confirm the merit of the ID enterprise.

Jonathan McLatchie

Resident Biologist and 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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