Remembering Phillip E. Johnson (1940-2019): The Man Who Lit the Match
Author’s note: With great regret, we recognize the passing of Phillip Johnson, a key guiding spirit of the intelligent design movement. He died peacefully overnight this weekend, at age 79, at his home in Berkeley, California. I am publishing below an essay by Casey Luskin, written in 2011 for the website Darwin on Trial, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of Johnson’s crucial book of the same name. He held the title of Program Advisor for Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture.
A special regret for me is that I never had the opportunity to meet Johnson, or Phil as he was called by those who knew him. But we in the community that seeks to advance the theory of intelligent design live in his presence every day. And we will continue to do so even following his death. It is that way with great men and great women: they launch a movement, or “light a match,” an image cited below, and stamp their vision and personality permanently on events, institutions, and persons that follow.
With his vision, Johnson changed the terms of the debate about origins, with brilliance and gusto. In doing so, he changed many lives, of scientists and others, across the globe. But he did it in the spirit of a gentleman: as John Mark Reynolds has written, he “suffered fools gladly.” Now there is a model to follow! He was very humble, as the greatest men often are, and refused credit for striking the match that became the fire that is currently at work consuming a desiccated theory left over from 19th century materialism. After all, Johnson wrote, “the logs had been piled high, and the tinder gathered. Darwinian naturalists had accumulated a large stock of public discontent.” True, but nevertheless it was Johnson’s first book that set the fire, and not someone else’s. That, with his subsequent contributions and leadership, much of it behind the scenes, makes him the “Godfather of Intelligent Design.”
We will have much more to say about Phil’s legacy and his personality in days and weeks to come. For now, the following comments can’t be much improved upon:
The Significance of Phillip Johnson
Phillip Johnson, law professor emeritus of UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, is widely recognized as the godfather of the contemporary intelligent design (ID) movement. As the author of several books and numerous articles explaining scientific, legal, and cultural dimension of the debate over ID and Darwinism, Johnson was one of the most prolific authors in the formative years of the movement.
It was Johnson’s 1991 book Darwin on Trial that first convinced many thinkers that neo-Darwinian evolution was buttressed more by a philosophy of naturalism than by the scientific evidence. Johnson’s influential writing became the magnet of scholars from a variety of fields — biology, chemistry, physics, philosophy, theology, and law — to forge the intelligent design movement.
The stories of many of these scientists and scholars are told in the volume Darwin’s Nemesis (InterVarsity Press, 2006). But Johnson too recounted — with humble surprise — the impact of his work in the 2008 volume Intelligent Design 101:
Fifteen years ago I published a book that I thought might add a few ounces of balance to the debate over Darwin’s theory of evolution. The main thrust of that book, Darwin on Trial, was that evolution is propped up more by naturalistic philosophy than by the scientific evidence. Much to my pleasant surprise, this book turned out to be the match that lit the tinder beneath a stockpile of dry logs. This is not to my credit; the logs had been piled high, and the tinder gathered. Darwinian naturalists had accumulated a large stock of public discontent. [p. 23]
The Right Questions
Part of Johnson’s vision as a legal scholar has been knowing how to ask the right questions. The 1980s was an era of controversy for Biblical creationists. While young earth creationists and old earth creationists squabbled about whether Noah rode a dinosaur, or a camel onto the Ark, elite materialists were happy to take over the culture.
With the mind of a law professor, Johnson was a master at spotting issues. And the key issue he saw in the origins debate was not the age of the earth or the differing interpretations of Genesis by Christians. It was a more fundamental question of interest to theists and non-theists alike: Is life the result of blind, undirected natural causes, or is it the result of purposeful design? By focusing on this question, Johnson transformed the entire origins debate. Johnson continues:
Darwin on Trial became a uniting force around which many like-minded individuals — scholars of many stripes, churchgoers, students, and even open-minded agnostics who dared extend their skepticism to Darwin — could rally. For many, that rallying cry ultimately became “Intelligent Design!”
