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Darwin on Trial, Johnson on Trial

– Insights from an outsider –

by Gert Korthof
6 Jul 1997 updated: 27 Apr 2001

different page Postscripts
update: Dec 2013
book Darwin on Trial
by Phillip E. Johnson.
InterVarsity Press.
1993 (2nd edition), paperback
220 pages.
Preface to the second Edition1
1. The legal setting3
2. Natural Selection15
3. Mutations Great and Small32
4. The fossil problem45
5. The fact of evolution63
6. The vertebrate sequence75
7. The molecular evidence88
8. Prebiological evolution102
9. The rules of science113
10. Darwinist religion125
11. Darwinist education135
12. Science and pseudoscience147
Epilogue: The Book and its Critics157
Research Notes171
Darwin on Trial


  1. Introduction
  2. What kind of creationist?
  3. Natural Selection
  4. Natural Selection a tautology?
  5. Philosophical necessity?
  6. Kuhn's paradigm
  7. Popper's falsifiability
  8. Can there be evidence of design?
  9. Can there be theistic knowledge?
  10. Comparing creation and evolution
  11. What are Johnson's goals?
  12. Postscripts different page (update: Dec 2013)

1. Introduction

    Phillip Johnson is a fourfold outsider: a non-scientist (14), a non-biologist, a non-evolutionist and a non-Darwinist. How could this fourfold outsider say interesting things about science? biology? evolution? Darwinism? Scientists know science, biologists know biology, Darwinists know Darwinism, but unsurprisingly all have a scientific, biological, evolutionistic and Darwinistic bias. Being outside the four paradigms, Johnson is able to point to peculiar habits of Darwinist reasoning, Darwinists themselves are not aware of anymore. Thanks to being an outsider, Johnson is able to offer us some valuable eye-openers. Not because he is without bias, but because he has a different bias. Where did this outsider get his inside-information? From insiders of course. It is a discovery in its own right that a minority of anti-Darwinist biologists always existed. The voice of the minority was not heard and not printed in the standard textbooks on evolution. In the chapters 2-8 Johnson is trying to write as a critical scientist discussing problems of the theory of evolution. . He writes about the theory of evolution as if he is the first to give it an unbiased test, and as if it needs to be established if evolution is a fact. Both the theory and the fact are treated as open questions, unlike what is usually done in standard textbooks since 1859. This results in a refreshing account of the theory and its problems. I approach the creation- evolution dispute not as a scientist but as a professor of law (p 8). The book indeed is a trial. Contrary to science, a trial needs in short time a final verdict. Usually there is no retrial.
   In the Epilogue Johnson writes that the primary goal in writing Darwin on Trial was to legitimate the assertion of a theistic world-view in the secular universities. (p165). That makes Darwin on Trial a book with a political-religious goal. However it is exceptional in having so much science and philosophy in it. I discuss these matters irrespective of the consequences for the status of neo-Darwinism or creationism.
This Review is not a summary of Darwin on Trial!


2. What kind of creationist?

   Johnson rejects creationism as practised by Duane Gish:
I am not interested in any claims that are based upon a literal reading of the Bible, nor do I understand the concept of creation as narrowly as Duane Gish does. (p. 115). Just how broad is his concept of creation? I believe that a God exists who could create out of nothing if He wanted to do so, but who might have chosen to work through a natural evolutionary process instead.(p. 14). This is a very flexible position. If God created [every species] out of nothing, evolution did not happen. If God created [every species] through a natural evolutionary process, evolution is evidence for God. But then writing a book against evolution would be writing a book against evidence for God. But the consequence of the second option obviously is absurd (for a theist). It also contradicts Johnson's own view that God cannot guide a truly random evolutionary process. So we must assume that Johnson believes in creation out of nothing. From another source it can safely be concluded he believes in a 'God-of-the-Gaps': If God had created a lifeless world, even with oceans rich in amino-acids and other organic molecules and thereafter had left matters alone, life would not have come into existence.(1). The gap in our knowledge is the origin of life on earth.
Whatever he may believe, Johnson does not explicitly argue for 'intelligent design' in his book, in contrast to Michael Behe. He confines himself to argue against evolution and Darwinism. Johnson is opposed to two kinds of theists. He is opposed to the 'scientific creationists' (by rejecting a literal reading of Genesis) and he is opposed to the 'theistic evolutionists' (by rejecting evolution and accepting a 'God-of-the-Gaps'). Since Johnson is not a 'young-earth-creationist' we do not find a critique of radio-metric dating methods, the second law of thermodynamics, entropy, etc. in his book.

