An appropriate subtitle for Phillip Johnson's article would be, Why my fear and loathing of evolution prevent me from believing it is true despite the overwhelming evidence for it.
Evolution produces two results that cry out for explanation adaptation and diversity. Sonar in bats, eyesight in eagles, sunlight energy capture in plants, and adaptations in general had only one kind of explanation before Darwin; the argument from design. The same argument explained the vast diversity of kinds of animals and plants. The greatest minds in the history of Western Civilization, from Plato and Aristotle to Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Boyle, all believed that the argument from design was the only reasonable explanation for adaptations in animals and plants. When they were alive, they were right.
As a young man, Charles Darwin was a creationist deeply impressed with William Paley's version of the argument from design. But after returning from the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, reconsideration of what he had seen on the voyage convinced him that evolution had occurred. A short time later, when he deduced the theory of natural selection to explain the adaptations in which he had previously seen the handiwork of God, Darwin knew that he was committing cultural murder. He understood immediately that if natural selection explained adaptations, and evolution by descent were true, then the argument from design was dead and all that went with it, namely the existence of a personal god, free will, life after death, immutable moral laws, and ultimate meaning in life. The immediate reactions to Darwin's On the Origins of Species exhibit, in addition to favorable and admiring responses from a relatively few scientists, an understandable fear and disgust that has never disappeared from Western culture.
Johnson has excellent reasons for fearing and despising modern scientific conceptions of the evolutionary process. He clearly wants animals and plants (humans in particular-he says nothing about disgusting parasites) to have been designed by divine purpose. He wants to have free will and divinely inspired moral laws that last forever unchanged, and I suspect that he wants to have some kind of ultimate meaning in life coupled with life after death. If modern evolutionary biology is true, then all these lofty desires are hopeless.
In this article Johnson provides what he calls a "rough description" of modern evolutionary biology, raises a series of arguments against evolution, and finally proposes a creationist view of the origin of species. I will address each in turn.
Johnson's "rough description" of what he calls Darwinism is actually a crude caricature. He gives only one example of evolution of any kind, a change in gene frequencies in a locus controlling melanism in the peppered-moth Biston betularia, and argues that this is "the most famous piece of evidence for Darwinism" and that "examples of this kind allow Darwinists to assert as beyond question that 'evolution is a fact.' "
No evolutionary biologist would assert that the case of industrial melanism is the best evidence that evolution by descent is true. Darwin knew nothing of Mendelian heredity of industrial melanism, but he had three very powerful arguments and sets of evidence for evolution sufficient to convince himself and, by the end of his life, a great number of others who were initially skeptical. First, Darwin says that the unmistakable similarity of fossil species to living species in any one district (living species were clearly different from the fossil species, yet also clearly related) strongly suggested evolution by descent. Second, going around the coast of South America, Darwin observed that the same ecological niche was occupied by similar but clearly different species. And third, he noticed that despite deep similarity of physical features in the Galapagos and Cape Verde Islands, the Galapagos Islands were filled with species different from but related to those on the west coast of South America, whereas the Cape Verde Islands were filled with species different from but related to those on the west coast of Africa. Evolution by descent from mainland species was a compelling hypothesis.
Modern biogeography combined with plate tectonics demonstrates dramatically the relatedness of species that originated in the same area but later spread on continental plates to different places on the earth's surface. Most creationists avoid the evidence from biogeography because construction of elaborate and implausible myths is required to explain it away.
From modern molecular biology comes additional evidence for evolution by descent. DNA sequence data shows that closely related but biologically wholly isolated species share a huge proportion of their DNA, often more than 99 percent (humans and chimpanzees share about 99 percent of their genomes). This measurement of relatedness is strong evidence of shared descent, especially because many of the DNA sequences are junk that codes for nothing, but are still shared because of common descent.
Yet Johnson totally ignores all this evidence for evolution, arguing instead that he has adequately covered the evidence by mentioning and ridiculing the case of industrial melanism. Johnson's presentation of evidence for evolution is a sham. Only an uncritical or uninformed editorial process could allow this sham to be published.
