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to the review of Johnson's Darwin on Trial

by Gert Korthof
Sept 1997. (Updated: 26 Oct 2011)

    Initially, I wrote a rather favourable review of Darwin On Trial, partly because I was impressed by Johnson's knowledge and understanding of Darwinism, considering the fact he is a professor of law. I did not know many (or maybe most) of the criticisms and problems Johnson described, although I studied biology at the university. I was impressed by statements as: "Johnson is the most respectable academic critic of evolution", which raise high expectations. With hindsight, that was naive. After reading Denton (1986) Evolution: A Theory In Crisis, I discovered that Johnson was not original in his criticism.
I think Johnson owes more to Denton than the four entries in the index of Johnson's book do suggest. Not only facts, but also many ideas, conclusions and the main theme in Johnson's book are already present in Denton. A few quotes will demonstrate this.

Postscripts 2
8 Dec 2013

Denton (1985,1986) 'Evolution: a theory in crisis' Johnson (1993) 'Darwin on Trial', 2nd edition
Denton writes: "To demonstrate that the great divisions of nature were really bridged by transitional forms in the past, it is not sufficient to find in the fossil record one or two types of organisms of doubtful affinity which might be placed on skeletal grounds in a relatively intermediate position between other groups." (page 177). Johnson writes: "If we are testing Darwinism rather than merely looking for a confirming example or two, then a single good candidate for ancestor status is not enough to save a theory that posits a worldwide history of continual evolutionary transformation" (p. 81)
Denton's closing chapter 15, The Priority of the Paradigm, contains Kuhn's idea that a paradigm is not rejected when scientists are faced with many anomalies. Johnson expresses exactly the same opinion, even the disclaimer that Kuhn's description may be wrong.
Denton writes: "Whether the Kuhnian view [...] is right, it certainly provides a satisfying explanation of why even in the face of what are 'disproofs', Darwinian concepts continue to dominate so much of biological thought today." (page 356). Johnson writes: "But whatever its limitations as a description of science generally, it provides an illuminating picture of the methodology of Darwinism." (page 120).
Denton mentioned Popper's falsifiability criterion (p75). Johnson devotes chapter 12 to Popper.
Denton writes about the origin of new species: "Evolution by natural selection has been directly observed in nature, and it is beyond any reasonable doubt that new reproductively isolated populations -species- do in fact arise from pre-existing species" (page 344). Johnson writes: "The question is not whether natural selection occurs. Of course it does".(page 16). "Whether selection has ever accomplished speciation (i.e. the production of a new species) is not the point. [...] Success in dividing a fruitfly population into two or more separate populations that cannot interbreed would not constitute evidence that a similar process could in time produce a fruitfly from a bacterium." (Johnson, page 19).
Origin of wings in birds:
Denton describes the 'bird wing problem' in chapter 9: "Bridging the gaps".
Johnson explicitly refers to Denton's chapter 9 on page 36 of his book.
I find it remarkable for a creationist to accept Darwin's main claim that natural selection causes speciation. Denton does. Johnson does. Denton calls this microevolution. Johnson does. Denton rejects the extrapolation from micro- to macroevolution. Johnson does. Furthermore, there is not only a remarkable agreement on the distinction micro/macro but also on the consequences of the distinction:
Denton concludes: "If the Origin had dealt only with the evolution of new species it would never have had its revolutionary impact."(page 46). Johnson writes: "If empiricism were the primary value at stake, Darwinism would long ago have been limited to microevolution, where it would have no important theological or philosophical implications." (117,118).
On the fossil record Denton writes about the 'trade secret of paleontology' (p194). Johnson writes about the 'trade secret of paleontology' on page 59.
Denton cites Carl Sagan on the probability of life; Johnson does the same, but acknowledges in the Research Notes that he did find Sagan's citation in Denton. Denton quotes Sir Gavin de Beer(1971) in chapter 7 on homology, Johnson quotes the same passage on p189 (he mentions Denton as the source).
On the origin of life Denton writes: "Nothing illustrates more clearly just how intractable a problem the origin of life has become, than the fact that world authorities can seriously toy with the idea of panspermia." (p271). (Denton quoted Crick and Hoyle). Johnson writes: "When a scientist of Crick's caliber feels he has to invoke undetectable spaceman, it is time to consider whether the field of prebiological evolution has come to a dead end." (p111).
Denton writes about "the metaphysical nature of evolutionary claims" (page 353). Johnson writes: " "Evolution" in Darwinist usage implies a completely naturalistic metaphysical system " (page 153).
Even the most famous concept in DARWIN ON TRIAL, naturalism, is already present in Denton in the same context and meaning ! Denton uses naturalism as opposed to supernatural (355). Johnson however elaborates much more on naturalism. The central theme of Johnson's book is that an important part of Darwinism is metaphysics. Even words like "inconceivable" and "unthinkable" which Denton uses to describe the exclusive force of the Darwinian paradigm, are used by Johnson in the same context.
Denton describes Darwinism as a retreat from pure empiricism, a retreat from the facts: "If anyone was chasing a phantom or retreating from empiricism it was surely Darwin." (page 117 and 353). Johnson concludes: the Darwinian mechanism for creating complex things is therefore not really part of empirical science at all (page 158).
Denton discusses the 1981-exhibition of the British Museum of Natural History and the subsequent discussion in Nature (chapter 6, page 138). The chapter 'Darwinist Education' in Johnson's book discusses the same case.
Denton rejects supernatural alternatives for Darwinism. Johnson rejects supernatural alternatives for Darwinism.
Denton: "Ultimately the Darwinian theory of evolution is no more nor less than the great cosmogenic myth of the twentieth century (p358). Johnson wrote: "Darwinist evolution is a creation myth " (p133).
If there is a main theme in Johnson's book, then it surely is the conflict between Darwinism and theism.
Denton writes about that conflict: "the fact is that no biblically derived religion can really be compromised with the fundamental assertion of Darwinian theory."(p66). Johnson writes: "the naturalistic metaphysics upon with Darwinism is based is incompatible with any meaningful theism" (p162).

