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Remembering Will Provine, Friend and Adversary

Phillip E. Johnson

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Editor’s note: Though saddened by the occasion, Evolution News is gratified to welcome the godfather of the modern ID movement, Phillip E. Johnson, Professor of Law Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law and author of Darwin on Trial and other books. He is Program Advisor to Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture. Look here for Professor Johnson’s articles, reviews of his books, and multimedia files of his interviews and lectures.

I have just learned that Will Provine has died. I am sad to hear that, as I had hoped to see him again. After he retired several years ago, he contacted me to see if I would welcome a visit if he and his wife got to California. I gave him a warm affirmative, but it never happened.

Will Provine was one of those rare people with a strong viewpoint who is still willing to imagine that there is an opposing view that is worth hearing. He taught evolutionary science for much of his career at Cornell University and believed that evolution tells us that we have no need for God and that none of us has free will, but that our actions and lives are determined by our genes and our experiences. He even gave an introductory lecture to entering freshmen expressing this way of thinking about the world.

Nonetheless, he welcomed me into his classroom on a number of occasions to present a very different way of understanding the world. Some years, he even had his students read my book Darwin on Trial. He would certainly try to tear my arguments to shreds with the students, but at least he let them hear a different viewpoint. It is highly unusual for a professor of evolution to even admit that there is a different way of thinking, except among a few backwoods Bible-thumpers. Provine always treated me with respect, and never tried to marginalize me as a “literal-minded creationist.”

We enjoyed each other’s company, perhaps because we understood that we had a lot in common. We had come to our differing understandings honestly and with careful study, rather than because of what we had been told by others or because of peer pressure.

One of the most popular of my videos is of a debate held at Stanford between Provine and me. I never used technology in my talks, relying on my voice and my arguments. Provine liked technology and had many visuals with his presentation. Whenever I made a statement he disagreed with and it was his turn, he would bring out “the bull,” indicating that what I had said was all wrong.

Over the course of the debate, this began to wear on people. My wife noticed that one woman, who clearly agreed with Provine, began to waver as she realized he wasn’t making coherent arguments, but was essentially name-calling. This video has been seen and discussed widely and has helped our cause.

Despite the fact that he had different views from my own, Provine was a friend and, in his own way, helped me by emphasizing the right issues, rather than hiding them.

Image: Will Provine, 1994, debating Phillip Johnson at Stanford University.