3. Natural Selection

   Surprisingly Johnson does not deny the existence of natural selection at all (2). He himself calls natural selection the most important Darwinian concept (p90). He even accepts without problem that one species can split into two new species (speciation). Not because he analysed the supporting data, but because the consequences are not too serious for him: (3) [speciation] would not constitute evidence that a similar process could produce a fruit-fly from a bacterium. (p. 19). If that proof is lacking, it is not demonstrated that natural selection is a creative power. With such demands on proofs it is without purpose to discuss available proofs as he does (p. 27), for of course no laboratory can ever produce in practice a fruit-fly from a bacterium. This is as difficult as to produce the planets of our solar system from stellar material. So he knows in advance that evolution science will never satisfy his demand.
The problem with this chapter is that Johnson doesn't mention the refutation of the fixity of species as one of the most important conclusions to be drawn from all the evidence he mentions. It is significant because some creationists fall back on Linnaeus (!) to prove the fixity of species (Johnson does not).
He is right in noting that the evidence does not proof the creation of new organs. These are modifications on a large time-scale. All the available experimental evidence is necessarily small-time-scale evidence.
    The analogy of natural selection to artificial selection is misleading, he says. He remarks that artificial selection is selection by humans with a purpose in mind (intelligent designers!). That is a beautiful insight from an outside observer. But again one of the most important conclusions is that the fixity of species has definitively been disproved. And that was one of Darwin's most important goals. And at the same time in contradiction with a literal interpretation of Genesis. It means: the discovery that organisms and species have the innate capacity to change genetically.

4. Is Natural Selection a tautology?

    If the phrase "survival of the fittest" is interpreted as a tautology it looks like: "Who survives? The fittest. Who are the fittest? Those that survive". This is a circular definition indeed. Tautological statements are true on the basis of the meaning of the terms, and are independent of any evidence (15). No evidence can make that statement false. However if natural selection, that is fitness differences, did not exist in nature, then for example infertile individuals would have as many offspring as fertile individuals. Which is absurd. Of course fitness differences can be measured, counted, compared. Johnson knows that the trick is in the definition: "But although natural selection can be formulated as a tautology, it can also be formulated in other ways that are not so easily dismissed" (p. 23, italics mine). So what's the point of discussing the tautology?
Please note that Johnson accepts the reality of natural selection, despite natural selection can be formulated as a tautology : "The question is not whether natural selection occurs. Of course it does,..." (p16). Finally, note that Johnson would not be able to say "I am unimpressed by the evidence for natural selection", if evidence for natural selection could not exist at all. Apparently Johnson uses here a non-tautological definition. Indeed, nobody should be impressed by evidence for a tautology!

5. Philosophical necessity?

    Johnson describes 4 interpretations of natural selection: [1] as a tautology, [2] as a deductive argument, [3] as a scientific hypothesis and [4] as a philosophical necessity. Johnson fails to show that natural selection is a 'philosophical necessity' because if a 'philosophical necessity' means that natural selection is the only acceptable solution to the problem, then how can he discuss alternatives ? He knows that even Darwin did not claim that natural selection was the exclusive mechanism of evolution. Amazingly what Johnson is doing in this paragraph is discussing alternatives to natural selection: sexual selection, group selection and kinship selection. And nowadays there is an alternative in the domain of molecular evolution: the relative importance of neutralist as opposed to selectionist explanations (16). Since there are alternative explanations, natural selection cannot be a whatever-necessity.

6. Kuhn's paradigm

    How can Darwin's hypothesis of descent with modification be confirmed or falsified? I will discuss this now together with the chapters 9 and 12 where Popper and Kuhn are invoked.
Johnson accepts Kuhn's description of science ('paradigm', 'normal science' and 'scientific revolutions'). It is obvious from a statement like: Whatever its limitations as a description of science generally, it provides an illuminating picture of the methodology of Darwinism. (p120), (4). However he does not want to accept neo-Darwinism as 'normal science', because 'normal science' is based upon philosophical prejudices and uncritical acceptation of a normal-science-paradigm. So he rejects 'normal science' because it is 'normal science'! Kuhn's picture of science has often been characterised as irrational. Johnson seems to accept the picture, but blames the described scientists (neo-Darwinists) of being irrational.
One of the effects of a paradigm that Kuhn described is the blinding effect for phenomena that do not fit in the paradigm. According to Johnson an example of this effect is that paleontologists ignored stasis. However for Johnson probably the most important aspect of Kuhn's normal science is the fact that a paradigm contains philosophical assumptions. For the Darwinists the philosophical assumption is naturalism. Naturalism excludes supernatural phenomena. So Johnson finds confirmation of his suspicion that scientists use philosophical assumptions, in Kuhn's paradigm concept. However naturalism is not specific to the Darwinist paradigm. Naturalism will stay in the next paradigm. Naturalism is a kind of superparadigm of the natural sciences, because naturalism is at the basis of all science.

