Darwin on Trial is an antievolution book, not a "scientific creationism" book. It complements the anti-evolutionism of the scientific creationists, and provides fuel for those who want to get evolution out of school classrooms. As such, it is important to get the word out as to why the book fails to prove that evolution as a scientific idea is on the skids. Also, Johnson comes from a major university and writes smoothly. As a result, his book has attracted a lot of attention, reportedly selling 40,000 hard-back copies during its first months on the market and now published in a second edition.
Like many conservative Christians, Johnson is concerned with the implications of evolution. Although he states in his book that theistic evolution (evolution that is God-directed) is possible, he doubts it. He is not a young-earth creationist, and in fact, is almost contemptuous of their point of view. He accepts that the earth is old, but rejects evolution, thus he is perhaps describable as an old-earth creationist. His concern with evolution is primarily religious: if evolution by natural selection (Darwinism) really happened, then it is not possible for life to have purpose and for the universe and Earth to have been designed by an omnipotent, personal God. He feels that life would have no meaning, and moral and ethical systems would have no foundation. Thus his goal in Darwin on Trial is to demonstrate that Darwinian natural selection is impossible; therefore evolution didn't take place; therefore his theological views are preserved. He stresses that Darwinism is inherently an atheistic, naturalistic philosophy.
Out of His ElementLet me stress that my objections to Darwin on Trial are not because its author lacks a Ph.D. in science. Science is not a secret activity that can be performed or understood only by priests in white coats — I've argued long and hard to try to make science explicable to nonscientists, and to demystify science as a way of knowing. But if one wishes to step out of one's area of expertise, scientist or nonscientist, it behooves one to make a careful study of the new area, and carefully weigh one's pronouncements. If I were to critique the newest developments on astrophysics, or medieval art history, or patent law, I would have to first acquaint myself with not only the fundamentals of physics, art history, or law, but also astrophysics, medieval art history, or patent law. Similarly, it behooves Johnson to study not only science, but that particular and complicated science known as evolution.
Johnson has grasped the general picture of evolutionary biology, and even some of the details, but he lacks the deep understanding that is required to make the criticisms he makes. A deep understanding of a field comes from careful study of relevant literature, including primary sources, and communication with specialists in the field. Indeed, Darwinism has been critiqued by evolutionary biologists, but there is a clear difference in quality and nuance between their criticisms and those parroted by Johnson. Perhaps this is because he got most of his information from a suspect source: the criticisms of evolution he offers are immediately recognizable as originating with the "scientific" creationists, (although Johnson disdains young-earth creationism, and speaks disparagingly of Biblical literalism.)
So Johnson includes the usual "gaps in the fossil record," "natural selection is a tautology," "there are no transitional fossils," "mutations are harmful," "natural selection is not creative," "microevolution does not explain macroevolution," "natural selection only produces variation within the kind," and the vertebrate eye and the argument from design, just as in any standard Institute for Creation Research (ICR) tract. Those of you who are up on creationist literature will be unsurprised to hear that Johnson even tells the tired old Colin Patterson/ American Museum of Natural History story, as an example of the "conspiracy" of scientists to "protect" Darwinism from criticism (See Reports 12(4):14-15.)
And this, frankly, is another reason why this book needs to be coped with, and not ignored. In many ways, it is a slick repackaging of scientific creationist materials, though far more sophisticated, and as a result, it holds more potential for harm. It has already been presented to one school board that I know of, as supporting "evidence" for how "arguments against evolution" should be included in the science curriculum. This, of course, is just another variant of the familiar creationist "equal time" argument. Creationist organizations from the Institute for Creation Research, to the Bible-Science Association, to Access Research Network (formerly known as Students for Origins Research) have promoted Johnson's book in various ways. Even though his views differ from theirs in important ways, "an enemy of my enemy is my friend," in the words of the Arab proverb.
In addition to creationist sources, Johnson quotes extensively from the secondary scientific literature, citing works by well-respected authors such as Gould, Futuyma, Dawkins, and others. Now, most of those cited are quite competent scientists and historians and even leaders in the field, but the works Johnson cites are usually those written for laypersons, such as Gould's Natural History columns. A casual reader would necessarily miss a great deal of the detail and nuance of the arguments, though perhaps acquiring an understanding of the broad sweep of contemporary evolutionary science.
