Moody Magazine, October 1991

Missing Evidence


By Mark Hartwig

Review of Darwin on Trial, Phillip E. Johnson (Intervarsity Press)

For many people, Darwinism is synonymous with atheism. Whether this is true in a strictly logical sense, the two are certainly connected.

From its introduction, Darwin's theory of evolution has been hailed by its supporters as a decisive blow against religion. By providing a naturalistic explanation for the origin of all living things, they tell us, Darwin not only rendered religious explanations superfluous, he made it reasonable to believe that every scientific mystery would ultimately be resolved in naturalistic terms.

In the words of Richard Dawkins, a biologist and outspoken Darwinist, "Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist."

But according to Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson, theories as "fulfilling" as Darwin's should be regarded with a healthy measure of skepticism. In a scholarly but wonderfully readable volume, Johnson examines the evidence for Darwin's theory on it sown terms, taking care to "distinguish the evidence itself from any religious or philosophical bias that might distort our interpretation of that evidence."

Working from a scientific and philosophical point of view, he seeks to discover "whether Darwinism is based on a fair assessment of the scientific evidence, or whether it is another kind of fundamentalism."

Darwin's theory asserts that all creatures descended from a small number of common ancestors. The diversity of organisms that we see is a product of random genetic mutations and natural selection, or "survival of the fittest."

Although the fundamental concepts of Darwinism are relatively simple, a proper assessment of Darwin's theory requires a solid understanding of evidence from many scientific disciplines, including paleontology, zoology, systematics, and molecular biology. Thus Johnson has set for himself a particularly formidable task - especially for one not trained as a scientist.

Johnson, however, proves more than equal to the task. Drawing on an enormous body of scientific literature, he examines contemporary Darwinism under the cool light of reason. What he finds is an astonishing lack of support for the theory's principal claims -and numerous instances where the evidence directly contradicts the theory.

For example, Johnson observes that "just about everyone who took a college biology class during the last sixty or so years has been led to believe that the fossil record was a bulwark of support for the classic Darwinian thesis." But as he digs into the work of prominent paleontologists, he finds that the fossil record, far from being an asset, has always been a liability that Darwinists have had to explain away.

Whereas Darwinism predicts a pattern of gradual change in the fossil record, with one species slowly grading into another, paleontologists have found a pattern of sudden appearance and stasis. Most fossil species appear all at once, fully formed, and exhibit no sustained change throughout their tenure in the fossil record.

Darwinists have proposed many explanations for why the fossil evidence fails to confirm their expectations. Traditionally, Darwinists have relied on the imperfection of the fossil evidence. Because fossilization occurs only under special circumstance, fossils give us only snapshots of evolutionary history.

More recently, some have proposed that evolutionary change occurs rapidly, and in small, isolated populations. But such explanations can never turn the fossil record into an asset for Darwinism.

Conceding that "a certain amount of evolution could have occurred in such a way that it left no trace," Johnson warns Darwinists that "at some point we need more than ingenious excuses to fill the gaps. The discontinuities between the major groups.are not only pervasive, but in many cases immense." As it now stands, "if evolution means the gradual change of one species into another kind, the outstanding characteristic of the fossil record is the absence of evidence for evolution."

Johnson's understanding of the scientific evidence is comprehensive and sophisticated. But as an academic lawyer, he comes into his own as he probes the assumptions and motivations behind Darwinists' arguments. According to Johnson, Darwinism's continued prestige in the face of overwhelmingly contrary evidence stems from the science establishment's unswerving commitment to philosophical naturalism.

Philosophical naturalism "assumes the entire realm of nature to be a closed system of material causes and effects, which cannot be influenced by anything from 'outside'. Naturalism does not explicitly deny the mere existence of God, but it does deny that a supernatural being could in any way influence natural events. By this view, atheistic evolution is the only possible explanation for the diversity of the life because everything else, including intelligent design, has been ruled out by Darwinists from the start. The scientific establishment has latched onto Darwinism not because of supporting evidence but because scientists can envision no acceptable alternative.

The result, Johnson says, is that scientists do not approach Darwinism the way they approach other theories. Because they assume it is true, they never seek to test the theory, only to confirm and extend it. Disconfirming evidence, he says, is either explained away or ignored, "because to Darwinists such evidence cannot exist. The 'fact of evolution' is true by definition, and so negative information is uninteresting and generally unpublishable."

Philosophical naturalism affects not only Darwinist science, but also Darwinist views of religion and education. Johnson shrewdly observes that identifying "science" with a particular philosophical position allows Darwinists to decry religious indoctrination in the public schools while shamelessly promoting their own theological and philosophical agenda. "Defenders of naturalism must enforce rules of procedure for science that preclude opposing points of view," Johnson writes. "With that accomplished, the next critical step is to treat 'science' as a equivalent to truth..As long as scientific naturalists make the rules, critics who demand positive evidence for Darwinism need not be taken seriously. They do not understand 'how science works.'"

Delightful to read, Darwin on Trial is a fair but merciless critique of contemporary Darwinism.

Mark Hartwig is science and worldview editor for Focus on the Family and a fellow of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute. For several years, he was director of Students for Origins Research and managing editor of the scholarly journal, Origins Research, now published as Origins and Design.