The Scientifically Correct Book Review of Phillip Johnson's Darwin on Trial

Stephen C. Meyer

Publicity of "political correctness" (PC) on the nation’s campuses has alarmed many within and beyond academia. Attempts to silence students and faculty who defy campus ideological fashion have raised questions about the extent to which universities remain havens of free inquiry. Yet to date concern about PC has centered primarily upon the humanities and the social sciences where ideological uniformity seems most rife.

A book by UC Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson suggests that something akin to PC has also affected the natural sciences. Johnson’s Darwin on Trial (Regnery, 188 pages, $19.95) argues that, contrary to public perceptions, the Darwinian (including all its modern manifestations) account of origins derives its persuasive power more from social forces that encourage ideological conformity among scientists than from supporting evidence.

No bible thumping hillbilly, Professor Johnson may seem an unlikely critic of evolutionary ideas. Johnson holds degrees from both Harvard and the University of Chicago and now occupies an endowed chair at Berkeley. He also served as law clerk for American Chief Justice Earl Warren. Perhaps because of his academic stature, Johnson has rapidly emerged as a spokesman for intellectuals disaffected with inflated Darwinist rhetoric and unsubstantiated claims about the evolutionary history of life.

Johnson’s doubts about evolutionary theory date to a visit to the British Natural History Museum in 1988 where he learned about a controversy that had raged there earlier in the decade. At that time, the museum paleontologists presented a display describing Darwin’s theory as "one possible explanation" of origins. A furor ensued resulting in the removal of the display when the editors of the prestigious Nature magazine and others in the scientific establishment denounced the museum for its ambivalence about accepted fact.

Intrigued by the response to such an (apparently) innocuous exhibit, Johnson decided to investigate further. His subsequent examination of evolutionary literature revealed a surprising reliance upon arguments that seemed to assume rather than demonstrate that life had evolved via natural processes. Johnson also observed an interesting contrast between biologists’ technical papers and their popular defenses of evolutionary theory. When writing in scientific journals, he discovered that biologists acknowledged many significant difficulties with both standard and newer evolutionary models. Yet, when defending basic Darwinist commitments (such as the common ancestry of all life and the creative power of natural mechanisms), evolutionists employed an evasive and moralizing rhetorical style to minimize problems and belittle critics. Johnson began to wonder why, given mounting difficulties, Darwinists remained so confident that all organisms had evolved naturally from simpler forms.

Johnson thesis is that evolutionary biologists remain confident, not because real world evidence generally supports their theory—in his view, it does not; but instead, because their perception of the rules of scientific procedure virtually prevent them from considering any alternative view. Johnson cites, among other things, a communique from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) issued to the Supreme Court during the Louisiana "creation science" trial. The NAS insisted that "the most basic characteristic of science" is a "reliance upon naturalistic explanations."

While Johnson accepts this as a reasonable rule of method for much science, he argues that using it to establish that natural processes alone produced life assumes the very point that evolutionists are trying to prove. If the design hypothesis must be denied consideration from the outset, and if, as the NAS also asserted, exclusively negative argumentation against evolutionary theory is "unscientific," then Johnson asserts "the rules of argument. . . . make it impossible to question whether what we are being told about evolution is really true." Defining opposing positions out of existence "may be one way to win an argument," but, says Johnson, it scarcely suffices to demonstrate the superiority of protected orthodoxies.

To establish that such philosophical gerrymandering lies behind the success of the evolutionary program Johnson devotes much of his book to evaluating the scientific arguments that ostensibly establish the "fact of evolution." He trains a considerable facility for analysis upon the whole edifice of Darwinist argumentation. There he finds a panoply of euphemism and wishful thinking masquerading as evidence: the pattern of gaps and sudden appearance in the fossil record described as "rapid evolutionary branching," superficial variations in moths or fruit flies cited to substantiate the possibility of grand "macroevolutionary" changes, elaborate depictions of human ancestors based on scanty bone fragments, and biochemical observations laden with evolutionary assumptions used to justify evolutionary claims.

These and other difficulties lead Johnson to ask question what he carefully labels (following English zoologist Richard Dawkins) the "blind watchmaker hypothesis"—i.e., the idea that undirected natural processes alone produced complex organs and organisms. Along the way he raises a good many other questions rarely asked in polite biological society. Given fossil evidence, how do we know that extinct transitional organisms ("missing links") ever existed? How do we know that natural selection can create complex organs and organisms when genetics suggests the vast improbability of random mutations producing advantageous and novel structures? How do we know that the first cells did arrange themselves from simple chemicals if we haven’t yet established that they could? In each case, Johnson argues that ‘we know because we have equated scientific method with a philosophy of strict naturalism and materialism.’ We know because the rules of science imply that evolutionary claims must be true.

Johnson’s attempt to re-open such questions has already angered many members of the biological establishment who have grown accustomed to offering the public what he calls "proof through confident assertion." His criticism of Darwinist orthodoxy has earned him dismissive reviews in both Science and Nature. Johnson has also fielded his share of ad hominem abuse and has noted a few rather pathetic attempts at intimidation. Nevertheless, tenured legal scholars of Johnson’s ability and tenacity are not so easily silenced. Moreover, some prominent evolutionists such as Arthur Shapiro of UC Davis and Michael Ruse of the University of Guelph have welcomed the spirited challenge that Johnson has provided to their beliefs. Shapiro, Ruse and eight other scientists and philosophers (including both defenders and critics of modern Darwinism) recently joined Johnson at Southern Methodist University (readers note: in the spring of 1992) to debate the central thesis of his book.

The strength of Johnson’s work lies in his willingness to re-examine fundamental questions and to challenge the biological establishment’s reliance upon philosophically tendentious rules of method instead of empirical evidence to make their case. Johnson’s critique should not, therefore, be confused with familiar fundamentalist denunciation and simplistic argument. Darwin on Trial is a sophisticated critique written by an honest and well informed biological outsider. It must be answered if insiders wish to prevent an erosion of credibility.