Book Review
Origins & Design 20:1
Issue 38

No Bridge-building Here

Margaret Helder

Phillip E. Johnson, Denis O. Lamoureux, and J.I. Packer,
Darwinism Defeated? The Johnson-Lamoureux Debate on Biological Origins
Regent College Publishing, 1999, 174 pp.

The objectives of the two protagonists tell the story of this book. Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson seeks “to teach students to be critical of scientific claims that are based upon naturalistic assumptions” (p. 56). By contrast, Denis Lamoureux of St. Joseph’s College, University of Alberta, wishes “to teach Christian students to be critical of the antievolutionary claims of their faith tradition and the assumptions upon which these are based (e.g., the God-of-the-gaps position, the literalist and concordist interpretations of Genesis 1-11, etc.)” (p. 73). The issue thus becomes one of fundamental approach: should students, or anyone, critically evaluate the pronouncements of modern science or merely accept them at face value?

Each protagonist is supported by four additional contributors, in each case three scientists and one academic. The Johnson team includes Stephen Meyer, professor of philosophy at Whitworth College; Michael Behe, biochemist at Lehigh University; biologist Jonathan Wells of the Discovery Institute; and Rikk Watts, professor of New Testament at Regent College. The Lamoureux team includes geologist Keith Miller of Kansas State University; paleontologist Michael Caldwell of Carleton University; Howard Van Till, professor emeritus at Calvin College; and Loren Wilkinson of Regent College. Though Johnson’s name is given priority on the book’s cover, he and his supporters actually contribute only 41 pages of text, compared to Lamoureux and his supporters, who contribute 106 pages.

Lamoureux identifies Johnson as the “most important antievolutionist in the world today” (p. 9). Nevertheless, he discusses very little of Johnson’s actual position—notably overlooking the key argument of the design movement, which is that design is empirically detectable. Instead, Lamoureux characterizes design advocates as deriving their ideas from the book of Genesis. He writes: “Most Christian believers would agree that we should not use the Bible in constructing scientific theories on astronomy (e.g., an earth-centered universe) or reproductive biology (e.g., the idea that infertility is limited to barren women). The use of Genesis 1 to justify a view of biological origins is every bit as precarious” (p. 40). Yet supporters of design do not appeal to Genesis 1. Both Meyer and Behe discuss the empirical criterion for identifying the products of an intelligent designer—namely, specified small probability. As Meyer writes, “For design theorists, design is not a deduction from religious authority, but an inference from biological and/or physical evidence—indeed, it is an inference underwritten by the very kind of formal theory that Lamoureux mistakenly says the Intelligent Design movement lacks” (p. 94).

The central question in the debate is the nature of science itself. The Lamoureux team concurs with the standard definition of science as based on methodological naturalism. For example, Miller says Christians need not object to methodological naturalism; it is “simply a recognition that scientific research proceeds by the search for chains of cause and effect and confines itself to the investigation of natural entities and forces.” This does not mean that science “assumes away” the existence of a creator, Miller reassures us; it means that science “is simply silent on the existence or action of God.” Science “restricts itself to proximate causes, and the confirmation or denial of ultimate causes is beyond its capacity.” Thus “methodological naturalism places boundaries around what science can and cannot say, or what explanations or descriptions can be accepted as part of the scientific enterprise” (p. 112).

What about a hypothetical situation in which God really did act directly in creation to design a structure? What would be the appropriate scientific reaction? Miller replies that science would simply undertake a search for “cause-and-effect processes” to account for the structure, since “science cannot conclude ‘God did it’” (p. 113).

One might respond that one can define science any way one likes, but one cannot at the same time have any assurance that such an approach will uncover truth. As Calvin philosophy professor Del Ratszch notes in The Battle of Beginnings, “what one cannot reasonably do is to stipulate naturalistic restrictions on science by definition and simultaneously just assume that any and all truths must necessarily fall within the limits of those restrictions, or that anything produced under those restrictions is truth” (p. 169). Since Johnson’s team and Lamoureux’s team do not agree on the definition of science itself, it is obvious that the potential for real discussion among them is poor indeed. No matter what evidence the Johnson team may cite, the Lamoureux team will deem it irrelevant.

Small wonder, then, that the main impression the book leaves with the reader is that the two groups are talking past each other. For example, Johnson’s team presses the crucial question of finding an empirically testable mechanism for evolution. But Lamoureux’s team dismisses the problem of a mechanism as minor. For example, Denton says the important thing is that biologists agree on the fact of evolutionary change, even though they argue “endlessly about the cause of evolution,” and many remain “skeptical of a particular evolutionary mechanism—Darwinism” (p. 142). Similarly, Caldwell dismisses debates over gradualism versus punctuated equilibrium as something that science will answer in the undefined future: In biology, as in other fields of science, he writes, “there remain intriguingly difficult theoretical problems for future generations to solve” (p. 129). Such tactics are unpersuasive, since it is only by offering a mechanism that evolution becomes a testable theory. A pattern in the rocks is not a theory, it is only a datum to be explained. Darwin’s stature is due precisely to the fact that he offered a plausible mechanism for evolution, and if biologists today are “skeptical” of his mechanism, that is a serious challenge indeed.

The best chapter in the book, in the opinion of this reviewer, is Meyer’s. He argues that a “distinctive hallmark (or signature) of intelligent design” is “specified complexity” or “high information content,” seen especially in the DNA molecule (pp. 92-93). The chemical structure of DNA depends upon several chemical bonds, each of which is governed by laws of chemical attraction. Yet there are NO chemical bonds between the bases along the vertical axis in the center of the double helix—precisely where the genetic instructions in DNA are encoded. In other words, there are no physical/chemical bonds that account for the information encoded in the DNA.

Moreover, if, hypothetically, the structure of the DNA molecule were the product of natural forces, DNA would be incapable of containing high information content. By their very nature, natural laws produce highly predictable conditions, whereas “information content mounts as improbabilities multiply” (p. 100). As a consequence, the evolutionist position, whether teleological or strictly materialist, fails to explain the origin of information-rich systems such as the living cell.

Nor is this merely another God-of-the-gaps argument, as Lamoureux repeatedly charges, for, as Meyer points out, it is “based on what we know, not what we do not know about the causal powers of nature and intelligent agents.” He elaborates:

“Design theorists infer design not merely because natural processes cannot explain the origin of such things as biological systems but because these systems manifest the distinctive hallmarks of intelligently designed systems—that is, they possess features that in any other realm of experience would trigger the recognition of an intelligent cause” (p. 92).

Perhaps the most distressing aspect of these debates is that Lamoureux and his team frequently descend to questioning Johnson’s credentials even to speak on the subject of evolution. This kind of ad hominem attack is not what we expect in a scholarly exchange. It is Caldwell who employs the tactic most vigorously. He charges that “Johnson confuses and conflates factual and theoretical systems in science,” and that thus “he is not fit to be a critic of science education.” He avers that “Johnson’s motives as an educator must be seen as suspect,” (p. 129); that he “obfuscates” and “misrepresent[s]” the writings of Karl Popper; that he “misleads the reader”; that his scholarship has “no integrity”; and that he is bent on mere “indoctrination” (pp. 133-135). These are strong words, and they reflect much more negatively on the person using them than on Johnson himself.

Copyright 2000 Access Research Network. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
File Date: 6.27.01