Now to his critique of evolution. Evolution, he says, is based upon a "highly controversial philosophical presupposition," naturalism, which holds that natural phenomena have natural explanations, not supernatural explanations. "Faith in naturalism," he claims, "is no more 'scientific' (i.e., empirically based) than any other kind of faith." The only reason why naturalistic explanations of the origins of humans dominate the science classes of high schools and colleges is because of the "cultural authority" of scientists, and their "skilled manipulation of categories and definitions."
The reason that naturalism is preferred by scientists is because it works. Many phenomena thought in earlier times to have no natural explanation have indeed been explained by natural science. Examples from biology include heredity, viral diseases, and adaptations.
Johnson is wrong that all leaps of faith are somehow equal, a favorite assertion of creationists. I have faith that the sun will rise tomorrow morning and the day will become light at dawn. This is a naturalistic faith based upon many lifetimes of observation. This leap of faith is much smaller than the leap of faith required to believe that some unobserved god laid known immutable moral rules for humans it designed. In Newton's time it was a lesser leap of faith to believe that adaptations were produced by purposive forces of some kind, but now the lesser leap is to believe that natural selection produces adaptations.
There is no evidence against evolution in Johnson's essay. He claims that the fossil evidence is very difficult to reconcile with evolution, or that the fossil record is hostile to Darwinism. This tired assertion is based only upon the gaps in the fossil record. Evolutionists have two convincing lines of counterevidence. The first is that fossils are formed only under a small set of very special circumstances, and that fossils formed are often obliterated by a variety of well-verified mechanisms, including subduction of continental plates under the earth's crust, the fate of most pre-Cambrian fossils. Second, we have no reason to think, as Johnson asserts, that intermediate forms should be found everywhere in the fossil record. A new species generally becomes distinct in a relatively small area, then perhaps spreads widely. The chances of finding the transitional forms in the fossil record are extremely small. A great many books have been written by evolutionists to show that the fossil record is not hostile to evolution. Only this year, fossil ancestors of whales having small but functioning legs have been uncovered, thus bridging one of the most notorious gaps in the fossil record.
I waited expectantly for Johnson's positive evidence for supernatural intervention in the origin of species, knowing that it would be some version of the argument from design. Sure enough: "From a creationist point of view, the very fact that the universe is on the whole orderly, in a manner comprehensive to our intellect, is evidence that we and it were fashioned by a common intelligence." No, that the universe has order is not evidence that it was fashioned by Johnson's god. Naturalistic explanations have already been successful enough in explaining natural order to conclude with assurance that the argument from design simply does not carry much weight any more. That is why most theologians have given it up. One wonders why Johnson trots it out again in such simple and uncritical form as his only positive argument for purposive origin of species, as if merely stating it was reason enough to take the argument seriously. Natural selection is a far better explanation for adaptations than purposive forces, especially considering that the better adapted a species is to its environment, the more certain becomes its extinction should the environment change (or in other words, natural selection is blind to the future).
I agree with Johnson on one major issue. We both think the evidence is good that prominent evolutionists have joined with equally prominent theologians and religious leaders to sweep under the rug the incompatibilities of evolution and religion, and we both deplore this strategy.
(Provine W.B., "Responses to Phillip Johnson," in "Evolution as Dogma: The Establishment of Naturalism," [First Things, November 1990], Foundation for Thought and Ethics: Richardson TX, 1990, reprint, pp19-22)
I agree with Phillip Johnson that the creation/evolution controversy is complex. I agree with many of his specific points. In reading of his concern that evolution "is based not upon any incontrovertible empirical evidence, but upon a highly controversial philosophical presupposition," I am reminded of events in Paris that transpired in the early part of 1751, after publication of volume one of Buffon's Histoire Naturelle, which contained his Theory of the Earth. The Deputies and Syndic of the Faculty of Theology of the Sorbonne wrote to Buffon in order that he respond satisfactorily to their findings-that certain propositions in his book "contain principles and maxims that do not conform with those of the Religion." Buffon's response, which was "accepted and approved" at the general assembly of the Faculty, April 1, 1751, was in the form of a declaration, which he began thus:
I declare that I had no intention to contradict the text of Scripture; that I believe very firmly everything there reported on the creation, be it the temporal order, be it the circumstances of the facts; and that I abandon that which in my book concerns the formation of the earth, and in general everything that might be contrary to the narrative of Moses, having presented my hypothesis on the formation of planets only as a purely philosophical supposition.