As a result of his reliance on creationist sources, Johnson makes a lot of flat-out mistakes. Archaeopteryx is not mostly bird; the British Museum did not prevent the inspection of the Piltdown fossils; Zuckerman studied pre-1970 Australopithecines, so his comments on early human evolution are essentially irrelevant; most mutations are not harmful. But mostly the problems in his book reflect subtle misunderstanding of how science works — and knowing or unknowing misstatements of theory in evolutionary biology.
Johnsonian science assumes that something that is not currently fully understood is perhaps un-understandable. He concludes, for example, that the Cambrian fossil explosion, the origin of the first replicating molecule, and the evolution of whales or bats are "difficult problem(s)" for evolution, as if the fact that we don't know all the details of evolution somehow proves evolution didn't take place.
This ignores the consilience factor: the vast amount of detail from natural history that is compatible (only) with the idea that evolution actually took place. If we don't know every link in the fossil phylogeny of bats, why would this make us give up on the idea of evolution, when so many other sources of data support it? We have evidence that evolution occurred from comparative anatomy, geology, biogeography, biochemistry, astronomy — all shouting that change has taken place during the history of the universe. We can predict from comparative anatomy the fossil sequence tetrapod-reptile-mammal before we even look at the rocks. This entire monument is not about to be disassembled because we don't know exactly how bats evolved from primitive insectivores. Consilience is a phenomenon that creationists seem to have great difficulty with, so they ignore it. So does Johnson.
For someone who writes so extensively about fossils, he has remarkably little understanding of what paleontologists do, as shown by his treatment of the legged and footed fossil whale, Basilosaurus. In his notes at the end of the book (which provide illuminating glimpses into his mind-set) he states his skepticism that the legs and feet really belong to the specimen: "The article states that 'Limb and foot bones described here were all found in direct association with articulated skeletons of Basilosaurus isis and undoubtedly represent this species.' Although I accept the authors' description for purposes of this chapter, I confess that expressions like 'found in direct association with' and 'undoubtedly' whet my curiosity. Is it certain that Basilosaurus had shrunken hind limbs, or is it only certain that fossil foot bones were found reasonably close to Basilosaurus skeletons?" Amazing! "Found in direct association" is a term of art in archaeology and paleontology referring not only to proximity but to context (position, geological features, evidence of disturbance or intrusion, etc.) The phrase doesn't mean, "we think in an offhand manner that maybe these bones go together," but Johnson seems unaware of this. How can someone criticize the fossil record and have so little understanding of what paleontologists do? In addition, to criticize an interpretation of a specific fossil, one should know the comparative anatomy involved. The discoverers of Basilosaurus fortunately are skilled anatomists able to tell whether a set of fossil leg and foot bones did or did not articulate with the body as a whole.
Perhaps his greatest misunderstanding of evolution is his expectation of what a "transitional form" should be like. His goal, of course, is to discredit his version of Darwinism, which stresses slow, gradual evolution. (Johnson sometimes means Darwinism, and sometimes means Neo-Darwinism, but that is another issue.) Like the ICR's Duane Gish, Johnson will not accept evolution unless a lineage can be recreated showing every individual specimen from A to Z. If mammals arose from reptiles, for example (which technically, they didn't, but from a tetrapod common ancestor), then to "prove" this, evolutionists would have to show them a fossil that is 25% mammal and 75% reptile, then one that is 50:50, and one that is 25% reptile and 75% reptile — and then kindly fill in the gaps, please. What great confidence this shows in the fossil record! Futuyma (1982:191) puts it best, "The creationist argument that if evolution were true we should have an abundance of intermediate fossils is built by exaggerating the richness of paleontological collections, by denying the transitional series that exist, and by distorting, or misunderstanding, the genetical theory of evolution."
The way Darwin expected the fossil record to look is irrelevant to modern evolutionary theory; Darwin died over a hundred years ago. We can reasonably expect theory to change in 100 years. To quote Futuyma (p. 191) again, "The supposition that evolution proceeds very slowly and gradually, and so should leave thousands of fossil intermediates of any species in its wake, has not been part of evolutionary theory for more than thirty years." But Johnson flogs the gradualist horse because it serves his purpose to discredit evolution by natural selection.