It has been often said that all truth passes through three stages. First it is ignored. Then it is violently opposed. Finally, it is accepted as being self-evident. This seems to be the arc that intelligent design is traversing.
Objective Education, Not Censorship
Many were content to ignore Johnson’s ideas until they actually started to impact public education. In 1999, members of the Kansas State Board of Education voted to soften the dogmatism that had dominated evolution-instruction. Yet Johnson was critical of the 1999 Kansas decision because it removed some aspects of macroevolution from the curriculum. Johnson has always been a proponent of objective education — not censorship. He argued in The Wedge of Truth that students should learn both the evidence for and against Darwinian evolution:
What educators in Kansas and elsewhere should be doing is to ‘teach the controversy.’ Of course students should learn the orthodox Darwinian theory and the evidence that supports it, but they should also learn why so many are skeptical, and they should hear the skeptical arguments in their strongest form rather than in a caricature intended to make them look as silly as possible.
In 2001, the Ohio State Board followed Johnson’s approach and required students to critically analyze the evidence for and against Darwinian evolution. Objective evolution education had won.
It was around this time that Darwin-lobbyists realized that they better stop ignoring Johnson, and start telling the world that unless students are prevented from questioning Darwinism, the sky will fall.
What You Saw, What You Got
ID critics quickly learned that the most effective way to target ID was not to address its arguments, but to make accusations of secret, sinister motives among proponents. One imagines the godfather Phillip Johnson in a smoky dark room handing “wedge documents” to his eager followers, charging them to go forth and baptize converts to intelligent design.
On the contrary, with Phillip Johnson, what you see is what you get. As John Mark Reynolds explains in Darwin’s Nemesis:
Phillip Johnson is one of those rare individuals who is always the same person. He asks the same hard questions in Sunday School as he does in the Berkeley classroom. He has a unified personality. I have seen him in hundreds of different situations, and there is no split in his soul. [p. 27]
While Johnson wouldn’t flatter himself with such praise, he too observes that he has never hidden anything. “I always find these conspiracy theories amusing because our strategy has been transparent from the beginning,” writes Johnson. “After all, I titled my fifth book The Wedge of Truth: Splitting the Foundations of Naturalism.”
What is more striking is Johnson’s gentlemanly responses to critics. “He is not a hater, not even of his enemies,” writes John Mark Reynolds. “This is why so many who disagree with him can still respect him…He suffers fools gladly.” (Darwin’s Nemesis, pp. 26-27)
Ironically, intemperate efforts to attack Johnson often ended up drawing people to him, creating a growing network of scientists and other scholars interested in intelligent design. Biochemist Michael Behe explains how a biased critique of Darwin on Trial in the journal Science led Behe to join the ID movement:
The news item made me so mad that I wrote a letter to the editor of Science, which they published … I wrote that this Johnson fellow appears from his book to be a rather intelligent layman, and that scientists would do much better to address the substance of his arguments than to rely on ad hominem attacks. About a week later I received a letter with a return address of Boalt Hall. … I was now in the loop—I was within the circle of Phil Johnson’s acquaintances and useful contacts. [Darwin’s Nemesis, pp. 44-45]
Behe’s story is not unusual for members of the ID movement. Attracted by his intellect, character, and boldness, a new generation of scientists and scholars became connected to each other through Johnson.
Some critics would like to call Johnson the father of ID. In fact, they sometimes claim that Johnson, a non-scientist, invented the term “intelligent design” as a scheme to get around a 1987 Supreme Court ruling that declared creationism unconstitutional.
Aside from the fact that this story isn’t true, it’s also grossly anachronistic. ID thinking and arguments date back to the ancient Greeks, and even in its modern form, the term “intelligent design” was used long before Johnson got involved with the issue, and before any court contemplated creationism.
In this sense, Johnson is not, and cannot be the “father” of intelligent design. But the Godfather? Most definitely.
Photo credit: Lit match (top), by Yaoqi LAI via Unsplash; Phillip E. Johnson (below), by Greg Schneider.