In this instance, the Sorbonne Faculty "accepted and approved" scientific knowledge, even knowledge contrary to Scripture, for it was but "philosophical supposition." Johnson's contrast is different: his is not supposition vs. Scripture, but supposition vs. incontrovertible evidence.
My problem is that all facts, so far as I know, are capable of alternative interpretation. Facts, or evidence, seem incontrovertible only in the light, or dark as the case may be, of human judgment, which is the only source of error on this planet. In my experience, error is most severe in relation to fact judged incontrovertible. Johnson's contrast, then, seems meaningless except in terms consistent with the action of the Sorbonne Deputies. Only historical circumstance and use of language differentiate "Scripture" and "incontrovertible evidence."
Lack of a defined standard of faith disquiets human souls. Among them is the evolutionist who makes of his "science" a religion, as Johnson rightly perceives. Such an evolutionist is as justified in his disquiet today, I suppose, as were the Sorbonne Deputies some 240 years ago. This equivalence seems the basis of Johnson's concern, as if the evolutionist were today's censorial deputy-as if the science classroom of today were the equivalent of the theological classroom of the past and the boot of authority were now on the other foot.
There is a difference between then and now, in society if not in basic human motivation. No evolutionist of today, at least in the United States, has any legal authority to intimidate other persons who might publicly disagree. Creationists might feel that their children are persecuted by "naturalism in the schools." Yet an overzealous evolutionist has no legal power to force anyone publicly to avow that his beliefs are mere "philosophical supposition." The evolutionist enjoys similar protection under the law. What is supposition and what is truth are matters for human, not legal, judgment.
(Nelson G., "Responses to Phillip Johnson," in "Evolution as Dogma: The Establishment of Naturalism," [First Things, November 1990], Foundation for Thought and Ethics: Richardson TX, 1990, reprint, pp23-24)
I find myself very sympathetic to Phillip Johnson's critique of Darwinism. neo-Darwinism, and other "naturalistic" theories of evolution. On the other hand, I find myself out of sympathy with his cryptic references to "creationism" as an alternative to these theories.
The efforts of biologists, paleontologists, etc. to come up with a "naturalist" theory of evolution that will fit the facts embedded in the historical record has by now an air of desperation. Environmental changes seem clearly inadequate to explain the origin of species, and so do theories based on genetic mutation. If there is a "natural" mechanism at work-using "natural" to mean "causal" in strictly scientific terms-we have not yet discovered it. Indeed, we are no closer to such an explanation today than when Darwin wrote his Origin of Species-a great work in scientific biology but one that tells us nothing credible about how species originate.
So it is objectionable that in our schools the origin of species (as distinct from intra-species evolution) is taught dogmatically as a "fact" that Darwin and modern geneticists have firmly established beyond dispute. Scientific integrity would seem to require that the origin of species be taught as an intriguing puzzle, to which we do not as yet have a scientific answer. We do this with cosmogony and cosmology-the best teachers, at least, do it-and we seem not to be the worse for it. It has always been in the finest traditions of scientific inquiry to emphasize how our increasing knowledge of natural processes always reveals new limits to what we do know.
Why don't we approach the origin of species in the same spirit? The answer is a fear of encouraging "creationism" as a pseudoscientific alternative explanation. Biologists are still very much engaged in the warfare between science and theology, largely because theologians cannot, in good conscience, declare an armistice. None of the "naturalistic" theories of the origin of the universe is radically subversive of the biblical doctrine of creation, since science cannot pretend to know the origin of origins (e.g., what came before the "Big Bang?"). But a purely "naturalistic" theory of life and of human origins and of the evolution of animate species is another matter entirely. It reduces humanity to nothing more than a highly complex organism with the odd capability of imagining itself as having a soul. The implications for morality, and not just theology, are enormous. Such a view of humanity is utterly incompatible with any religion and is a standing invitation to nihilism.
It remains to be said, however, that what passes for "creationism' today is in truth a pseudo- scientific doctrine and has no place in scientific instruction. The Bible "tells a story" of human origins in the language of myth, not science, and the power of this "story" derives from the way it strikes a chord in our unique humanity, enlightens us about our unique human status. Animals do not tell each other such a story-only humans do. Nor have humans ever existed who were not in possession of such a story. So one can say that it is "natural" for human beings to "believe" this story-only it is not a scientific belief. Its truth was (and is) supra-literal, transcendental and not scientific.