Modern evolutionists, on the other hand, are more concerned with tracing the pattern of evolution, rather than tracing a specific lineage down to the gnat's eyelash. The pattern of evolution is more likely to be shown across a broad series of lineages within an evolving taxon. Transitional structures are sought, rather than individual specimens showing precise intermediacy in all anatomical structures. Evolutionists consider a transitional structure to be one that shows characteristics of an ancestor and characteristics of a descendent. Thus a number of fossils sometimes called reptile-like mammals show characteristics of mammals and also of more primitive tetrapods. These characteristics are especially clear in the skull, and particularly the lower jaw.
It would take a very long essay to criticize all or even most of the misleading, or just plain wrong, statements Johnson makes about evolutionary biology. For example, "Darwinists do not in principle deny the fundamental discontinuity of the living world, but they explain it as being due to the extinction of vast numbers of intermediates that once linked the discrete groups to their remote common ancestors" (p. 87). Wrong. First of all, the discontinuity of modern groups is not something embarrassing to "Darwinists" which they are trying to deny. Discontinuity exists, and it exists because of the process of speciation, which produces reproductively isolated groups of organisms through a number of well-understood processes of heredity. The hierarchy of taxa produced by evolution would be discrete regardless of whether we had examples of every intermediate species. It is just how we expect evolution to work, but Johnson does not understand this. As one reads the book, one stops over and over to say, "No, that's not quite right." It is as if Johnson is talking about a familiar topic, but he gives it a spin that requires careful reading- sort of like discussing a zebra as a horse-like quadreped distinguished by a stiff mane and black and red stripes.
Johnson demonstrates another problem that I have not seen discussed in many other reviews (see Hull, 1991, Hurwitt, 1991, Jukes, 1991, Quinn, 1991, Gray, 1992.) He clearly does not understand the meanings scientists give to many of their terms. He deliberately conflates pairs of ideas that properly are separate. I have selected a few of these for discussion.
Evolution is Not Evolutionism
First, Johnson defines evolution as if it were an ideology: evolutionism. Evolutionism to him is a philosophy that excludes the possibility of divine intervention occurring during evolution. Some individuals have made an ideology out of evolution, but Johnson errs in assuming that therefore evolution itself is an incorrect explanation of the history of the universe.
The quality or usefulness of a scientific idea is independent of the philosophical implications one may or may not draw from it. The fact that one can take a scientific idea and make an ideology out of it does not mean that every treatment of this idea will require an ideological treatment. If a high school teacher someplace should decide that photosynthesis is the foundation for a new religion, that doesn't mean that other teachers should cease teaching photosynthesis. Yet Johnson worries greatly that children will learn evolutionism rather than "just" evolution, and then lose their faith in there being a purpose for life. In this regard, let me reassure Johnson that in speaking with hundreds of teachers all over the country, I have found that when evolution is taught, evolution is taught, not evolutionism. Most teachers appear to be strongly (and conventionally) religious. I know of no recent national survey, though a recent survey of Texas teachers shows a high degree of church attendance (80%) (Markley, 1991).
Science is not Philosophical NaturalismJohnson protests that Darwinism cannot be extricated from atheistic, materialist philosophy. Evolution is defined in Darwin on Trial as "fully naturalistic evolution, — meaning evolution that is not directed by any purposeful intelligence" (p. 4). In this he errs, as do many "scientific" creationists, in conflating the necessary methodological materialism of science with philosophical materialism or naturalism. Naturalism is a philosophy stating that God does not have anything to do with the universe, about which science, as a non-theistic (rather than anti-theistic) enterprise, can say nothing. Like the more familiar ICR creationists, Johnson doesn't want to allow science to be a purely naturalistic, materialist exercise; he insists on the right to retain the possibility of divine intervention or guidance.
Unfortunately, for him, that is just not the way science operates in the late 20th century, and for good reason. Naturalistic explanations have been found to be far more fruitful in the explanation of natural phenomena than supernatural ones. The problem with supernatural explanations is that, correct or incorrect, they cannot be rejected, and science proceeds by rejecting explanations rather than "proving" them true. If you want to know whether the earth goes around the sun or the sun goes around the earth, you'll get a lot farther if you posit testable, natural explanations rather than untestable ones from supernatural revelation. The Hare Krishnas, based on their understanding of the Vedas, believe that the sun is closer to the earth than is the moon. Do you want revelation or empiricism to determine where to send the Apollo mission?
