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Wonderful Profile of Phil Johnson in…the Washington Post?

David Klinghoffer

Hard to believe, but collected at the Darwin on Trial website is a wonderful, yes wonderful, Washington Post profile of intelligent design “godfather” Phillip E. Johnson, who died on November 2. Of course, the article isn’t recent. The Washington Post of today wouldn’t be so fair or, indeed, sympathetic. Their more recent commentary compared Johnson and ID proponents, absurdly, with conspiracy theorists.

A Softer View

But a 2005 profile by feature writer Michael Powell, “Doubting Rationalist,” paints a rounded portrait and is very charmingly written. Powell begins by half-apologetically acknowledging that his newspaper has, in the editorial pages, taken a harsher view of ID than he evidently does:

BERKELEY, Calif. “The Washington Post is not one of my biggest fans, you know that.”

Hello?

The Washington Post reporter has just walked out of a spray of Pacific-borne rain into the living room of a modest bungalow west of downtown. There’s a shag rug, an inspirational painting or two and Phillip Johnson, dressed in tan slacks and a sweater and sitting on a couch. He pulls a dog-eared copy of a Post editorial out of his shirt pocket and reads aloud:

“With their slick Web sites, pseudo-academic conferences and savvy public relations, the proponents of ‘intelligent design’ — a ‘theory’ that challenges the validity of Darwinian evolution — are far more sophisticated than the creationists of yore. . . . They succeed by casting doubt on evolution.”

The 65-year-old Johnson swivels his formidable and balding head — with that even more formidable brain inside — and gazes over his reading glasses at the reporter (who doesn’t labor for the people who write the editorials).

“I suppose you think creation is all about unguided material processes, don’t you? Well, I don’t have the slightest trouble accepting microevolution as the cause behind the adaptation of the peppered moth and the growth of finches’ beaks. But I don’t see that evolutionists have any cause for jubilation there.

“It doesn’t tell you how the moths and birds and trees got there in the first place. The human body is packed with marvels, eyes and lungs and cells, and evolutionary gradualism can’t account for that.”

He’s not big on small talk, this professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley’s law school.

“Not Big on Small Talk”

The rest, some 3,400+ words in length, portrays Johnson as a “professorial Buddha,” accurately sketches some of the reasons skeptics doubt the Darwinian account of biological origins, notes a fascinating and quirky interest of Johnson’s in “critical legal studies,” even brings in Stephen Meyer instead of the usual naïve genuflecting you’d expect today toward the National Center for Science Education: 

Stephen C. Meyer, then [in the late 1980s] a young graduate student studying the philosophy of science at Cambridge, got word of this “law professor who was getting some odd ideas about evolution.” Meyer, who harbored his own doubts, walked to a tavern with Johnson and they talked for hours.

“Phillip understood that the language of science cut off choices: Evolution had to be an undirected process or it wasn’t science,” says Meyer, who today directs an intelligent-design think tank affiliated with the Seattle-based Discovery Institute. “He knew the rhetorical tricks.

“By the end of that day I knew we could challenge Darwin.”

“A lot of creationists are unctuous and earnest and begging for a place at the scientific table,” says Meyer. “Not Phil. He was a star academic, he conceded nothing, and he’s got rhino hide for skin.”

Unexpected Sympathy

Phil Johnson comes across as brilliant, which he was. Only in the last few paragraphs does Powell mention Johnson’s strokes. Reading up until then, you would never have guessed he suffered from any disability:

Johnson listens and folds his hands in his lap and remains silent. He’s had two strokes, the latter a few months back. His mind remains a fine instrument, the levers and wheels spinning sure as ever. But putting thoughts into words can be laborious.

There are sympathetic comments from Stuart Kauffman — “Give Johnson and the intelligent-design movement their due — they are asking terribly important questions” —  and even a moment of seeming hesitation from Ken Miller, who briefly weighs the possibility that the Cambrian explosion reflects the work of “a super-intelligent or supernatural form — I’m a Red Sox fan. But it’s surely not very likely.”

Speaking of baseball, Powell has since moved on. He now writes about sports, a subject still fairly insulated from poisonous bias, for the New York Times. Today, 14 years later, on any controversial topic, I would be shocked at such generosity from a mainstream media reporter. 

Photo: Phillip E. Johnson in 2009, screenshot from “Hanging Out with Phillip Johnson, Godfather of the Intelligent Design Movement.”