Review: Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Robert T. Pennock
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Work under Review
Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds
Phillip E Johnson
1997. Downer's Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 131 p.
Those who have read Phillip Johnson's Darwin on Trial (1991) and Reason in the Balance (1995) will immediately recognize the argument as well as the rhetoric in his latest book. Johnson again brings up the Cambrian explosion and other features of the fossil record that he says biologists can't explain, but he opposes evolutionary theory primarily by way of an attack on scientific naturalism. He speaks of how the young need protection against "indoctrination" (p 10) from "the ruling naturalists" (p 22) who make students memorize "naturalistic doctrine" (p 34). He continues to insinuate a conspiracy of atheist Darwinian elites who control the airwaves — "the microphone-owners of the media [who] get to decide who plays the heroes and who plays the villains" (p 33).

Though his arguments against evolution are broadly philosophical rather than scientific, he ignores most of the history of philosophy, and still perversely insists, for instance, that taking God as a supernatural foundation is the only way to avoid relativism of both knowledge and morality. When we "declared our independence from God" (in the 1960s of course, on the heels of the 1959 Darwin Centennial), we lost the assumption that "the law was based on a set of underlying moral principles that came ultimately from the Bible," and this, Johnson opines, resulted first in the divorce revolution, then the sexual revolution, the feminist revolution, and inevitably abortion rights and homosexual liberation (p 103-4). These themes, as well as Johnson's characteristic shrill notes, are by now tiresomely familiar. There are, however, a few important developments in the book.

The most significant new point in Johnson's attack on evolution is that for the first time he comes out explicitly against the core thesis of common descent. In many previous writings Johnson blithely ignored the basic textbook meaning of evolution and used his own idiosyncratic definition that made no mention of descent with modification. One always suspected that Johnson was more of a traditional creationist than he let on, but he refused to be pinned down on any specifics and mostly confined his objections to the Darwinian mechanism (what he called "the blind watchmaker thesis") and to the purported "dogmatic philosophy" of naturalism that he claimed was part of its definition.

He proffered "intelligent design" as the correct alternative account, but refused to say anything about that "theory" beyond the vague claim that God's intentional design was the true explanation of biological complexity, leaving open the possibility that God did not create biological kinds ex nihilo, but by guiding the process of descent. However, as he previously claimed that the Darwinian mechanism was a false doctrine propped up by naturalism, he now says the same of descent with modification: "Put aside the materialism," he concludes, "and the common ancestry thesis is as dubious as the Darwinian mechanism" (p 95). Perhaps in a future book he will finally tell us what intelligent design theory has to say about stratigraphy and Noah's Flood.

A second significant addition here is an indication of how "intelligent design" theorists hope to update the old creationist argument from the information content of biological molecules. Johnson suggests (incorrectly) that information is a radically anti-materialist concept. He claims that information is primary and prior to the material, noting that the Gospel of John says that "in the beginning was the Word," not matter. This is admittedly a clever interpretive idea and, given the real importance of information theoretic issues in biology we can expect creationists to run with it. Johnson first broached his idea in a 1996 article in Biology and Philosophy, picking up on a few statements of biologist George C Williams who was discussing (far too loosely, I would say) biological information. Williams had said that information was "not physical objective reality" and was a "more or less incommensurable domain" from matter, and Johnson proposed that this was a recognition of an ontological dualism of matter and information, and that matter could therefore never explain the origin of information.

Williams and Richard Dawkins each wrote pithy, scathing replies, but in Defeating Darwinism Johnson oversimplifies their objections. He admits that it is easy to account for the origin of information if its content is low, but he clalms that there is no accounting naturally for the "highly specified information" of complex organisms. Expect this to be where the new creationists will try to make their next pitch for intelligent design. As they do, watch for those subtly question-begging words like "specified" which lead one to think of an "intelligent agent" (a specifier), where "specific" would be more precise.

The next time Johnson says that "The Word (information) is not reducible to matter, and even precedes matter" (p 71), be sure to ask for an example of information that is prior to matter (or anything physical)—he won't have one because information is a relational property that can't exist in a "disembodied" form. And don't be put off by facile claims about irreducibility, for that is a difficult and controversial philosophical concept. While it is true that, in one simple sense of reduction, information is not reducible to matter (that is, the same information can appear in any number of different material forms), this is not a sense that would lead to any spooky dualism or would necessarily require an intelligent author.

