Phillip Johnson dies

Phillip Johnson, the University of California, Berkeley, law professor who is often described as the godfather of the "intelligent design" movement, died on November 2, 2019, at the age of 79, according to The Christian Post (November 4, 2019). A prolific writer, his books arguing against what he called Darwinism and for "intelligent design" included Darwin on Trial (1991) — which Stephen Jay Gould reviewed for Scientific American, describing it as "full of errors, badly argued, based on false criteria, and abysmally written" — as well as Reason in the Balance: The Case Against Naturalism in Science, Law & Education (1995), Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds (1997), and The Wedge of Truth (2000). 

Discussing Darwin on Trial in "Intelligent Design in Public Schools" (2014), NCSE's Glenn Branch commented, "Johnson's book repackaged a variety of standard critiques of evolution from creation science, while remaining non-committal about specifics such as the age of the earth. But it also propounded a diagnosis of evolutionary biology: that evolution was compelling only to those in the grip of a philosophical commitment to naturalism, which denies the possibility of divine intervention in the world." Following the publication of Darwin on Trial, Johnson labored to organize the "intelligent design" movement using the metaphor of a wedge: "his work challenging evolution," Branch explained, "was the thin end of a wedge driven into the log of scientific materialism, with the Christian gospel to follow behind." Johnson candidly acknowledged that his project was intended to promote a particular version of Christianity, describing the alternative to methodological naturalism as theistic science.

In the wake of Kitzmiller v. Dover, the 2005 case establishing the unconstitutionality of teaching "intelligent design" in the public schools, however, he acknowledged, "I also don't think that there is really a theory of intelligent design at the present time to propose as a comparable alternative to the Darwinian theory, which is, whatever errors it might contain, a fully worked out scheme," reflecting the "intelligent design" movement's turn to focusing on the supposed controversial nature of evolution.

Johnson was born in Aurora, Illinois, on June 18, 1940. He received a B.A. in English literature from Harvard University in 1961, and a J.D. from the University of Chicago in 1965. After serving as a law clerk for the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Earl Warren, and Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, Roger J. Traynor, he joined the faculty of Boalt School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1967. He was a specialist in criminal law and criminal procedure, editing widely used casebooks on those topics. He retired in 2000. After a series of strokes starting in 2001, he curtailed his writing and speaking, although he accepted Biola University's inaugural Phillip E. Johnson Award for Liberty and Truth in 2004.

Glenn Branch
Short Bio

Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of NCSE.