Evolution Is Not the Same As DarwinismJohnson conflates evolution and Darwinism, believing that by disproving Darwinism, he can demonstrate that evolution could not have occurred.
Evolution is a statement about the history of the universe: that the universe has a past. The message of evolution essentially is that change has occurred, as opposed to special creation's view that all the galaxies, solar systems, planets, and organisms in the universe were specially created all at one time. The difference between an evolutionist and a creationist is not "Did God create?", but "What is the history of the universe?" Did everything we see today occur all at one time, or is the universe of today different than it was in the past? Also, evolution refers to a very broad spectrum of natural phenomena: from galaxies and stars and solar systems, to geological phenomena, to organic life.
Darwinism is a mechanism by which part of this spectrum of history may be explained, in whole or in part. Darwinism attempts to explain organic evolution, at least in major part, by natural selection. But Darwinism is only one possible explanation for the history of life. If Darwinism were to be discovered not to explain organic evolution, this would have nothing in the universe (literally) to do with whether stellar or galactic evolution took place — or even whether organic evolution took place. Johnson does not recognize that by trying to disprove organic evolution by natural selection, he leaves untouched the explanation of organic evolution by other mechanisms. But he really doesn't care. His main concern is whether human evolution, one small component of this great sweeping theory, is adequately explained by natural causes, or requires supernatural purpose and design.
The Origin of Life is Not the Same as Evolution
Like the scientific creationists, Johnson confuses the origin of life and the Big Bang (the origin of the universe) with evolution. This is rather like confusing starting up the car's engine with driving away. It is necessary to start the engine to go anywhere, but there is nothing inherent about starting the car that tells you whether you are going to work, or to the corner store, or just idling in the driveway. The origin of life and the Big Bang are both interesting scientific problems, and, as they do with any scientific problem, scientists are attempting to explain them with natural rather than supernatural explanations. Clearly, there is much more to be learned about both, but it appears as if it is possible to explain these phenomena naturally. This possibility is offensive, however, to creationists, who demand that supernatural forces must be invoked. Still, logically, whether the origin of the universe and the production of the first replicating molecule are ever fully explained with naturalistic explanations has nothing to do with what happened subsequently. Did evolution take place, or not?
The Big Bang Is Not the Same as Evolution
Just as the ICR's Duane Gish in his debates shifts smoothly to the origin of life when his debate opponents are sufficiently knowledgeable to defend the fossil record, so Johnson apparently recognizes that the incompleteness of explanations for the origin of life/Big Bang appear to the general public as soft underbellies of evolution.
Materialism, Religion, and DarwinismJohnson presents a narrow view of science, an inaccurate view of evolution/Darwinism, and even a narrow theology. In a 1992 speech Johnson remarked:
Our discussion today is over whether belief in Darwinism is compatible with a meaningful theism. When most people ask that question, they take the Darwinism for granted and ask whether the theism has to be discarded. I think it is more illuminating to approach the question from the other side. Is there any reason that a person who believes in a real, personal God should believe Darwinist claims that biological creation occurred through a fully naturalistic evolutionary process? The answer is clearly "no." (Johnson, 1992, p. 4)
Applying the lawyer's "cold, dispassionate eye for logic and proof" as touted on his book's dustjacket, Johnson manages to set up another strawman that does not accurately reflect the real relationship between evolution and religion. Evolution is presented as a "fully naturalistic process," implying an antithesis between evolution and the supernatural. This certainly is not the position of the majority of Christians in the US today, neither Catholic nor main-line Protestants.
Johnson confuses the necessary methodological materialism (or naturalism) of science with philosophical materialism/naturalism. Science neither denies nor opposes the supernatural, but ignores the supernatural for methodological reasons. The history of science has shown that progress comes from logical and empirical study rather than reference to revelation or to inner psychological states. That's how we play our game; his basketball won't work on our baseball field. The essence of science is empiricism and control of variables, and if there is an omnipotent God, it certainly can't be controlled like temperature or humidity. Science has made a little deal with itself: because you can't put God in a test tube (or keep it out of one), science acts as if the supernatural did not exist. This methodological materialism is the cornerstone of modern science.
