Darwin on Trial
by Phillip Johnson
Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1993.
reviewed by Brian McDonald
Josh Billings, the nineteenth-century cracker barrel philosopher once wrote, “It is better to know nothing than to know what ain’t so.” In Darwin on Trial, Phillip Johnson argues that the Darwinian theory of evolution may belong to that dangerous category of things which we “know but ain’t so.” Johnson, who has taught law at Berkeley for 20 years and is an expert in the examination of evidence, finds little actual proof for the Darwinian hypothesis. Perhaps no scientific theory has been held more confidently on the basis of less evidence than evolution. It is treated as pure and absolute fact, not because Darwin or any of his successors proved it to be true, but because it fits in perfectly with the naturalistic assumptions of our era. It is the pervasiveness of these assumptions rather than the persuasiveness of the evidence that has led to the legal, cultural, and public relations triumphs of Darwinism in this century.
He deals with those triumphs, focusing on the court victories, in his first chapter, “The Legal Setting.” The scientific establishment has successfully turned back every legal challenge to the teaching of evolution as fact (instead of theory). This success is based on the fact that the public educational institutions of modern America can teach “science” but not “religion.” The pro-evolution viewpoint has been successful in portraying all challenges to the theory as “religious” and all arguments for it as “scientific.” Johnson analyzes the “friend of the court” brief filed by the National Academy of Sciences in the famous Louisiana Evolution-Creationist court case of 1981. This brief maintains that no negative arguments may be brought up against the theory of evolution until a better hypothesis is offered. However, since any conceivable alternative hypothesis would probably involve purpose or design, it would be “religious” and hence automatically inadmissible. Therefore no negative evidence can be offered. This line of thinking, which prevailed in the Louisiana case and in many others, “. . . seemed to be structured to make it impossible to question whether what we are taught about evolution is really true.”
But what the courts and the scientific establishment will not permit us to do, Johnson does in the body of this work. It is a tribute to him that though his challenge to Darwinian dogma has not always been received kindly in scientific circles, he has been taken seriously. He has appeared in several symposia at respectable academic centers and his book has been extensively reviewed. Part of the book’s strength lies in its author’s refusal to lobby for any particular creationist agenda and his focusing on the weaknesses of the Darwinian hypothesis itself. He also defines his terms clearly, something not always done in debates between the pro-evolution and anti-evolution positions. He defines creationism broadly, to include any view that posits God as the basis for the creation and development of life on this world. He defines evolution narrowly to mean “Darwinism.”
He does this because “Darwinism,” in however modified a form, is what scientists mean when they use the world “evolution.” Darwinism is the view of evolution taught in the textbooks, secondary schools, and universities of our land. It is important to understand this because Darwinism means “. . . fully naturalistic evolution, involving chance mechanisms guided by natural selection” and hence is utterly incompatible with any broadly Christian view of design and purpose, not only the literalistic “six-day” variety.
Since Darwinism, if true, has overwhelming implications for the Christian faith and human life, it ought to be confirmed by overwhelming evidence before being taught as proven scientific truth which no one has the right to challenge. But as Johnson sees it, the evidence, far from being overwhelming, is almost nonexistent. Space limits the depth into which we can investigate his critique, but we will look at some of his arguments in his chapters on “Natural Selection” (chapter 2), “The Fossil Problem” (chapter 4), and “The Molecular Evidence” (chapter 6).
Natural Selection: Theory or Fact?
In chapter 2, Johnson notes that “natural selection” or “the survival of the fittest” as it is popularly known, is the most distinctive of Darwinian ideas. It is, in the Darwinian view, the basic mechanism by which one species evolves into another. In the struggle for survival, certain chance variations give certain members of a species an advantage over others. These advantages, originally caused by random mutation, are passed on to offspring and the characteristic gradually spreads. The slowly growing accumulation of these advantageous characteristics leads eventually to the formation of a new species. Before considering the actual evidence for this, Johnson asks us to pause and consider all the wonders this natural selection must accomplish. It must be, at the same time, both utterly mindless yet endlessly creative:
. . . a guiding force so effective that it could accomplish prodigies of biological craftsmanship that people in previous times had thought to require the guiding hand of a creator.
That an unplanned, unconscious, and accidental process could accomplish all this is such an antecedently improbable idea that only the strongest evidence should compel our acceptance of it. What is this evidence? Johnson looks at two arguments used to bolster Darwinism based on what we may observe in the world today. The first is that the variations and changes which have been introduced into animal and plant life by the wonders of selective breeding prove that the same things could have happened “naturally” in a past evolutionary process. Another argument is that we can actually observe changes occurring in species in our own day.