A less substantive, but perhaps more important, change in this new book is an explicit shift in Johnson's target audience. In a 1993 interview Johnson had said that he was not interested in discussing how the creationism debate should be conducted in the schools. "[T]he public school system isn't really my venue," he explained, "it isn't where I want it argued. It's in the universities and scientific community that I really start the argument" (Barbero 1993). Now Johnson is ready to switch venues and writes that the aim of this new book is to give "a good high-school education in how to think about evolution" (p 11). His audience consists of "late teens - high-school juniors and seniors and beginning college undergraduates" (p 9) and their parents and teachers. He even tells us how he would design a curriculum in evolution for these students. Apparently Johnson now does want the issue argued in the schools, for he says that the biology curriculum should be built around principles of critical thinking. He wants to turn the table on scientific skeptics and have students learn to train what Carl Sagan called their baloney detectors upon evolutionary theory.

Johnson goes through Sagan's baloney detection list of fallacious appeals to authority, selective use of evidence, begging the question, ad hominem arguments, and so on, but illustrating these with ways that he claims evolutionary biologists are dishing out the baloney. For example, he says students should be taught to watch for evolutionists' bait-and-switch strategy of starting with what they call "the fact" of evolution and then surreptitiously inflating it to include the mechanism as well. (Gould and some other evolutionary biologists speak of common descent with modification as "the fact" of evolution to distinguish that from "the theory" of the mechanism [s] by which it occurred. In Johnson's section on the curriculum he misleadingly defines and dismisses it as being just the uncontroversial point that "organisms have certain similarities like the DNA genetic code, and are grouped in patterns" [p 58], though he later uses it in Gould's sense to refer to common descent when he rejects that thesis [p 94].)

Incredibly, Johnson claims that this important distinction between product and process is "just a debating gimmick" (p 59) to hide problems with the Darwinian mechanism. He warns teachers that if they want to try to teach about the evolutionary "snow job" they may have trouble avoiding the attention of "so-called civil liberties lawyers" (p 116) and offers his services and those of his colleagues to help. He directs teachers to the Access Research Network Web site,, which has become the outlet store for "intelligent design" creationism, where their materials will be posted.

We should applaud Johnson's call for teaching critical thinking, but his seven-point program for applying this as the framework for a biology curriculum is ludicrous. Imagine suggesting that the proper way to teach geology is to tell students that the subject is little more than "philosophical dogma" and that geologists are "bluffers" who intentionally "dodge the hard questions" and who should be "viewed with suspicion." Teaching an academic discipline in this manner would be intellectually irresponsible and morally reprehensible. Even parents who are creationists and would like to see this critical approach to evolution in the schools may be less than pleased to hear that Johnson also recommends that students learn in biology class to turn their baloney detectors upon their own religious beliefs. He argues that to believe in God simply on faith rather than reason is either a "mistake" or a "rational defensive strategy born of desperation" (p 20), and that students must confront the theological problems that result from taking on evolution.

Believe it or not, critical thinking about such theological matters also comes under one or other of the seven points Johnson would include in his biology curriculum. Johnson wants to to blame everything on scientific naturalism, but that is no more or less an "assumption" of every other theoretical and applied science than it is of Darwimsm; if Johnson's curriculum is justified in biology classes, then why doesn't he consistently recommend that it be applied in like manner in physics class and auto shop?

Johnson tells high-schoolers that they need to "learn to use terms precisely and consistently" (p 57) but that biologists are intentionally slippery in their use of the term evolution, so that when they hear it "the indicator screens on their baloney detectors should display ‘Snow Job Alert'" (p 116). Students reading his book will profit from turning their baloney detectors upon it, for Johnson's own use of terminology is no model of the virtues he rightly praises. In addition to the terminological laxity noted above, one finds that Johnson is similarly loose with other evolutionary concepts when it is to his advantage. One instance involves what he calls "Berra's Blunder".

In Evolution and the Myth of Creationism (1990), zoologist Tim Berra illustrated a point about the nature of an evolutionary sequence using a series of photographs that show the development of the Corvette over several decades. Johnson says Berra has blundered here because "[t]he Corvette sequence.. .does not illustrate naturalistic evolution at all. It illustrates how intelligent designers will typically achieve their purposes by adding variations to a basic design plan" (p 63). But it is Johnson who is being misleadingly ambiguous here, for Berra never claims that this is an example of natural selection but says explicitly that this is an illustration of a kind of descent with modification. He uses the example to illustrate how small changes, where the relatedness of intermediate forms is easily recognizable, can add up to differences such that the endpoint is nearly unrecognizably distinct from the starting point. For this purpose the Corvette example, using artificial rather than natural selection, works perfectly well.