Materialism also is the cornerstone of mathematics. It may be the case that God caused 2+2 to equal 4, but ultimate cause is irrelevant to the mathematical applications that can be made to 2+2 = 4. Scientists no more accept supernatural explanations for phenomena than mathematicians would accept a solution to a mathematical problem based on revelation. Yet no one claims mathematics is antireligious. Neither is science.
Johnson fails to recognize the necessity for methodological materialism, because of his concern for philosophical materialism's attack on his theology. The process of evolutionary change, like any scientific process, must be studied without reference to the supernatural. Johnson is certainly welcome to criticize philosophical materialism if he wishes to, but such a criticism is irrelevant to science.
This conflation of methodological materialism with philosophical materialism also confuses two very different types of causation: proximate and ultimate. Science deals only with proximate cause; religion deals with ultimate cause. If God produced the Big Bang, or the first replicating molecule, science can tell us nothing about this, because the supernatural is outside of the realm of things that science can explain. Statements of ultimate cause may be true or false or in between, but they are not testable through the method of scientific discovery. They must be tested using other canons of thought, if they are testable at all. Johnson states that it is possible that God created through evolution, an alternative to a "fully naturalistic evolutionary process," but he doubts it.
This, however, is the position embraced by the majority of main-line Protestant and Catholic theologians: theistic evolution. I define theistic evolution as evolution governed by natural processes but begun by and/or guided by God. (There are many varieties of theistic evolution, as there are many nuances of the understanding of God in Christianity.) We can understand the natural processes using the methods of science, but we cannot understand the ultimate cause.
Johnson wants to prove that Darwinism is not science but an outgrowth of materialist philosophy. He does not recognize theistic evolution as a common compromise between the facts of science and the desire to retain a religious perspective. Unfortunately for him, Darwinism (evolution by natural selection) can be taught (and in my experience, is taught most of the time) without expressly presenting its implications for conservative Christian theology. But it cannot be denied that Darwinism has implications for conservative Christian theology of the kind espoused by the scientific creationists, and even the somewhat more sophisticated kind held (I assume) by Johnson. To explain this, let me review a little history.
If nothing else evolves on this planet, religion does. The medieval Christian God was an anthropomorphic character (remember Michelangelo's The Creation), male, old, wise, sitting on a throne, dispensing justice and watching every sparrow that falls. He had human attributes: he "walked" in the Garden with Adam and Eve, he "rested" on the seventh day, he had (especially in the Old Testament) human emotions of anger, revenge, and wrath, as well as love. This traditional God created a universe for humankind, and our "kind" was at the pinnacle of creation.
Then came Galileo and heliocentrism. It has taken us 300 years, but finally we have gotten the idea that far from the world being created central to the universe, it is actually a rather minor (if special and oh-so-lovely) planet whirling in a predictable and knowable orbit around an undistinguished star off in the boondocks of an arm of one galaxy among millions. Few (except for the geocentric wing of the "scientific" creationists — and believe it or not, there is one) feel great upheavals in their theology because of the triumph of heliocentrism (and sphericity) over geocentric and flat-earth Biblical literalism.
But it will take us longer to get over Darwin. It was bad enough to have to learn that the universe wasn't prepared specially for Homo sapiens, but then to find out that our "kind" did not stand on the top of the Great Chain of Being, but was produced by the same general processes that produced cockroaches and gerbils, and that, further, we are genealogically linked to cockroaches and gerbils and every other creature on earth, was more than the medieval version of Christianity still practiced in the 19th century could bear. Evolution occurred. Partly (but not exclusively) as a result of Darwinism, Catholics and most Protestant sects began thinking of God as a more abstract entity: perhaps more distant but ultimately more powerful and awe-inspiring. Deism, the idea of God as ultimate creator through laws — a Divine Watchmaker who winds up the universal clock and then lets it tick on according to established regularities ("laws"), was strengthened during the 19th century and is today a prominent component of main-line Christian religion. But not of fundamentalist, Biblical literalist religion. This theology seeks a personal, involved God with a special (if unknown) plan and purpose for mankind.
