Taking the Cake


Phillip E. Johnson

When my fiftieth birthday arrived in 1990, just before the publication of Darwin on Trial, my wife Kathie organized two surprise birthday parties, one in the morning for our Presbyterian church Bible study fellowship, and the other in the afternoon for my University of California law school faculty colleagues. Each party had its own specially decorated birthday cake. For the church group, the cartoon on the frosting was of the young David (me) slaying the giant Goliath (Darwinism).

Kathie thought that a more ironic theme would be appropriate for the secular professors, most of whom weren’t sure what to make of my emerging notoriety as the scourge of Darwinism, and so the afternoon cake displayed Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Almost fifteen years later, those two birthday cakes still pose an unavoidable question about the prospects of the intelligent design movement. Are we slaying giants, or tilting at windmills?

Can we possibly succeed in slaying the gigantic error at which we have aimed our logical slingshot, and thereby liberate the people of God from their bondage to the Philistine philosophy of scientific naturalism? Sometimes the mission we have undertaken seems almost impossible, because the Darwinists are backed by the financial power of the federal government and the major foundations, plus the cultural power of the academic elite and the national media.

Those are pretty mighty windmills, and they put out a lot of wind. Cultural mandarins with that kind of backing can misrepresent scientific challengers as religious fanatics yearning to impose a theocracy, and they can impose censorship and thought control while portraying themselves in their own newspapers, television programs, and classrooms as voices of reason standing up for religious liberty and honest science. In a word, the manipulators can get away with a lot of lying, and they take full advantage of the opportunity.

The continual exploitation of the Inherit the Wind myth of the 1925 Scopes trial is an egregious example. The real Scopes trial was an ACLU publicity stunt, in which nobody’s liberty or job was at stake. The famous play, which is regularly revived in theaters across America and even in Britain, converts this farce into a moving tale of vicious persecution by Christian ministers that bears little resemblance to what actually happened. The Hollywood movie of the play is still frequently shown to public school science classes for the purpose of teaching the students to associate evolution with freedom and divine creation with repression.

Darwinism’s Failure

Dr. Goebbels would have been impressed to see what propaganda can accomplish even in a democracy, where citizens are legally free to protest. If a cultural elite has sufficient control of the news media and the textbooks, it can marginalize disfavored opinions by confining them in categories that effectively label them as unworthy of serious consideration.

The Darwinists have the media and the money on their side, but the challengers increasingly have the science. I wish we could resolve our dispute with the Darwinists by scientific experiments, rather than having to spend most of our energies and resources battling to escape from a pejorative stereotype. In fact, the experiments have been done, and they show that, despite more than a century of prodigious efforts, no natural mechanism capable of producing significant biological transformations has ever been observed. After all the desperate efforts to confirm Darwin’s theory, the record of failure is strong evidence that no such mechanism exists.

This is not surprising, once one understands that such a mechanism would need to accomplish not just change, but information creation on a colossal scale. Biologists who believe that the Darwinian mechanism can account for the extreme complexity and diversity of life hold that belief not because of what they have observed in their microscopes and in their experiments, but in spite of everything they know of biology from empirical observation and testing.

Fifty years ago, biologists and chemists confidently expected that newly discovered evidence would fix any deficiencies in the Darwinian model of evolution. If the theory were true, that probably would have happened. Instead, the Darwinists are losing some of their best textbook examples, including the fraudulent drawings of embryonic similarities and the staged photographs of moths on tree trunks. When new discoveries are made—like the recent discovery that non-coding regions of DNA are not “junk,” as Darwinists had assumed, but have important biological functions—they tend to expose new problems for the ruling theory or reveal that old problems remain unsolved.

I have on my desk an impressive collection of scientific articles by prominent biologists, titled Origination of Organismal Form. The Introduction describes organismal form as the “forgotten cause in evolutionary theory,” which is a bit like saying that gravity is the forgotten cause in physics. The editors go on to describe many open questions, which amount in toto to an acknowledgment that nothing much is known about how the forms of organisms originate. A perceptive critic observed long ago that “Darwin explained the survival of species but not the arrival of species.”

Just about anything related to “origination” is still a mystery to those who derive their conclusions from scientific evidence rather than from materialist philosophy or “just so” storytelling. Honest evolutionary biologists who want to survive in the profession have to be sufficiently circumspect that they can describe the evidence accurately, while carefully avoiding saying anything so unmistakably anti-Darwinian that they risk being shunned as traitors to the tribe.

Writings that convey a message of overall skepticism are common in mainstream biology, but the authors try to put a vaguely Darwinian spin on their findings wherever they can. They are resentful if creationists or other unbelievers quote their admissions to score points against Darwinism, even when the quotations are accurate and in context. To be fingered as one who has aided the enemy is not good for one’s career in biology. Edward Sisson in this issue has it right: Evolutionary biologists play the role of a hardball litigation firm that has taken on scientific naturalism as a client, and will do whatever it takes to win its case. When scientists become single-minded advocates for a holy cause, then what they produce is known as “junk science.”

Darwinism’s Demise

I am convinced that the factor that makes it extremely difficult to discredit Darwinism today is the very factor that ensures the theory’s demise in the not very distant future. The crucial factor is that the cultural stakes are colossal. If Darwinism were to disappear tomorrow, experimental science would be unaffected, except insofar as the prestige of the ruling biologists might suffer so much that their funding would drop.

The importance of Darwinism is cultural, not scientific. The power of the Darwinian myth over modernist minds is so complete that reasoning in all subjects, including law, literature, ethics, and sometimes even theology, has to start from the assumption that God is out of the picture. The prestige of most of the professors and pundits who have cognitive authority in our culture depends on the public’s acquiescence in the materialist creation myth that Darwin is thought to have proved. That means that there are many clever and wealthy people who have an overwhelming interest in preserving the regnant creation story and demonizing its critics.

It also means that there are many clever and hungry people who have a motive for wanting to topple the ruling mythology and replace it with something that better fits their sense of what is ultimately real. When the hungry clever people finally understand their opportunity, Darwinism will join its cousins Marxism and Freudianism in the dustbin of intellectual history. Won’t that take the cake?