These comparisons can easily be extended, but the ones above will suffice to make my point: Johnson is not such an original writer as the publisher and many admirers are implying. Johnson did not invent criticism of Darwinism. He did not start from scratch. Johnson could not have written his book, if not all the hard scientific work, including the criticism, has been done by people like Denton. Johnson merely retold well-known stories. Johnson starts his Epilogue with a quote of Steven Weinberg (a physicist!): "Johnson is the most respectable academic critic of evolution" (p. 157). Did Weinberg read Denton or does he have knowledge of the extensive anti-Darwin literature? In fact there are about 400 works about the Creation/Evolution controversy listed in Hayward's Annotated Bibliography of the Creation/Evolution controversy published before Darwin on Trial.

   What is new in Johnson's book? Johnson is easy reading, but his story is not free of religious bias. The full scientific story with all the illustrations can only be found in Denton(1986). Johnson does not use the argument from design, which Denton discusses at length. Probably he discovered the materialist nature of Denton's reincarnation of Paley's argument from design, and decided it was better to be silent about it. (See: Criticism nr 4 in my review of Denton). The second difference is that Johnson is not interested in Denton's Typological Model at all.
What is 'new' in Johnson's book is that Johnson added war. He claimed that Darwinists are involved in a war against theism. War is obvious from a more recent book of Johnson: "Defeating Darwinism by opening minds". He is interested in defeating. War is even more obvious from the title of a talk: "How to Sink a Battleship". No Trial without War. Johnson is not interested in improving science, understanding or knowledge. Johnson does not only describe a war but participates in the war against atheists. The ultimate goal is: 'to control the creation story in public life'.

Postscripts (2)

Pennock (Sept 1998)

More than a year after the publication of my review of Darwin on Trial, I read Pennock's Supernatural Explanations and the Prospects for a Theistic Science. [ This article has been removed, but is included in the Tower of Babel in chapter 6.]
The article is very long (21 printed pages) and contains a detailed philosophical analysis, but is important. Important because Pennock is a philosopher and uses his expertise in a domain where Johnson is an outsider and because Pennock is, just like Johnson, a theist. The article shows that theism is not necessarily in conflict with evolution and Darwinism. There is no inescapable war between theism and Darwinism. War is Johnson's personal view, not a view that derives necessarily from theism. Further, Pennock says scientists are not dogmatically ignoring supernatural events, because they are atheists, but because the nature of evidence drives them to do so.