Johnson is correct when he says that Darwinism has implications for religion, especially fundamentalist religion, but so does natural history in general. Observations by naturalists, evolutionarily-inclined or not, show nature as a not very peaceable kingdom. Some really yucky things that go on out there, and it is difficult to imagine them being the direct product of a beneficent creator God who prizes humankind above all else in creation. There is evil as well as good on this earth, and suffering and pain afflict both the deserving and the innocent, and there is a lot of suffering and pain — more than would seem to be reasonable if man were just being punished for the Fall. And if man is being punished for the sins of Adam, why does animal life have to suffer so much? A rather unpleasant-looking videotape being advertised on television at the time of this writing appears to be a sequence of scenes wherein animals claw, bite, crush, slash, and tear one another apart, for food, defense, sexual competition — or fun. A killer whale seizes a seal in its mouth and smashes it against the beach; a male lion rushes into a group of cubs sired by another and rips them apart; hyenas tear the throat out of a zebra colt. Just another day on planet earth. The more we learn about the natural world, the more it appears to be a not very humanely-designed place — with or without the insights of natural selection theory.
Meanwhile, philosophers and theologians have long debated the evil and suffering experienced by our own species. It didn't start new with Darwin. Why are some children born with congenital diseases who will live only a few painful years, and then die horribly, and other children suffer from a lack of food, or shelter, or abuse by parents? Poverty-stricken people seem to go from famine to hurricane to earthquake — how can this be "planned" or "designed?" (Here again, science can give us only the proximate answers to these questions: the strips of DNA that go awry and produce the Tay-Sachs baby, or the atmospheric pressure systems that produce the hurricane, or the social and political currents that produce civil wars, famines and other human disasters. It can't give us the ultimate answers.) Theologians have long debated whether our sometimes nasty and brutal world is the product of special consideration of a benign deity- topic that is beyond this review.
As Rachels (1990) points out, the reason Darwin caused such a theological stir was that he replaced teleology, or purpose, in science with natural causes. And this is what Johnson finds so offensive about Darwinism. This is not the time nor the place to go into a discourse on teleology in biology, nor the reasons why scientists no longer accept teleological explanations (see Dawkins, 1986.) The argument from design is dead in science, and if Darwin hadn't killed it, it would have died off from some other cause.
But why does the death of teleology in science necessarily mean the death of teleology in religion? An individual can recognize that the natural world operates according to natural laws that we can discover, and still maintain a belief in purpose for life. Certainly many theistic evolutionists do just this. Humanists, who reject the supernatural, see purposes for their lives and for life in general. But Johnson is correct that most forms of theistic evolution surmise a less-engaged God than that of his theology.
SummaryDarwin on Trial attacks evolution by natural selection in an attempt to bolster a theology based on a personal God who created humankind for a reason, and gave us a purpose. It does this by trying to convince the reader that evolution did not occur, and that Darwinism, as a mechanism, is inadequate to explain how descent with modification could have occurred. The arguments are recycled arguments from the discredited "scientific" creationists, although they are presented with great style and persuasiveness.
The book fails to disprove evolution, but the spirit behind it deserves to be recognized by all scientists. Johnson reflects the anguish expressed by many conservative Christians who believe that something terribly important is lost if evolution is true, and especially if the way things changed is through the wasteful and generally unattractive mechanism of natural selection. To someone who is serious about religion, Darwinian evolution needs to be coped with, and it may not be psychologically easy. Unfortunately, the job of a science teacher is to teach state of the art science, and that means evolution. Students who do not understand evolution cannot be said to be scientifically literate. Each student brings a somewhat different background of experiences and attitudes to any class, and only the student can resolve conflicts between what is brought to the class and what is taught in it. But it is also imperative that the teacher not make this job more difficult by gratuitously inserting his or her own philosophy into the course. It is not essential to the teaching of evolution to teach evolutionism as a materialist philosophy, but this is a major concern of conservative Christians — and Phillip Johnson.
There certainly are scientists such as William Provine and G.G. Simpson, whose statements encourage Johnson's view that Christian children are being taught evolutionism rather than "just science." But there are no good data showing the frequency with which a college or high school teacher accompanies the teaching of "evolution occurred, and here's how it happened" with "therefore you must give up your belief in God." My personal experience is that this is rare; Johnson's worry is that it predominates.
Many religious individuals, including scientists, have accommodate their theology to evolution. It can be done. Johnson, on the other hand, prefers to accommodate science to his theology. Regardless of one's views on materialism as a philosophy, in science, it is a methodological necessity. Darwin on Trial deserves to be read by scientists, not for its scientific value which is negligible, but for its potential social and political impact.