7. Popper's falsifiability

    Johnson invoked Kuhn to show that Darwinists use a paradigm with built-in philosophical assumptions. He invokes Popper to show that 'Darwinism is bad science' and 'Darwin was a bad scientist'. Darwinism has unscientific parts because some parts are unfalsifiable. And a good scientific theory should be falsifiable, i.e.: one must be able to specify facts that refute the theory. Descent with modification could be a testable scientific hypothesis. (p. 66), but it was from the start protected from empirical testing (p151).
Johnson's verdict: "Darwin proposed no daring experimental tests, and thereby started his science on the wrong road. Darwin himself established the tradition of explaining away the fossil record, of citing selective breeding as verification without acknowledging its limitations and of blurring the critical distinction between minor variations and major innovations." (p. 151).
Indeed according to Popper a good theory should permit risky predictions. Darwin did propose altruism as a potential falsifier, which is noted by Johnson himself (p. 30) and (5). If anyone started to criticise Darwinism it was Darwin himself. Darwin devoted chapter six to the 'Difficulties on Theory'. That is scientific honesty. Even an anti-Darwinist like Denton praises Darwin for his scientific integrity. The more I read creationistic books, the more I am convinced that Darwin proposed a highly risky, falsifiable theory (6).
Ad hoc hypotheses are wrong indeed if their sole purpose is to protect the challenged theory. The explanation for the incompleteness of the fossil record is compatible with theories of the origin of species. It is open to discussion if punctuated equilibrium is an ad hoc explanation or an elaboration. It is also an open question if artificial selection has definite limitations. 'Blurring' is an inadequate description of a theory that doesn't see the distinction between minor and major changes as a qualitative distinction (p. 20).
    There are a few remarks that show Johnson did not completely digest Popper: Darwin's theory unquestionably has impressive explanatory power, but how are we to tell if it is true ? (p66) and I want to know whether that claim is true, not just whether it is the best naturalistic speculation available (p. 159). These are completely un-Popperian questions. Popper rejects the idea that the truth of a theory can be established once and for all. Popper's method is 'Conjectures and Refutations'. The quest for certainty should be rejected. "Science is not a system of certain, or well-established, statements, (...) every scientific statement must remain tentative for ever." (7) Johnson discovered that asking the question 'Is the theory of evolution true?' in public discussions is a successful strategy. So he uses it. But it is the wrong question according to Popper. The question is pointless not because of Kuhn but because of Popper. But Johnson chooses to ignore Popper's concept of truth. This causes inconsistencies like the misguided attacks on Darwinists on page 123, where he discusses the answers of Darwinists to the question "Is the theory of evolution true ?". The answers Johnson received:
1) neo-Darwinism is the best scientific explanation we have
2) it is our closed approximation to the truth
3) any theory can be improved
are completely in agreement with Popper's concept of truth! Popper's view on this matter is not an isolated opinion but follows logically from his philosophy of science. I did not find any explanation in Johnson's book why he accepts Popper's philosophy of science and at the same time rejects Popper's concept of truth. Johnson demands from his opponents certainty, absolute proof and truth, things Popper and Johnson himself associates with the 'craving to be right'. (8). The effect is that it looks as if Darwinists fail. They don't know if their theory is true! When viewed through the eyes of Kuhn this 'impressive explanatory power' is just what a good normal science paradigm should have: puzzle-solving power.
    In my view evolutionary science has mathematical, historical, definitional and empirical subsystems. The mathematical parts like the Hardy-Weinberg Law are non-empirical and therefore empirical evidence does not matter. The historical part is not as easy testable as hypotheses in experimental sciences, but fossil data can be collected. The concept of fitness is mostly seen as a definition and again observations do not matter. However fitness can be measured in the lab and in the field.
I do agree that "if laboratory science cannot establish a mechanism and if fossil studies cannot find the common ancestors and transitional links, then Darwinism fails as an empirical theory" (p. 66).
However these problems are still open questions and not impossibilities or falsifications. Darwin and the Darwinists did not give us a theory of everything in biology. Darwinists pretend they understand the most important problems in evolutionary biology. In the end I do agree that Darwinists could and should be clearer in what has been and has not been proved, what is unprovable and what is tautological in neo-Darwinism.

