"Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds" by Phillip E. Johnson

Terry M. Gray (grayt@lamar.colostate.edu)
Thu, 28 Aug 1997 13:17:23 -0600

I was at our local Christian bookstore the other night and stumbled on Phil
Johnson's new book so I picked it up. Here's a brief review/reaction.
Perhaps others can get the book and we can have some discussion over. I'm
cross-posting this on both the asa and the evolution groups.

The book is a very easy read (119 pages of text plus 12 pages of study
notes). It took me just a couple of hours. The full title is "An
Easy-to-Understand Guide for Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds" and its
stated purpose and audience is indicated in the introduction:

"There was clearly a need for a short book aimed at a different audience,
one not quite so familiar with university-lievel subjects. In particular,
I wanted to write for late teens--high-school juniors and seniors and
beginning college undergraduates, along with the parents and teachers of
such young people."


"If high-schoolers need a good high-school education in how to think about
evolution, professors and senior scientists seem to need it just as badly.
That's what this book aims to give--a good high-school education in how to
think about evolution. It's for high-schoolers, college students, parents,
teachers, youth workers, pastors and also scientists whose education didn't
encourage them to take a skeptical look at the claims of Darwinian theory.
There isn't much scientific detail in the book, or much advanced
philosophy. I've covered the science and the philosophy in my earlier
books, and refer readers to the relevant chapters as appropriate."

Johnson does (and doesn't do) what he sets out to do (and not to do). The
book is very much a manual in what to look out for when engaged with
proponents of evolution. When Johnson is at his best (and this is true for
all of his writings), he points out the materialistic and naturalistic bias
of much of modern science, especially in the popular books and in
"official" statements from organizations such as the National Association
of Biology Teachers and the National Academy of Science. These arguments
primarily focus on philosophical and religious questions involved in
worldviews. I'm less sympathetic with some of his detailed critiques of
evolutionary biology, but not many of them appear in this book.

Here is the Table of Contents with a summary of some of the chapters:

1. Emilio's Letter -- Three Common Mistakes. Here Johnson points out some
of the common fallacies among theists who make their peace with evolution,
by evaluating a letter posted to an Internet discussion group. The three
1. "It's only about length of time." (I assume he is distancing
himself from the young-earth creationist movement here.)
2. God made the Laws and then retired.
3. Giving away the realm of reason.

2. Inherit the Wind -- The Play's the Thing. The theme of chapter 2 runs
somewhat throughout the whole book. The media and the scientific community
who bother to discuss the evolution/creation debate always do it in terms
of the caricature set forth in "Inherit the Wind" the Hollywood version of
the Scopes trial, i.e. Biblical fundamentalists (usually 6 24 hour day
young earth creationists) vs. enlightened, rational, free-thinking
scientists. The theme reappears as he shows that it's now, according to
Johnson, the Darwinists who use their authority and the power of media to
squash dissent.

3. Tuning Up Your Baloney Detector. and 4. A Real Education in Evolution.
Picking up on Carl Sagan's admonishment to apply critical thinking skills
to the demon haunted world, Johnson turns this idea onto evolutionists'
arguments. This is perhaps the best two and the core chapters of the book.
He also openly applies this standard to religion. Here is the list of
"baloney that every baloney detection kit should be equipped to recognize"

Selective Use of Evidence
Appeals to Authority
Ad Hominem Arguments
Straw Man Argument
Begging the Question
Lack of Testability
Vague Terms and Shifting Definitions
"Original Sin" -- (the universal tendency to believe what we want
to believe)

He then calls on Richard Feynman with quotes from his 1974 commencement
speech at Cal Tech that calls on scientists to bend over backwards not to
overstate their claims or to fool themselves.

The critical principles to be used in discussion/debate with Darwinists are

1. Learn to distinguish between what scientists assume and what
they investigate.
2. Learn to use terms precisely and consistently.
3. Keep your eye on the mechanism of evolution; it's the
all-important thing.
4. Learn the difference between testing a theory against the
evidence and using selected bits of evidence to support the theory.
5. Learn the difference between intelligent and unintelligent causes.

And in religion.

6. The problem of suffering.
7. The problem of faith.

5. Intelligent Design. A discussion of the intelligent design theory that
Johnson and his cadre are advocating. In this chapter there are the usual
distinctions between information and matter and the priority of mind with
respect to information. There is also a glowing endorsement of Mike Behe's
"Darwin's Black Box".

6. The Wedge -- A Strategy for Truth. This chapter is a summary of
Johnson's effort over the past several years and a call to continue the
task. Here he discusses the notion of "theistic realism" that appeared in
"Reason in the Balance".

7. Modernism -- The Established Religion of the West

8. Stepping Off the Reservation. This chapter tells the story of the
reaction of Billy Graham, Charles Templeton, and Bishop Spong to the claims
of modernism on the message of the Bible. It's a call to take seriously
the truth claims of Christianity and the need to teach our young people how
to think critically about all issues.