It is worth noting, too, that scientific "naturalism" and "creationism" do not exhaust the possibilities of explanation. Any "teleological" explanation, in purely philosophical terms, that sees the origin of species as an inevitable movement from "lower" to "higher" can be made to fit the facts very plausibly. Such explanations are irreconcilable with scientific "naturalism" which rejects teleology, but can be made to fit rather neatly into a religious view, which would then posit a claim to being able to explain the source of this teleological dynamic. There are some quite distinguished German and French "phenomenological biologists" who think along these teleological lines, and they ought to receive some attention.
In short, I think our goal should be to have biology and evolution taught in a way that points to what we don't know as well as what we do. That is enough. "Creationism," in the sense of literal biblical faith, has no place in scientific instruction.
(Kristol I., "Responses to Phillip Johnson," in "Evolution as Dogma: The Establishment of Naturalism," [First Things, November 1990], Foundation for Thought and Ethics: Richardson TX, 1990, reprint, pp24-26)
The "first things" needed by an author are some acquaintance with the matters to be discussed. Phillip Johnson displays very little knowledge of either creationism or evolution. Johnson's approach is one used by creationists in debate: make so many misstatements in one minute that it will take half an hour of rebuttal to deal with them. I have space to mention only a few of his.
Early on, he recites the familiar Creationist nonargument that Darwinist science insists that "the numerous intermediate forms that once must have existed have not been preserved," which Johnson alleges is "the trade secret of paleontology." But no sciences have "trade secrets." Plenty of fossils of intermediate forms have been found. Intermediate forms are also studied today by molecular evolution, which shows that all organisms may be "intermediate forms." Johnson further says that "scientists won't admit there are mysteries beyond our comprehension"-itself an incorrect charge-and that "one of them may be how those complex animal groups could have evolved directly from pre-existing bacteria and algae without leaving any evidence of the transition." There is no such "direct" evolution: animals, bacteria, and algae have a common ancestor from which they have diverged, as can be shown by aligning and comparing amino acid sequences of proteins and nucleotide sequences of homologous ribosomal RNA molecules that are found in both bacteria and vertebrates. Unambiguous similarities in these sequences show descent from a common origin.
Johnson says that creationists do things that "infuriate the Darwinists," but nowhere does he tell us what these things are. Evolutionists don't worry about astrologers or the Flat Earth Society; such groups do not harass school teachers and intimidate publishers of school science textbooks. In contrast, a leading Creationist demanded that the State of California withhold funds from the San Diego School District because of use of an "illegal [!] book" (shades of totalitarianism), Biology by Helena Curtis. Creationists, through years of intellectual and economic terrorism, have forced the removal of evolution as a topic from school science textbooks, even to the point where the word "evolution" is often excluded from indexes.
Johnson notes that in a Gallup poll, 44 percent of respondents agree that "God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years." He contrasts this 44 percent with the mere 9 percent who believe in a "naturalistic evolutionary process not guided by God," and goes on to say that "the philosophy [sic] of the 9 percent is now to be taught in the schools as unchallengeable truth" (again, incorrect-science is not presented as unchallengeable truth). Johnson says that "philosophical naturalism," by which he means conventional science, has been imposed on this nation "by skillful manipulation of categories and definitions." (Such manipulation sounds more like the tortuous procedures of the legal profession than the open forum of science.) So he wants scientific education to be decided by popular vote. Bring on the flying saucers, astrology, and extrasensory perception. How sad that a professor of law should argue on behalf of a degradation of the intellect.
Johnson shows his pro-creationist prejudice when he says that the book Scientists Confront Creationism is a "collection of polemics." Actually, it is a compilation of fifteen scientific articles, including four on fossils and intermediate forms, such as "Creationism and Gaps in the Fossil Record" by Laurie Godfrey.
