Darwin on Trial

Darwin on Trial by Phillip E. Johnson (1991, Regnery Gateway, Washington, D.C.) 195 pp., $19.95

Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson has written a clear and convincing book on a complex subject--the role of Darwinism in our contemporary society. In it he sorts out different meanings of the word "evolution." There are at least three:

1. Evolution as scientific fact.
2. Evolution as story.
3. Evolution as philosophy.

Let's begin with the fact: Living things adapt to their environment and have mechanisms for handing on adaptations to their offspring. That observable fact (early Greek philosophers described it way before Darwin) should cause no difficulty to an orthodox Christian. As Johnson notes we have known it even about human beings. We descended from the same parents, but we have physically adapted in various ways. For example those of us whose ancestors lived in northern lands developed lighter skin pigmentation to absorb more vitamin D. For those nearer the equator "natural selection" favored darker skin. (With the prevelance of skin cancer, this trait is an advantage today. I pointed that out to one of my darker complected priest-friends and he responded, "It's one of the few advantages.") Be that as it may, evolution in the sense of handing on adaptations to environment is pretty much an uncontested fact. (Would it sound chavinistic if I pointed out it was actually a Catholic monk, Gregor Mendel, who discovered and formulated those genetic laws of heredity?)

The problem comes with the next two meanings. Evolution is used as story, a literary genre to interpret human behavior. These stories are always reductionistic because they explain the higher in terms of the lower--or if you prefer the more complex by means of the less. For example, we desire sex with multiple partners because, like the amoebae, we are programmed to hand on our genetic codes to as many offspring as possible.

This reductionism pervades our culture and part of the reason it is so effective is because evolution stories are entertaining. I remember seeing one of those Desmond Morris Naked Ape television programs. As the camera panned some handsome young people at the beach, he described what was really going on: "natural selection" favoring those with superior qualities like health, muscles and speed. (He didn't consider that those young people might "mate" but they would probably not be having children--or at least far fewer than their less attractive cousins.)

But Morris goes even further in his interpretations. He showed a baptism ceremony and said what actually was happening was "patriarchy" claiming the child. Before I could digest that revelation, he had already moved on to another "tribe," explaining their rites with equal confidence. I didn't mind the comparison or even the suggestion that baptism promotes patriarchy. (Most moms I know are grateful that dads and other males help out a bit with the kids.) What did bother me was reducing the sacrament to simply that. Yet evolution is used to constantly churn out that kind of "Just So" story. It may have an element of truth, but like Paul Harvey, I want to hear the rest of the story.

What Johnson most focuses on in Darwin on Trial is evolution as a materialistic philosophy. This is what the Holy Father is also concerned about in his now famous statement to the Academy of Scientists. Johnson goes a step further and shows how evolution has become a religion. This is the charge that has embroiled him in controversy. What he means is Americans, including many prominent scientists, have simply accepted the evolutionary theory on faith. He argues that certain tenets of the theory are far from being proven. For example he shows the lack of evidence for the assertion that higher species have actually evolved from simpler ones. He admits adaptation within species as described above, but points to the absence of "missing links" in the fossil record. Moreover Johnson discusses the scientific difficulty with believing that life itself could have emerged from the famous "primordial soup." He quotes a scientist who argues that it would be like a whirlwind sweeping thru a junkyard and assembling a 747 airplane.

These arguments were so novel to me that I did try to find out what the other side was saying. I typed "Darwin on Trial" into different search engines and was confronted with a mountain of material, some supportive, some dismissive. While I am not in position to evaluate all the claims, I did come away with two overall impressions. First, no one had a "knockout argument" against Johnson--unless you begin with an acceptance of a kind of scientific "magisterium." Second the tone of many of the criticisms came across like the stereotype of "fundamentalism." They gave a few citations and assumed the case was closed, but didn't seem to engage the argument. One scientist said that he was surprised to find out he had a philosophy. He stated he was "just dealing with facts." That equivocation sums up Johnson's main point. Using the scientific method limits a person to certain types of observations: repeatable, falsifiable, etc. It is illogical to jump from that kind of observation--facts--to an overall theory which, if it doesn't deny God, effectively excludes him from the happenings of our world.

This is not to say scientists are dishonest. When they are making observations and reporting them, the scientific method imposes a certain caution and humility. However, that can be lost when they step outside their speciality and address the general public. Just as even a first lady can be dazzled when she invests a few hundred dollars and the next week gets thousands back, so a scientist can be tempted when his observations seem to yield an enormous theory. Johnson suggests Darwin and his followers have done just that. Scientists can fall into the Carl Sagan trap of facilely moving between facts and a philosophy which explains Everything--at least potentially. Perhaps that is why a book like Darwin on Trial provokes such a fierce reaction. As Johnson brings out, Darwinism has become a modern religion complete with a white-coated priesthood. By exposing some of the weakness of its tenets, he has become a central figure in a lively controversy.

Phillip Johnson will be coming to Seattle this June as part of a centennial celebration in honor of C.S. Lewis. I for one am anxious to hear more. I do have a back order at the King County Library for two other books of his: Reason in the Balance and Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds. When I have had a chance to read them, I hope to add a footnote to this review. Meanwhile I welcome your reactions and questions on this topic.


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