As for the first argument: Variations brought about by selective breeding have resulted from deliberate planning and experimentation. How can we know that mindless nature could achieve in the wild the same prodigies of biological engineering that required brilliant human minds and painstaking laboratory work? Even if human beings were to succeed in creating life in the laboratory, this would prove nothing except that the conscious planning of brilliant minds can create wonders. But this is the exact opposite of Darwinism’s fundamental point. The Darwinian response is to invoke the aid of time. Since the earth is unimaginably old, the abundance of time may make up for the lack of purpose. This belief, stated confidently and often in evolutionist literature is sheer assertion. How do we know that immense quantities of time combining with chance can eventually produce a Shakespeare, a Mother Teresa, or even an amoeba?
As for the second argument: The changes we can observe in species occur only w ithin a species. But neither in nature, nor in the laboratory, can evolutionists point to one example of one kind of creature turning into another. The most fervent creationist would not deny that species can change and adapt according to changes in their environment. But no one has produced or observed a bird developing out of a fish. Since we cannot observe it happening in the present, why are we entitled to assume it happened in the past?
Since the process of evolutionary transformation cannot be observed today, perhaps the fossil record can show that it happened yesterday. Johnson examines the supposed fossil evidence in chapter 4. He writes:
Just about everyone who took a college biology course during the last 60 years has been led to believe that the fossil record is a bulwark of support for the classic Darwinian thesis—not a liability to be explained away.
But it is a liability and is admitted to be such by many scientists themselves. Charles Darwin asserted that the fossil record should, if his theory was true, be full of transitional forms showing the gradual emergence of new species and the gradual extinction of old ones. The fact that this is not the way the record looked at the time of the writing of The Origin of the Species simply meant to him that the work of unearthing fossils was comparatively new. Future fossil finds would verify his ideas. But 120 years and thousands of uncovered fossils later, the record is still much the same as in Darwin’s time. Johnson cites the work of famous biologist Stephen Jay Gould to show where the record stood as of the 1970s: Species appear in the same form in which they disappear. They appear suddenly and fully formed.
To explain this difficulty, several theories have been proposed which would modify the idea of Darwinian gradualism while not abandoning the idea of natural selection and chance mutation as the basis for evolution. Stephen Stanley proposed the idea that “regulatory genes” might undergo modifications which could produce new forms in a single generation. Gould and Niles Eldredge presented the notion of “punctuated equilibrium” in which rapid changes occur only in relatively small populations of isolated species. After extensive modifications conferring a great selective advantage, these groups then rejoin the stable ancestral group “suddenly” after the new species already is formed. The smallness of the groups would account for the rapidity of the change and these factors of smallness and rapidity would in turn explain why no record is left in the rocks.
Explanations like these could certainly account for the state of the fossil record—always assuming that the Darwinian hypothesis is true. But that is precisely the point at issue. If we didn’t start out assuming its truth, would these ideas seem likely or even plausible? As Johnson writes:
The prevailing assumption in evolutionary science seems to be that speculative possibilities, without experimental confirmation, are all that is really necessary . . . nature must have provided whatever evolution had to have—otherwise evolution wouldn’t have happened.
The Molecular Evidence
In chapter 6, Johnson deals with recent molecular evidence which is relevant to the theory of evolution. The manner in which this evidence is handled by evolutionists shows the same tendency to assume what is to be proven and to put speculation in the place of hard proof. The great advances in genetics and molecular science have enabled scientists to classify the various forms of life not only on the basis of their visible features, but also on the basis of their molecular structures. It has been discovered that the molecular structures of later and more advanced species are all roughly equidistant in complexity from the molecular structures of earlier species. This is surprising, because if evolution of the species occurred by pure natural selection operating through random changes, one would expect a much more “uneven” development.
This tendency for molecular changes to develop at an even rate has been dubbed the “molecular clock” because of its regular clocklike movement, apparently independent of external factors. Since genes seem to mutate and become more complex “on their own,” regardless of selective advantage, this might initially seem to be a setback for the theory of natural selection. However, it has been integrated into evolutionist doctrine by arguing that many changes are strictly “neutral” and that in fact this tendency to vary and become more complex at a strict “clocklike” rate supports the theory. It shows us how the raw material, upon which natural selection works, is provided.