More commentary

Reading Phil Johnson is maddening. I agree with 95% of what I read. His
assessment of the big picture is correct and his call to Christians to step
in the modern debate with the big picture in view is, I think, the right
strategy. At one point he even calls us theists to common posture against
the materialist/modernists/post-modernists governing the intellectual life
of our age. (p. 92-93) "First, I wanted to make it possible to question
naturalistic assumptions in the secular academic community. Second, I
wanted to redefine what is at issue in the creation-evolution controversy
so that Christians, and other believers in God, could find common ground in
the most fundamental issue--the reality of God as our true Creator....What
all these should agree on is that God--not some purposeless material
process--is our true Creator. Given that we inhabit a culture whose
intellectual leaders deny this fundamental fact, we should unite our
energies to affirm the reality of God. After we have had that postive
experience of unity and affirmation, we may be able to talk about the
remaining points of disagreement with renewed goodwill." I for one am very
sympathetic with these goals.

However, Phil has excluded some of us from the discussion. I agree with
95% of what he says, but the 5% is what excludes us. We agree on the big
picture, but we disagree with some of the detailed criticisms of evolution
and the inclusion of the intelligent design claim as an essential plank in
the big picture. We are simply labelled as accommodationists. This
exclusion occurs several times in the book--perhaps most pointedly in the
first chapter where Johnson closes with these words:

"I therefore put the following simple proposition on the table for
discussion: God is our true Creator. I am not speaking of a God who is
known only by faith and is invisible to reason, or who acted undetectably
behind some naturalistic evolutionary process that was to all appearances
mindless and purposeless. That kind of talk is about the human
imagination, not the reality of God. I speak of a God who acted openly and
who left his fingerprints all over the evidence."

I'm not one who believes that faith in God is irrational or that the
Christian faith is invisible to reason (although I do want to be careful
not to elevate reason to a position where creaturely reflection passes
judgment on the Creator--that's the real original sin!) However, for God
to call my belief that God operated through secondary causes that can be
analyzed by scientific methods "the human imagination, not the reality of
God" is simply a provocation that calls into question centuries of
reflection on how God interacts with the world and Phil Johnson's sincerity
in bring all theists on board. Of course, as some of us have stated over
and over again, God is involved actively in the ordinary operations of the
universe. The particular combination of genes in my daughter is a
consequence of chance recombination and independent assortment events, but
the combination is exactly what God wanted. Anything for which we think we
understand the mechanism in science is God-directed as much as any miracle
for which we can't understand the mechanism. Also, but perhaps for another
discussion, the natural theology that Johnson espouses in this quote, while
of a long and noble tradition in the English speaking world, is one that
may not have its roots in Biblical thinking.

I also want to call attention to an error that Johnson and Behe commit in
criticizing Richard Dawkins (and Elliot Sobol). It's a fairly minor
discussion but, according to my conversations with some of the principals
involved, is extremely irritating to them and gets in their way of hearing
the arguments. The discussion in Johnson is on p. 74 and 75. Dawkins
discusses how long it would a random process to generate the phrase
"tobeornottobe" or "methinksitisaweasel" or some other intelligent phrase.
Dawkins argues that if a selection mechanism is present so that the correct
letter is kept when the random process finds it, that the correct phrase is
generated very rapidly vs. in the infinite length of time required by the
total random process. Johnson and Behe rightly point out that the process
as described it both teleological and intelligently designed. However, the
example is NOT to describe how mutation and selection occurred in Darwinian
evolution BUT to show the power of a mutation/selection process compared to
a random process. Let's aim our baloney detectors in all directions!

Finally, Phil Johnson states something in writing that I do not recall him
stating so obviously in the past. (p. 94, 95) "Granted that the materialist
mechanism has to be discarded, what does this imply for what scientists
call the "fact of evolution," the concept that all organisms share a common
ancestor? Universal common ancestry is as much a product of materialist
philosophy as is the mutation/selection mechanism....Put aside the
materialism, however, and the common ancestry thesis is as dubious as the
Darwinian mechanism." It's nice to hear him come clean on this one. Some
of us, while maybe critical of Darwinism as a mechanism for
macroevolutionary change and certainly critical of materialism and
naturalism (and thus agree with Johnson on these points), have no doubts
that the overwhelming indication of the evidence is that common ancestry is
true and that some kind of macroevolution did occur. For him to deny this
says a lot about our disagreement and suggests that being right on the big
story can blind you to the details as much as being wrong on the big story.

Read the book but don't forget to turn on your baloney detector.

Terry G.

Terry M. Gray, Computer Support Scientist
Chemistry Department, Colorado State University
Fort Collins, Colorado 80523
grayt@lamar.colostate.edu http://www.chm.colostate.edu/~grayt/
phone: 970-491-7003 fax: 970-491-1801