Pennock (Jul 1999)

Now Robert Pennock published his views in Tower of Babel, which is mainly devoted to Johnson's views about science and religion.

Del Ratzsch (Sep 1999)

In Del Ratzsch (1996) The Battle of Beginnings, page 148-150, there is very useful criticism of the circular reasoning argument Johnson used several times in his book.

Michael Denton (Mar 2000)

The following quote from Origins & Design 19:2 confirms what I showed above about Johnson's influences:
"Thirteen years ago, a book by a largely unknown Australian biologist and physician, Michael Denton, was published in London: Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (Burnett Books, 1985). The American edition appeared a year later (Adler, 1986), and soon won a wide and appreciative audience. Among the readers strongly influenced by the book was Phillip Johnson, who while on sabbatical in England read Evolution (shortly after reading Richard Dawkins' contemporaneously published The Blind Watchmaker), and Michael Behe, both of whom found the book revelatory."

John Haught (May 2000)

The theologian John Haught(2000) shows in his God After Darwin. A Theology of Evolution (not reviewed on this site) that a theist can not only believe in evolution, but even perceive Darwinism a gift to theology.

Robert Shapiro (Oct 2000)

Johnson quotes from Robert Shapiro(1986): Origin's. A Skeptic's Guide To The Creation Of Life On Earth (not reviewed on this site) and called Shapiro "a chemist with stature in the field". And further claims that Shapiro "affirmed the existence of a naturalistic solution as a matter of faith".
Now I have read Shapiro myself and found out that Shapiro was indeed skeptical about a lot of scientific claims about the origin of life (1), but to my surprise I also found a chapter entitled "Creationism: Religion as Science", in which Shapiro rejected creationism. Johnson did not tell his readers about that! Really a biased account of Shapiro's position. Johnson selected what he found useful for his case and was silent about the rest.
(1) Indeed there are still scientists who are shamelessly optimistic about the origin of life such as Vincent Icke, professor of astronomy at the University of Leiden and Amsterdam.

Nancey Murphy (Aug 2002)

In the same year (1993) Darwin on Trial appeared, Nancey Murphy, professor of Christian Philosophy, published 'Phillip Johnson on Trial: A Critique of His Critique of Darwin' in Perspectives on Science & Christian Faith, 1993, vol 45, no 1 pp 26-36. [Johnson mentions this article in his Research Notes addendum to 2nd 1993 edition of his book]. It is worth reading. One can't accuse Nancey Murphy of an atheistic bias. It is reprinted in "Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics: Philosophical, Theological, and Scientific Perspectives." edited by Robert Pennock(2002).

Peacock's tail (Jan 2003)

Johnson wrote about the puzzle of the peacock's tail:
"what I find intriguing is that Darwinists are not troubled by the unfitness of the peahen's sexual taste. Why would natural selection, which supposedly formed all birds from lowly predessors, produce a species whose females lust for males with life-threatening decorations?" (p.30).
Biologists now have good explanations for the peacock's tail. It is called the handicap principle. It is beautifully and accessibly described in a book by A. and A Zahavi(1997,1999) 'The Handicap Principle - A Missing Piece of Darwin's Puzzle'. In short: the long tails of male birds reliably demonstrate to females that those males are healthy and can afford such handicap. It can only be a reliable signal when it is a handicap. Females prefer strong males because they produce healthy children.

Scientists and Lawyers (Nov 2003)

Johnson is a lawyer. Evolution is a scientific theory. Scientists approach a controversial theory from the opposite perspective of lawyers. Lawyers are paid to make the best case possible for their client, a person they may believe to be guilty. Scientists on the other hand, are more like jury members. They judge a theory by fairly weighing all the evidence on each side. But unlike a jury, which has to make up its mind once and for all, scientists must continue to remain open-minded to contrary evidence even after they have accepted a theory as being probably true. See: Robert Ehrlich (2003) "Eight preposterous propositions", page 2.