The trouble with this way of reading the molecular evidence is that, like other aspects of Darwinism, it assumes the truth of the theory instead of trying to prove it. Species could have evolved from earlier ones because of a continuously ticking molecular clock that generates constant modifications, some of which confer selective advantage. Great similarities between the DNA structures of apes and humans could be evidence of a common ancestry that was the source of the chance development of both species. But where is the hard empirical evidence which we must demand of any theory which claims to be scientific fact? Johnson writes,
The common ancestors and transitional links are still only theoretical entities, conspicuously absent from the fossil record even after long and determined searching . . . the molecular evidence therefore fails to confirm either the reality of the common ancestors or the adequacy of the Darwinist mechanism . . . As in other areas, the objective has been to find confirmation for a theory which was conclusively presumed to be true at the start of the investigation.
Faith in Darwinism
It is clear from Johnson’s work that the actual evidence for Darwinism is far too meager to justify the fundamentalistic certitude of its adherents. Why then is the conviction of its truth so universal and so absolute that one cannot question it without being classified automatically as an obscurantist of the flat-earth variety? Johnson deals with this mystery in his final four chapters. His conclusion is that scientists believe in Darwinism because of its sheer explanatory power and because it fits in so neatly with the naturalistic assumptions held by most scientists.
In his chapter, “Science and Pseudoscience” he notes that this explanatory power actually was regarded as a defect by the great English philosopher of science, Sir Karl Popper. For Popper, the true test of a scientific theory was not its verifiability, but its falsifiability. If a theory is comprehensive and total enough, practically any anomaly or apparent contradiction can be explained away if enough ingenuity is applied. The adherents of Freudian and Marxist theory (the other great global explanatory systems of the nineteenth century) always seemed to show an almost magical agility as they transformed every potential contradiction into further proof of their respective worldviews. This process of “saving the appearances” was the exact opposite of what Popper recognized as the true scientific method.
By Sir Karl’s criterion, Einstein’s theory of relativity was a shining example of good science because Einstein specified a test that could potentially falsify it. Darwin did not. Darwinists still do not. In combing the literature of Darwinism, one wonders if there is anything that would be allowed to count against it. The answer is apparently, nothing.
Why is this? According to Johnson, scientists believe in Darwinian evolution not because of their science, but because of their philosophy. Science simply is the study of that which can be verified empirically. It measures, quantifies, finds regularities which enable it to make predictions. It looks at observable phenomena and seeks causes which are “natural.” One can do all this without making ultimate judgments about right and wrong, who God is and whether he exists, whether the world was designed by a creator or grew up by chance, or whether or not there is an invisible spiritual world.
But scientists have not been content to remain this humble. The study of the natural has given way to a belief that only the natural is true. “Natural” explanations are the only explanations. This belief is so much a part of the spirit of the age that it is virtually impossible to challenge it. Since we begin by knowing that there is no supernatural creator or designer at work, then evolution in the Darwinian sense must be true, otherwise there is no explanation at all of how life and all its complexities came to be.
No Room For God
Johnson repeatedly emphasizes the importance of recognizing the extent to which evolution as taught in our schools excludes the reality of God. Despite a certain obfuscation practiced by scientists on this matter he writes:
When evolutionary biologists speak of ‘evolution’, they are not referring to a process that either was or could have been guided by a supernatural Creator . . . this same understanding is expressed in countless books and articles, and where it is not expressed it is pervasively implied. Make no mistake about it. In the Darwinist view, which is the official view of mainstream science, God had nothing to do with evolution.
In 1874, Charles Hodge of Princeton Seminary chose as the title of a famous essay the question that was agitating his age, “What is Darwinism?” He answered the question in three crisp words, “It is atheism.” He recognized with rare clarity that the Darwinian theory was not just another scientific advance that could, with a little theological engineering, be smoothly integrated into the edifice of Christian belief. Darwin was no Galileo. His theory was a frontal attack on the Christian belief in God as creator, architect, and providential ruler of the universe. The old Princetonian understood clearly that Darwinism necessarily abolished God and replaced him with blind chance as the real originator and shaper of life on earth.
What is Darwinism? The question still is agitating the world. Phillip Johnson shows the same clarity in our day that Charles Hodge did in his as he gives the same answer: It is atheism. It is atheism disguised as science and force-fed to us, to the exclusion of all alternatives, by the same scientists who would are typically quick to denounce religious “intolerance.” The scientific establishment has been so bewitched by its naturalistic assumptions that it is unable to see the actual state of the evidence for the theory to which it is so blindly committed. There is no reason for a Christian to abandon his confidence that God created the heavens and the earth and is both the author and sustainer of all the intricate wonders of life on earth, through processes shrouded in more mystery than either evolutionists or religious fundamentalists are willing to admit. The power and deity of God are still plainly to be seen in the things which he has made.
Brian McDonald is a former Presbyterian pastor who is now a member of Sts. Constantine and Helena Romanian Orthodox Church (OCA) in Indianapolis.
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