Johnson says that "a creationist is not necessarily a biblical literalist, but rather anyone who believes that God creates." Wrong. The creationists who confront us are biblical literalists and, contrary to Johnson, there are many people who believe that God creates and who also accept evolution. Johnson says that Darwinists (his coined term for all who believe in evolution) are having difficulty concealing "the religious implications of their system." His implication that evolution is a form of religion is a myth originating in the creationist literature.
Johnson's opening discussion incorrectly states that "the most famous piece of evidence for Darwinism is a study of an English peppered-moth population...." He uses the peppered-moth example three times. The phenomenon shows fluctuations of populations rather than evolution, and even creationists have pointed this out (Kofahl and Segraves, The Creation Explanation, 1975).
Johnson doesn't mention the new findings in molecular biology that permeate modern evolutionary science. Biochemists found out how to determine the sequences of amino acids in proteins. Hemoglobin molecules of human beings differ by about 15 percent from horse hemoglobin when the sequences of the two molecules are aligned and compared. Chimpanzee and human hemoglobins are identical. As more hemoglobin molecules became sequenced, the steady increase in divergence, calibrated from reference points in the fossil record, showed evidence of a so-called molecular evolutionary clock. The same evidence was found in another family of proteins, the cytochromes c, and this made it possible to conclude that the common ancestor of yeast, plants, and vertebrates lived about 1.2 billion years ago. So much for the creationist estimate of six to ten thousand years ago for the day of creation.
Evolution starts when a gene duplicates, and each duplicate replicates independently. Mutations take place at random, and the two duplicates accumulate mutations at different locations, so that divergence takes place. This divergence gives rise to two sets of phenotypic properties.
Johnson says that evolution is based...upon a highly controversial philosophical presupposition. The controversy over evolution is therefore not going to go away as people become better educated in the subject. On the contrary, the more people learn about the philosophical content of what scientists are calling "the fact of evolution" the less they are going to like it.
Evolution was functioning for billions of years before the existence of philosophers. Where were Johnson and philosophy when the evolutionary divergence of the mammals took place about 100 million years ago?
In summary, lawyer Phillip Johnson is out of his field when he attempts to describe evolution. Worse, he says nothing about the real problem with creationism, which is the never-ending campaign by creationists to impose their ideas forcibly on other people. Instead of describing this, Johnson philosophizes irrelevantly about Darwinism and naturalism. There is nothing in this article that makes it worth publishing. The space could have been used for information on new findings in molecular evolution.
(Jukes T.H., "Responses to Phillip Johnson," in "Evolution as Dogma: The Establishment of Naturalism," [First Things, November 1990], Foundation for Thought and Ethics: Richardson TX, 1990, reprint, pp26-28)
I am not competent to judge the purely scientific arguments in Phillip Johnson's essay-particularly his suggestion that paleontologists have suppressed evidence unfavorable to Darwinism, thus concealing a fossil gap. Such allegations can only put in the category of "important, if true."
It must be stressed, however, that it is not necessary to refute Darwinism on scientific grounds in order to a maintain the religious truth claims expressed in the biblical account of history: e.g., God's sovereignty and creative initiative, man's free will, his unique dignity in the universe, and his supernatural end. Philosophy, rather than science, is the final battleground in the evolution debate, at least insofar as that debate becomes a struggle between naturalism and supernaturalism to have the final say on man's status.
On this philosophical ground-which is really just a comprehensive application of common sense-the religious estimation of man's stature prevails, no matter what is discovered, or not discovered, in the fossil record. Since Professor Johnson only hints at this fact in his article, I would like to present several points that merit greater consideration.
The real issue in the evolution controversy is not whether man in his purely physical aspect arrived in the world full-formed or whether he passed through successive evolutionary stages en route to his present state. Whatever the answer to his question, the real issue is whether a creature possessing human (or any other) physiognomy could, without supernatural aid, come to have the spiritual and intellectual characteristics that are associated with personhood in its fullest sense: an ability to survey and consider the whole of reality, including a consciousness of the self and the forces acting on the self; a sense of transcendence and free will; a deep, and apparently ineradicable, longing for a meaningful existence in this world and an eternal life beyond it.