Ruse about Johnson (July 2005)

"One justifiable criticism of Johnson was that he behaved too much like a lawyer - he concentrated on the offense and paid no heed to defense"

Francis Collins about Johnson (Sep 2006)

Phillip Johnson, the founder, was driven not so much by a scientific desire to understand life (he makes no claim to be a scientist), but by a personal mission to defend God against what he perceived as growing public acceptance of a purely materialistic worldview. (...)
... goals to influence public opinion, to effect an overthrow of atheistic materialism, and to replace it with a "broadly theistic understanding of nature." (Francis Collins, The Language of God, pp183-184).
Please note that Collins is a Christian.

Joan Roughgarden about Phillip Johnson (Oct 2006)

"I reviewed Darwin on Trial in 1992 and concluded that the book added little light to the creationist/evolutionist debate, but its sarcasm and condescension do add heat."
Joan Roughgarden (2006) Evolution and Christian Faith. Reflections of an Evolutionary Biologist, page 80.
Please note that Roughgarden is a Christian.

The Case for the Prosecution. The Case for the Defense (November 2009)

A very useful summary of Darwin's case for evolution in The Origin of Species (1859) can be found in:
David N. Reznick (2009) 'The Origin Then and Now. An Interpretive Guide to the Origin of Species, Princeton University Press, chapter 23: 'Recapitulation and Conclusion'.

Johnson about Archaeopteryx. (December 2009)

Johnson wrote: "Archaeopteryx is on the whole a point for the Darwinists, but how important is it?" (p. 81)
That's all! In less than one sentence in a two page paragraph about 'Reptile to Bird', Johnson admits that Darwinists have a point. Then he complains that a few confirming examples is not enough. It is good to know that Archaeopteryx was not present in the first edition (1859) of The Origin because it was only discovered and described in 1861. It appeared for the first time in the 4th edition (1866) and a second passage was added in the 5th edition (1869) after T. H. Huxley had shown in 1868 the close similarity with dinosauriers. It is highly significant that Darwin published his theory, which demanded descent of such a seemingly isolated group as the birds from a vertebrate group, before Archaeopteryx was discovered. So, Darwin made a risky prediction and therefore Archaeopteryx is a significant confirmation of Darwin's theory. Exactly for that reason the Archaeopteryx is an important fossil. Johnson fails to see that. In stead he turns away, and starts complaining one fossil is not enough and he repeats that on page 155. By Popper's standards a confirmation of a risky prediction is important, but in stead of admitting that, Johnson starts complaining that is only one. To his credit Johnson mentions in his Research Notes a Chinese fossil bird (p. 191) but forgets to say that it is only one fossil, and that one fossil is not enough. There are many more transtitionals: Donald R. Prothero (2007) Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters.

Johnson about Darwin on Trial (October 2011)

Johnson (2011) wrote in Touchstone
"I believe that Americans overwhelmingly reject the Darwinism that is taught as unchallengeable truth in today's textbooks, not because they are ignorant, but because they sense that the Darwinian claims go far beyond the evidence and, despite the pro forma expressions of religious neutrality, are aimed at replacing the God who creates everything with an inconsequential God who creates nothing. If this much-weaker God exists, he might just as well not exist, because the job of creating and sustaining the world gets done perfectly well without him. If mindless natural forces can do the whole job without assistance, God becomes superfluous, and hence is easily dismissed from consideration."
Clearly, Johnson has religious motives. What exactly does Johnson want God to create? Adam and Eve? the first cell? DNA? single-stranded RNA? Whatever, it could never be a scientific hypothesis. How, naive and unreasonable to think that creation could ever be a scientific theory.

Johnson about Colin Patterson (December 2013)

I my review of Darwin on Trial I did not discuss Johnson's quotes of Colin Patterson. The quotes are all highly selective and misleading. Colin Patterson (see my review) stated in his second edition of his Evolution (1999) "the belief that all species are related by descent. I think that belief is now confirmed as completely as anything can be in the historical sciences."


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Copyright © 1997 G.Korthof First published: Sep 1997 Last update: 8 Dec 2013