8. Can there be evidence of design?

    In discussing Heinz Pagels on page 119, Johnson observes that Pagels can stare straight at 'evidence of intelligent design'. Can there be evidence of design? Even if the answer would be YES, it does not imply we possess a theory of design. And so we would not have an alternative theory for Darwinism. Still worse: I don't see how it could be a theory capable of elaboration. In that case scientists need not pay attention to it. Only if a design theory would be capable of establishing a successful research program, a scientist needs to pay attention. In any case scientists who accept 'evidence of design' would find themselves on a dead end, because nothing can be concluded from 'evidence of design', certainly not the Bible-God.

9. Can there be theistic knowledge?

    If theism is not fantasy; if theism does say something about reality as Johnson claims, then theism claims to be knowledge. But then the demands Johnson applies to Darwinism, also apply to theism. So Johnson should ask for example the question what evidence there is for 'life after death'? From the start on the claim of 'life after death' has been unverifiable and unfalsifiable. It could easily be called the paradigm of an unverifiable and unfalsifiable assertion. Is Johnson prepared to give the 'life after death'-assertion the same critical treatment as the Darwinian thesis of common descent? If not, then Johnson's criticism is biased, inconsistent and dishonest. If he claims theism is about reality, is he prepared to ask what risky predictions theism makes? What observations do falsify theism? If there are no possible observations which falsify theism, then theism fails to be knowledge. One cannot have the 'benefits' of knowledge (to know reality) without the 'disadvantages' (falsifiability).

10. Comparing Creation and Evolution

    According to Popper (9), we should compare different solutions for the same problem. This seems perfectly applicable to the problem of the origin of life and species, because creation and evolution are two solutions for the same problem. Does Johnson compare both? Johnson rejects comparison of evolution and creation at the moment he accuses Darwinists (Futuyma) of speculating about the purposes of the creator (10). A scientist must not speculate! says Johnson. This implies that evolution and creation are unequal and unfit to compare. One could even deduce from Johnson words ("any pseudoscientific theory based upon a religious dogma") that creation is too unscientific to be compared. For this purpose I am even prepared to call evolution 'the scientific myth of origins' and creation the 'religious myth of origins', if Johnson would be willing to compare both myths! But he nowhere does... Is he afraid of comparing the two? (11). Isn't a rather comfortable position to attack a theory, without presenting your own theory? No theory means no criticism! Obviously Johnson needs a religious creation myth as rich in details as Darwinism, otherwise a useful comparison is impossible. Darwin had a Chapter entitled "Difficulties of the theory". I did not found a chapter in Darwin on Trial entitled "Difficulties of theism". And there are difficulties.

11. What are Johnson's goals?

    What does he want? Did he achieve his goals? One thing Johnson made clear about the Evolution and Creation controversy: part of the controversy is about the power to control the 'creation story' in public life and in education (12). In addition to this political aspect, a philosophical goal seems to be to demonstrate that:
only purposeless material forces can have been involved in biological creation.
does not follow from:
science cannot study God. (p. 210).
So (1) a scientist is justified in excluding God and purpose from scientific theories, and then Johnson's subtle (13) distinction comes: (2) a scientist is not justified in denying the existence of God and purpose. So Johnson protests rightly against the explicit atheism of Darwinists like Julian Huxley and Richard Dawkins. Surprisingly Johnson acknowledges assertion (1): The task of science is not to speculate about why God might have done things this way, but to see if a material cause can be established by empirical investigation. (p. 71). This is an explicit acknowledgement of Johnson that scientists have to exclude God from science. So they did! They excluded God from evolution theory. They excluded God from neo-Darwinism. Darwinists consequently cannot be blamed to have constructed a theory without God. If their theory subsequently fails, Johnson cannot attribute this to the exclusion of God. So why write a whole book against the scientific value of Darwinism? Although the whole book suggests that every damage done to Darwinism makes more room for the 'design theory', this suggestion is contradicted by Johnson himself in the last paragraph of his book: Exposing Darwinism to possible falsification would not imply support for any other theory, certainly not any pseudoscientific theory based upon a religious dogma. (p. 156). So why devote so much effort at the destruction of Darwinism, if it doesn't help the 'design theory' or the biblical creation story? My conclusion is that Johnson not only points to gaps in Darwinism, he thinks he needs those gaps. Temporary gaps would be fine, but permanent gaps would even be better: "Scientific investigation of the origin of life is as effectively closed off as if God had reserved the subject for Himself." (p. 111). But wait a minute, if knowledge of the origin of life is effectively closed off for humans, how can Johnson ever know, that life was supernaturally created? I suppose Johnson thinks he needs the incompleteness of science in general in order to be an intellectually fulfilled theist (to paraphrase Dawkins). Because a theist wants to believe in a reality and in a creation story not contradicted by science. And it helps a great deal if the scientific 'creation story' is permanently incomplete on the crucial question of origins. And surely it helps if there is left something crucial to do for God. But what if science has complete understanding of everything, would that imply the non-existence of God? I suspect Johnson rejects that, but I am not sure about that. If he rejects it, the whole 'gaps-finding exercise' would be pointless. Where does the danger come from ? Nothing to fear because nothing can disproof God. If he accepts however that science could disproof God by having a complete theory of origins, there is a real danger for him. His creation story could become contradicted. In both cases the danger is that Johnson's creation story could become unimportant and superfluous. That is however not a scientific problem. I personally do agree that the neo-Darwinian explanation for the evolution of life is incomplete at the moment. It is however absolutely too early to conclude it is permanently incomplete. For scientists also have a goal: to fill the gaps in our knowledge.