Man is not in fact a mere link in the chain of natural causation, which is science's sole principle for interpreting reality. That is to say, man is not, as pure naturalism would have it, merely an object in nature which is acted upon and reacts according to fixed general laws, a passive receiver of prior causes and a non-willing, non-responsible transmitter of future effects, whose consciousness and action are completely caught up in the casual nexus of matter and time. To be sure, he is a creature whose mental as well as physical states are conditioned by previous causes in nature and in his environment: chemical, biological, climatic, cultural, etc.
And yet human existence can never be fully explained in terms of nature or prior causes, because in its transcendence it rises above and surveys a chain of causes beyond the immediate circumstances, and in its freedom it inserts its own will into the causal flow, redirecting and reordering it. The human will is thus itself a cause, an uncaused cause, whose creative power points to a greater creative power beyond itself-in short, to God. A comprehensive view of human being is memorably expressed by Reinhold Niebuhr, in the opening chapter of The Nature and Destiny of Man:
The obvious fact is that man is a child of nature, subject to its vicissitudes, compelled by its necessities, driven by its impulses, and confined within the brevity of years which nature permits its varied organic forms, allowing them some, but not too much latitude. The other less obvious fact is that man is a spirit who stands outside of nature, life, himself, his reason, and the world.
Human nature is an indissoluble compound of nature and spirit, comprised of one part that belongs to the natural world, and is susceptible to scientific analysis and description, and another part that belongs to a realm that transcends nature. Though human transcendence and freedom are clearly influenced, affected, and limited by the human body and its environment, they remain to some extent outside and above the world of nature, and thus also the province of science. It is a relatively minor matter whether God infused the transcendent capacity into a freshly made creature or an upwardly mobile hominid that had evolved through various transformations, from an amoeba to tadpole to an assortment of amphibians and mammals until, as in the familiar diagrams and animations, it looks more or less like Carl Sagan.
In either case, the arrival of man-as distinguished from merely his carcass necessarily involved a creative act and a power outside the realm of material nature where scientific knowledge is sovereign. While it is conceivable that the physical being of man might have developed through evolution, according to physical laws charted and explained by science, it is not conceivable that man in his total being could exist without a creative act by some transcendent agency, the God of the Bible being the prime suspect.
It might be said, indeed it often is said, that transcendence and freedom are illusions, that our sense of them can be accounted for solely in naturalistic terms. Yet there is an illogical, usually hidden, presupposition in this argument, since a creature completely submerged in the process of nature could have no certain knowledge of the processes of nature, let alone himself. There would be only private, subjective knowledge based on the environmental influences acting on individuals and classes of individuals. The assertion of a completely naturalistic metaphysic would then represent the end point, rather than the starting point, of all inquiry and discussion. For scientists to presume any knowledge of regularities and causal relations in nature they must presuppose a measure of transcendence over its processes.
This point was well made by the nineteenth-century English philosopher T. H. Green in his Prolegomena to Ethics, where he asks "whether a being that was merely the result of natural forces could form a theory of those forces explaining himself?" His answer: No, it could not, since to be conscious of such forces "implies that there is something in him independent of those forces, which may determine the relationship in which he shall stand to them...however much this conclusion may be disguised... If we were merely phenomena among phenomena we could not have knowledge of a world of phenomena..." To deny, in the name of science, the freedom that transcends nature, is thus to destroy the implicit foundation of scientific as well as religious truth-much as the ancient philosopher of Crete negated his own proposition when he declared that "all Cretans are liars."
Religious believers are dismayed by evolution theories because, by locating the origin of all things in the brute indifference of matter these theories seem to destroy the eschatological- hope for perfection and perpetuity of life beyond the grave in which we are reunited with loved ones and freed from the curses of sin and death. But science cannot prove that we are no more than highly complex and evolved parcels of matter-indeed, as we have seen, it cannot even pose this as a theory without undermining itself. As Niebuhr says, we are both "children of nature" and transcendent spirits. The origin and current state of our humanity clearly partake of a transcendent miracle of creation. For our future hope we must rely on God's power and lovingkindness to re-create the world and the human soul.
(Berke M., "Responses of Critics," in "Evolution as Dogma: The Establishment of Naturalism," [First Things, November 1990], Foundation for Thought and Ethics: Richardson TX, 1990, reprint, pp29-31)
This article was originally published in First Things, November 1990, and was reprinted by the Foundation for Thought and Ethics. Republished here by permission.
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