Majestic Ascent: Phillip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial
Editor’s note: Phillip E. Johnson, Berkeley law professor and author of Darwin on Trial and other books, died on November 2. Evolution News is sharing remembrances from Fellows of Discovery Institute. Dr. Berlinski’s essay is drawn from his new book, out on November 11, Human Nature, currently available for pre-ordering.
Richard Dawkins published The Blind Watchmaker in 1986.1 The appearance of design in nature, Dawkins argued, is an illusion. Complex biological structures may be entirely explained by random variations and natural selection. Why biology should be quite so vested in illusions, Dawkins did not say. The Blind Watchmaker captured the public’s imagination, but in securing the public’s allegiance, very little was left to chance. Those critics who believed that living systems appear designed because they are designed underwent preemptive attack in the New York Times. “Such are the thought habits of uncultivated intellects,” wrote the biologist Michael Ghiselin, “— children, savages and simpletons.”
Comments such as these had the effect of raw meat dropped carelessly among carnivores. A scramble ensued to get the first bite. No one bothered to attack the preposterous Ghiselin. It was Richard Dawkins who had waggled his tempting rear end, and behind Dawkins, fesse à fesse, Charles Darwin. With the publication in 1991 of Darwin on Trial, Phil Johnson did what carnivores so often do: he took a bite.
Johnson was at the time a professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley, a man whose training had given him what great lawyers so often have, and that is a shrewd eye for the main chance. Darwin’s theory, Johnson observed, is hardly in need of empirical support: it is its own best friend. “The prevailing assumption in evolutionary science,” he wrote, “seems to be that speculative possibilities, without experimental confirmation, are all that is really necessary.” This is wrong only to the extent that speculative possibilities without experimental confirmation are often all that is really possible.
The Best Possible Way
Every paleontologist writing since Darwin published his masterpiece in 1859 has known that the fossil record does not support Darwin’s theory. The theory predicted a continuum of biological forms, so much so that from the right perspective, species would themselves be seen as taxonomic artifacts, like the classification of certain sizes in men’s suiting as husky. Questions about the origin of species were resolved in the best possible way: there are no species and so there is no problem. Inasmuch as the historical record suggested a discrete progression of fixed biological forms, it was fatal to Darwin’s project. All the more reason, Darwin argued, to discount the evidence in favor of the theory. “I do not pretend,” he wrote, “that I should ever have suspected how poor a record of the mutations of life, the best preserved geological section presented, had not the difficulty of our not discovering innumerable transitional links between the species which appeared at the commencement and close of each formation, pressed so hardly on my theory.”2
This is, as Johnson noted, self-serving gibberish.
Few serious biologists are today willing to defend the position that Dawkins expressed in The Blind Watchmaker. The metaphor remains stunning and so the watchmaker remains blind, but he is now deaf and dumb as well. With a few more impediments, he may as well be dead.
The publication in 1983 of Motoo Kimura’s The Neutral Theory of Molecular Evolution consolidated ideas that Kimura had introduced in the late 1960s. On the molecular level, evolution is entirely stochastic, and if it proceeds at all, it proceeds by drift along a leaves-and-current model. Kimura’s theories left the emergence of complex biological structures an enigma, but they played an important role in the local economy of belief. They allowed biologists to affirm that they welcomed responsible criticism. “A critique of neo-Darwinism,” the Dutch biologist Gert Korthof boasted, “can be incorporated into neo-Darwinism if there is evidence and a good theory, which contributes to the progress of science.”3
By this standard, if the Archangel Gabriel were to accept personal responsibility for the Cambrian explosion, his views would be widely described as neo-Darwinian. In Darwin on Trial, Johnson ascended majestically above the usual point of skepticism. It was the great case of Darwin et al. v. the Western Religious Tradition that occupied his attention. The issue had been joined long before Johnson wrote. But the case had not been decided. It had not been decisively decided and like some terrifying cripple, it had continued to bang its crutches through all the lower courts of Hell and Dover, Pennsylvania.
A few nodding judges such as Stephen Jay Gould thought to settle the matter by splitting the difference between litigants. To science, Gould assigned everything of importance, and to religion, nothing. Such was his theory of non-overlapping magisteria, or NOMA, a term very much suggesting that Gould was endowing a new wing at the Museum of Modern Art. Serving two masters, Gould supposed that he would be served by them in turn. He was mistaken. In approaching Darwin’s theory of evolution, theistic evolutionists acquired a posture of expectant veneration, imagining hopefully that their deference would allow them to lick the plates from various scientific tables. They were in short order assured that having settled for nothing, nothing is what they would get. From the likes of Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, Gould got what he deserved.
And from Phillip Johnson too, but in a different way and with different ends in mind.
Palms Itching, Collectively
The scientific establishment had long believed that in re Darwin et al v. The Western Religious Tradition, Darwin would prevail. They expected to be assigned governance over the ideology of a democratic society. Their palms had collectively commenced to itch. Newspapers hymned Darwin’s praise, and television documentaries — breathless narrator, buggy jungle — celebrated his achievement. Museum curators rushed to construct Darwinian dioramas in which human beings were shown ascending, step by step, from some ancient simian conclave, one suspiciously like the faculty lounge at Harvard. A very considerable apparatus of propaganda and persuasion was put at the disposal of the Darwinian community.
