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Phillip Johnson and the Rebellion of the Evidence

Phillip Johnson

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.

The book fascinated him, or more exactly it reassured him. In a sense it told him nothing that was new, but that was part of the attraction. It said what he would have said, if it had been possible for him to set his scattered thoughts in order. It was the product of a mind similar to his own, but enormously more powerful, more systematic, less fear-ridden. The best books, he perceived, are those that tell you what you know already. 

George Orwell, describing Winston Smith reading, in 1984

When I first met Phil Johnson, it was not Phil Johnson whom I met.

It was his unpublished prose. In June 1988, in a hotel conference room in Tacoma, Washington, Steve Meyer handed me a stapled manuscript of about 80 pages in length. “A crazy law professor I talked with in London,” he said, “wrote this, and he is looking for responses.” I took the manuscript off to a corner of the room and started reading. Whoever this guy is, I recall thinking to myself, after only a few pages, he is going to make a big difference. Phil’s personality — his fearlessness, his insight, his wit — shone through on every page. The writer was there in the room, at that moment, even though he was still on sabbatical in London.

A Year Later

One year later, again in Tacoma, I met the man behind the prose, which later became Darwin on Trial (1991). On first inspection, Phil wasn’t much to look at: short, balding, bespectacled, attired in drab academic fashion, with a quizzical expression on his face, he seemed not to match the witty and courageous persona of the manuscript.

Then Phil started talking. His diminutive stature and drab appearance melted away, replaced by a series of powerful arguments sharpened with irony and deadly accurate humor. As those who knew him will attest, Phil was never boring, mainly because he respected the intelligence of his audience, and counted on them to make the connections he could leave implicit. Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones has said that the notes the guitarist doesn’t play are as important as the ones he does. (Listen to any of Richards’s guitar solos, and you will grasp instantly what he meant: the long rest bars carry the music as much as the notes themselves do.) Phil knew where to place the rests, because the theme he was weaving could stand on its own.

And that theme, as his readers came to understand, was the role of the assumption of naturalism in modern evolutionary theory, or in science generally. Evolutionary biologists such as Richard Dawkins or Ernst Mayr, Phil observed, preached the take-home message of naturalism (to use another metaphor) at the summation of their evolutionary sermons — because naturalism was there right at the beginning.

Naturalism and Science

But naturalism and science itself are not the same thing. If they were, the Darwinian Revolution would never have happened. Darwin had to argue for naturalism. No one needs to argue for something, however, if everyone already accepts it. Science flourished for centuries before naturalism, but then took a naturalistic turn in the mid-to-late 19th century. We still live in that philosophical universe, but the naturalistic turn was historically contingent, not necessary, and could be undone if the evidence refused to cooperate. What Phil saw approaching on the horizon was the rebellion of the evidence, exposing the all-important role of the naturalistic assumption at the heart of the evolutionary worldview. He detected the rebellion first in the writings of evolutionary biologists themselves, and also in the broader claims of the scientific establishment.

What We Should Expect

Not surprisingly, for a world-class legal scholar, Phil had few equals as a critical analyst of arguments. Consider, for instance, his devastating take (1993, 107) on Richard Dawkins’s argument that the ongoing failures of origin-of-life research are exactly what we should expect to see:

Dawkins is actually encouraged by the failure of scientists to duplicate the spontaneous generation of life in their laboratories….When it becomes necessary to rely on arguments like that one, the experimental work must be going very badly.

Boom, hisssss…that sound you hear is all the air going out of a deflated naturalistic argument. 

Phil also took on the scientific establishment — for instance, the National Academy of Sciences. In the opening of Darwin on Trial (1993, 8), he pointed out that the “game” of science had been rigged by the rule of naturalism to favor an evolutionary outcome, whatever the evidence:

The Academy thus defined “science” in such a way that advocates of supernatural creation may neither argue for their own position nor dispute the claims of the scientific establishment. That may be one way to win an argument, but it is not satisfying to anyone who thinks it is possible that God really did have something to do with creating mankind, or that some of the claims that scientists make under he heading of “evolution” may be false. 

“That may be one way to win an argument” is, again, the sound of a collapsing question-begging move within the naturalistic worldview.

Orwell at His Best 

Phil’s prose reminded me strongly of George Orwell at his best: pithy, clear-sighted, steadily pursuing illogic, cant, and self-serving assumptions to their sources in philosophical inconsistency or opportunism. In my experience — and this is the reason for my citation of Orwell, above — many of Phil’s readers found that, in some remarkable way, they already knew what Phil told them in Darwin on Trial and his other writings.

Only Phil was able to express their inchoate or ill-formed perceptions clearly: that the evolutionary story was nine parts naturalism to one part solid data; that Darwin had pulled the ladder behind him onto the roof, after he had climbed up there, leaving the rest of us stranded on the ground1; that what passes as “science” in evolutionary theory is often not worthy of the name, because its design-based competitors have been ruled out a priori; and so on.

Phil also knew that counting noses in the scientific community was a poor way to determine truth. “Sanity is not statistical,” Orwell wrote in 1984. Being in the majority means — well, only that you belong to the bigger number. Nothing more.

Phil’s legacy will be long-lasting. His public role waned rapidly following the pair of strokes that left him largely disabled after 2002. But his influence lingers on.

The fact that you are reading this now is evidence enough of that.


  1. This simile may be a bit opaque. To elaborate: Darwin employed many theological arguments in the Origin of Species to build his case for universal common descent by random variation and natural selection. For instance, Darwin argued that the Creator would act through natural laws, but not direct or special actions, to bring about living things (1859, 488). Hence it is impossible to understand the “one long argument” (1859, 459) of the Origin without its theological premises and content. At the same time, however, Darwin and his coterie (e.g., T.H. Huxley) were campaigning vigorously to change the nature of science itself, such that design-based explanations would thereafter lie beyond its boundaries, somewhere in the province of religion or philosophy. Thus, the simile: Darwin used the ladder of theology to make his scientific case for undirected evolution, while pulling up the same ladder so that no one else could use it in scientific debate after him. For further details, see Stephen Dilley’s article “Charles Darwin’s Use of Theology in the Origin of Species,” British Journal for the History of Science 45 (2012):29-56.

Photo: John Mark Reynolds, Phil Johnson, and Paul Nelson, Pajaro Dunes, California, June 1998, by Suzanne Nelson.