Furthermore, it is an important, basic point to make with a familiar example, since many creationists continue to cling to the immutability of species and insist that cumulative selection of small variations in a species (microeveolution) can't add up to form new species from old (macroevolution). Johnson misleadingly defines microevolution as "cyclical variation within the type" [p 57] so that it looks like it fits with the creationist idea of fixity of kinds. Johnson claims that these small changes can't add up to form new species from old (macroevolution). It is an important, basic point to make with a familiar example. It is thus Johnson, not Berra, who has blundered. Moreover, are we really supposed to take seriously his implicit suggestion about discovering the divine Designer's purposes on analogy with that of automotive designers? If so, what should we conclude about God's purposes for human beings, chimps, gorillas and the various extinct fossil hominids given that we are all but a minor variation on the primate "design plan?" It looks like Homo sapiens is just the latest of a line of mostly failed production models.

Johnson's imprecision and inconsistency are even more pronounced when it comes to the philosophical concepts he tries to make so much of. For instance, with no regard for the basic distinction between ontological naturalism and methodological naturalism, Johnson continues to speak generically of "naturalism" as a dogmatic metaphysics (see Pennock 1996). His evidence that biologists are committed to the ontological view that there is no God and that nature is "all there is" comes from the 1995 Position Statement of the American National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) that said that evolution was an "unsupervised" and "impersonal" process. The fact that NABT recently dropped these two terms from its statement to remain properly agnostic about God's role (as methodological naturalism requires) repudiates Johnson's charge.

Compounding the above prevarication, Johnson also confuses scientific naturalism and materialism. Mechanistic materialism became the dominant naturalist ontology in the 17th century, but scientific naturalism allows other explanatory categories of being, provided that they do not violate natural law. Indeed, it is more common in philosophy of science today to speak of physicalism rather than materialism, so as not to over-emphasize matter over space-time, forces, fields and other basic categories that have been added to physics in the intervening centuries, and so as not to beg ultimate philosophical questions about metaphysics.

Johnson does (temporarily) correct one serious philosophical error he had made in Reason in the Balance. There his main target was "modernism," but he incorrectly described modernists as being ethical and epistemic relativists, and attributed to modernism characteristics that actually belong to postmodernism. In Defeating Darwinism he does better, writing: "Modernists believe in a universal rationality founded on science; postmoderists believe in a multitude of different rationalities and consider science to be only one way of interpreting the world. In other words modernists are rationalists; postmodernists are relativists" (p 90). But after admitting this difference he goes back to lumping the two together and criticizes modernism generically as the subjectivist "established religion" of the West (p 97).

Interestingly, Johnson's own view is clearly postmoderist in many of its key elements. His writings are rife with postmodern language about the "construction" of knowledge by those in the "establishment" who are acting to protect their "power and wealth" by "indoctrinating" the masses with an oppressive "ideology". I was not surprised to learn recently that Johnson's original title for Darwin on Trial had been Darwinism Deconstructed. Like postmodernist phiosophers,Johnson seems to think that what is called knowledge is nothing more than the fashionable cultural narratives held by the ruling elite. One way this view is exemplified in Defeating Darwinism is the emphasis he places on the play Inherit the Wind — a fictionalization of the Scopes trial, which he calls a "masterpiece of propaganda" (p 25). Spinning his own masterpiece of deconstruction Johnson tries to argue that the play actually achieves its effect by borrowing from the Gospels and essentially giving Bert Cates (the character representing the evolution teacher Scopes) the moral role of Jesus.

Well, maybe so, but what does that have to do with whether the scientific evidence tells us that evolution is true? The answer, of course, is that although Johnson is like postmoderists in opposing scientific methods as having any special evidential merit for discovering truths about the empirical world, he is at heart really a premodernist in holding (though never quite forthrightly admitting) that the only warrant for truth is God's Word. Johnson wants to defeat Darwinism by having students "open their minds" to supernatural possibilities in the ways he suggests and ignore standards of evidence. As an antidote to Johnson s postmodernist call to carelessly throw out scientific methods, it behooves us to remember Bertrand Russell's wise recommendation that it is good to keep an open mind, but not so open that one's brain falls out.


Barbero Y. Interview With Phillip E Johnson. California Committees of Correspondence Newsletter 1993.
Berm T. Evolution and the Myth of Creationism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.
Pennock RT. Naturalism, evidence and creationism: The Case of Philip Johnson. Biology & Philosophy 1996; 11(4): 561.

About the Author(s): 
Robert T Pennock
Dept of Philosophy, The University of Texas at Austin.