The page numbers refer to the 2nd edition (1993) of Darwin on Trial (paperback). All citations from Johnson are bold + green.
This book was a gift from Sid King (1997).
  1. God and Evolution: An Exchange. First Things, June/July, 1993. [changed URL notified by Steven Entringer]
  2. The reason he has no problem with accepting natural selection is that he sees it as a conservative force (only eliminating negative mutations) and absolutely not as the omnipotent creative force needed to create entirely new organisms. But Johnson is not original in his criticism: geneticist William Bateson (1861-1926) already claimed natural selection is not creative and the Dutch geneticist Hugo de Vries (rediscoverer of Mendel) wrote: "Natural selection is a sieve. It creates nothing", but he admired Darwin and accepted evolution.
  3. "micro-evolution does not have theological implications" (117,118)
  4. Whatever its limitations... How do these limitations bear on the applicability of Kuhn's description of normal science? Johnson accepts Kuhn uncritically. Did Kuhn make risky predictions ?
  5. Johnson ignores or does not know of the potential falsifier altruism which was turned into a confirming example: inclusive fitness.
  6. Creationistic books are full of claimed falsifications of Darwinism: Michael Behe, Michael Denton and David Foster. These authors could never collect so much falsifying evidence if Darwin's theory was not risky!
  7. Karl Popper, Logic of Scientific Discovery, p280. Hutchinson & CO. Seventh impression April 1974.
  8. "The wrong view of science betrays itself in the craving to be right; for it is not his possession of knowledge, of irrefutable truth, that makes the man of science, but his persistent and recklessly critical quest for truth." Karl Popper, page 281 of The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Hutchinson & CO. Seventh impression April 1974.
  9. Karl Popper(1994) The Myth of the Framework, Routledge. page 54
  10. Darwin on Trial, page 71: "The task of science is not to speculate about why God might have done things this way, but to see if a material cause can be established by empirical investigation." (!)
  11. There is somebody who is not afraid and able to give a rational theory of creation: professor Swinburne in: 'Is there a God ?'.
  12. When I studied biology, genetics and evolution, my teachers never gave me the impression that a war against theists was going on. They just taught science, scientific theories and doing experimental work in evolution. Maybe there was a war, but I failed to notice.
  13. This is a subtle distinction. Suppose God had any influence upon material events, then science should have detected it. Divine influence has to be unsystematic, unique, unpredictable, irreproducible and indeed whimsical (p31) to escape detection by science. From a scientific point of view, it is a small step from undetectable influences to non-existent influences.
  14. "I am not a scientist but an academic lawyer by profession" (page 12). "I was a tenured professor in a field outside of biology when I published the book, so I was pretty unassailable professionally." (Touchstone, 2011)
  15. Stuart Kauffman(2000) Investigations, p52 explained that Newton's famous F = M × A is a tautology, just as Darwin's concepts 'fitness' and 'natural selection'. According to Wittgenstein many useful concepts are necessarily circularly defined in terms of each other. Del Ratzsch(1996) The Battle of Beginnings, p144-145 is a good account of the tautology.
  16. See Motoo Kimura review on this site.


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Copyright © 1997 G.Korthof . First published: Jul 6 1997 updated: 10 Oct 2001 Notes: 3 Jan 2007