And, yet, no matter the extent to which Darwin’s theory was said to be beyond both reappraisal and reproach, the conviction remained current that it was not so, or if so, not entirely so.
“Why not consider,” Johnson asked, “the possibility that life is what it so evidently seems to be, the product of creative intelligence?”
The question is entirely reasonable. It is the question that every thoughtful person is inclined to ask.
So Why Not Ask It?
No standard by which science is justified as an institution rules it out. The ones commonly employed — naturalism, falsifiability, materialism, methodological naturalism — are useless as standards because transparent as dodges.
The geneticist Richard Lewontin — Harvard, oddly enough — provided an answer to Johnson’s question that is a masterpiece of primitive simplicity. It surely deserves to be quoted at length and quoted in full:
Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.4
There is much in these remarks that is analytically defective. The “commitment to materialism” that Lewontin defends is hardly clear enough to merit rebuttal. The history of physics suggests the maxim that anything goes if something works. It is as useful a maxim in mathematical physics as it is in international finance.
The Great Case
Nonetheless, Lewontin, as Johnson understood, had properly grasped the dynamics of the Great Case, its inner meaning. What remains when materialism (or anything else) is subtracted from Lewontin’s prior commitment is the prior commitment itself; and like all such commitments, it is a commitment no matter what. Had they read The New York Review of Books, mullahs in Afghanistan would have understood Lewontin perfectly. They would have scrupled only at the side he had chosen.
Darwin’s theories are correspondingly less important for what they explain, which is very little, and more important for what they deny, which is roughly the plain evidence of our senses. “Darwin,” Richard Dawkins noted amiably, “had made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”5
But the Great Case, Johnson reminded his readers, has not yet been decided in the only court that counts, and that is the considered reflection of the human race. Efforts by one side to absent themselves from judgment are somewhat premature. Too much is at stake.
That much is at stake explains a good deal about the rhetoric of discussion in the United States, its vile tone. Biologists such as Jerry Coyne, Donald Prothero, Larry Moran, or P.Z. Myers are of the opinion that if they cannot win the argument, they had better not lose it, and what better way not to lose an argument than to abuse one’s antagonist? If necessary, the biological establishment has been quite willing to demand of the federal courts that they do what it has been unable to do in the court of public opinion. If the law is unwilling to act on their behalf, they are quite prepared to ignore it. Having been spooked by some tedious Darwinian toady, the California Science Center cancelled with blithe unconcern a contract to show a film about the Cambrian explosion. Spooked by some other Darwinian toady, the Department of Physics at the University of Kentucky denied the astronomer Martin Gaskell an appointment in astrophysics that he plainly was due.
The California Science Center paid up.6
The University of Kentucky paid up.7
As Phillip Johnson might well have reminded them, the law is a knife that cuts two ways.
An Inter-Faith Prayer of Thanksgiving
At Discovery Institute we often offer an inter-faith Prayer of Thanksgiving to the Almighty for the likes of P.Z. Myers, Larry Moran, Barbara Forrest, Rob Pennock, and Jeffrey Shallit.
For Donald Prothero, we are prepared to sacrifice a ram.
And now? Both critics and defenders of Darwin’s theory have been humbled by the evidence. We are the beneficiaries of twenty years of brilliant and penetrating laboratory work in molecular biology and biochemistry. Living systems are more complex than ever before imagined. They are strange in their organization and nature. No theory is remotely adequate to the facts.
There is some evidence that once again, the diapason of opinion is being changed. The claims of intelligent design are too insistent and too plausible to be frivolously dismissed and the inadequacies of any Darwinian theory too obvious to be tolerated frivolously. Time has confirmed what critics like Phil Johnson have always suspected. Darwin’s theory is far less a scientific theory than the default position for a view in which the universe and everything in it assembles itself from itself in a never-ending magical procession. The religious tradition and with it, a sense for the mystery, terror, and grandeur of life, has always embodied insights that were never trivial.
The land is rising even as it sinks.
And this, too, is a message that Phil Johnson was pleased to convey.
- Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design  with a new introduction (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996).
- Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, 1st ed. (London: John Murray, 1859), ch. 9, p. 302.
- Gert Korthof, “How to Attack Neo-Darwinism and Still End Up in Evolution Textbooks: The Neutralist–Selectionist Controversy,” review of The Neutral Theory of Molecular Evolution, by Motoo Kimura, on Korthof’s website Was Darwin Wrong?
- Richard Lewontin, “Billions and Billions of Demons,” review of The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, by Carl Sagan, The New York Review of Books, January 9, 1997.
- Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, 6.
- “California Science Center Pays $110,000 to Settle Intelligent Design Discrimination Lawsuit,” Evolution News, Discovery Institute, August 29, 2011.
- Casey Luskin, “University of Kentucky Pays $100,000+ to Settle Gaskell Discrimination Lawsuit,” Evolution News, Discovery Institute, January 18, 2011.
Photo source: Trailer for the 20th anniversary edition of Darwin on Trial (screenshot).