(Editors’ note: The October issue of First Things featured Phillip Johnson’s essay, “Evolution as Dogma: The Establishment of Naturalism,” along with responses to the essay by William B. Provine, Gareth Nelson, Irving Kristol, Thomas H. Jukes, and Matthew Berke. Herewith Professor Johnson’s reply.)
Readers of my article and the responses may have noticed that where I attacked Darwinism and the establishment of naturalism, Thomas Jukes and William Provine responded with a spirited defense of evolution. The choice of words is important, because “evolution” is a vague term with immense power to confuse.
The important claim of “evolution” is that life developed gradually from nonliving matter to its present state of diverse complexity through purposeless natural mechanisms that are known to science. Evolution in this sense is a grand metaphysical system that contradicts any meaningful notion of creation, because it leaves the Creator with nothing to do. Contemporary neo-Darwinism rules out theistic or “guided” evolution just as firmly as it rejects direct creation ex nihilo.
It is this universal, naturalistic version of evolution that Darwinists are preaching (the word is appropriate) in the schools and colleges, with more or less clarity depending on the circumstances. As Provine rightly says, liberal theologians and Darwinists share a common interest in obscuring the anti-theistic implications of Darwinism. The vagueness of “evolution” permits Darwinists to hold open the possibility of a theistic interpretation for a time, and then to slam that door shut when it is safe to do so.
“Evolution” also designates some relatively modest modifications in biological populations that result from environmental pressures. Bacterial populations evolve resistance to antibiotics: evolution causes dark moths to preponderate over light moths when the background trees are darkened by smoke. These examples have nothing to do with whatever creative process formed bacteria and insects in the first place, but since the same word is used to designate both limited adaptive modification with fixed boundaries and the whole naturalistic metaphysical system, it is easy to give the impression that naturalistic evolution (all the way from microorganism to man) is a “fact.”
I am glad to see Jukes stating explicitly that the peppered-moth case is not an example of evolution, because that example has been cited in texts and popular treatments for decades as proof of “Darwin’s theory.” Currently, the Darwinists are trumpeting some research on guppies as providing the elusive proof. The breeding practices of guppy populations vary according to the kind of predators they face. When predators attack adults guppies tend to produce more offspring earlier in life, and when predators attack primarily juveniles the adults tend to bear their offspring later in life.
Variability like this does not show guppies on the way towards turning into something else. On the contrary, it shows flexibility within limits. Like peppered moths, guppies avoid extinction by retaining the genetic capacity for back-and-forth modification as circumstances change. Nonetheless, reports of the guppy observations are being presented to the public as proof of “evolution.” The misunderstanding is not the fault of journalists, but of a science that is working too hard to support a creaky paradigm.
Once they exist, populations of organisms can change within limits. Hence “evolution” produces offshore species that closely resemble mainland species, and so on. These modifications are an interesting subject in themselves, but what we really want to know is how complex organisms and major groups like animals came to exist in the first place. Capacities like photosynthesis, vision, and intelligence involve immensely complex processes that are still only dimly understood. Are these capacities the work of a Designer, or were they produced by mindless, purposeless natural forces?
Ask that question and you will get heavy-handed ridicule from the likes of Jukes and Provine. People who resort to ridicule are often covering up something. In this case they are hoping to prevent reasoned examination of a vulnerable assumption. The assumption is that science knows of a mechanism for evolution (grand system) that can produce eyes, brains, and even plant cells without the application of massive amounts of preexisting intelligence.
If you assume a priori that science must have discovered such a mechanism then Darwinist natural selection is the winner, because nobody has another theory that meets the philosophical requirements. If you are willing to consider the possibility that something beyond what our science understands might have been at work, then you will want to ask for proof that the mutation-selection mechanism has the fantastic creative power that has been claimed for it. The proof won’t be forthcoming. All you will get are arguments that one way or another assume the point in question.
It isn’t merely that grand-scale Darwinism can’t be confirmed. The evidence is positively against the theory. For example, if Darwinism is true then the bat, monkey, pig, seal, and whale all evolved in gradual adaptive stages from a primitive rodent-like predecessor. This hypothetical common ancestor must have been connected to its diverse descendants by long linking chains of transitional intermediates,* which in turn put out innumerable side branches. The intermediate links would have to be adaptively superior to their predecessors, and be in the process of developing the complex integrated organs required for aquatic life, flight, and so on. Fossil evidence that anything of the sort happened is thoroughly missing, and in addition it is extremely difficult to imagine how the hypothetical intermediate steps could have been adaptive.
One can’t make problems of this magnitude go away simply by announcing that there must be gaps in the fossil record. According to Steven Stanley, the Bighorn Basin in Wyoming contains a continuous local record of fossil deposits for about five million years during an early period in the age of mammals. Because this record is so complete, paleontologists assumed that certain populations of the basin could be linked together to illustrate continuous evolution. What they discovered was that species that were once thought to have turned into others turn out to overlap in time with their alleged descendants, and “the fossil record does not convincingly document a single transition from one species to another.” New species seem to appear from time to time, and they are more or less related to what came before, but nobody knows how it happens.
From time to time something is found that can be interpreted to support the Darwinian scenario. The importance of such a find is then exaggerated, and the mountains of negative evidence are quite unscientifically brushed aside. An example is Provine’s purported “fossil ancestors of whales having small but still functioning legs.”
Provine evidently has in mind the Basilosaurus fossils recently reported in Science. Basilosaurus is not an ancestor of modern whales. This oddity was a kind of serpentine sea monster that has important affinities with whales but looks sufficiently different that it was at first thought to be a reptile. (The name means “King Lizard.”) Paleontologists report finding fossil leg and foot bones “in direct association with articulated skeletons of Basilosauras.” Upon reconstruction these are deemed to show vestigial hind limbs, which were too small to be used for swimming and which could not conceivably have supported the body on land. Possibly the limbs were used as guides for copulation, but that is only a guess.
There is additional circumstantial evidence which suggests a relationship between whales and land mammals. For example, modern whales have what appear to be rod-like vestiges of pelvic bones. You can call this relationship “evolution” if you like, but all you have done is to put a label on a mystery. What Darwinists want us to believe (and want to believe themselves) is that they know how mindless natural forces could have produced all those diverse mammals from an unknown common ancestor, and ultimately from a microorganism. The problem is that their theory doesn’t fit the evidence, which is why they have to protect it with bluster.
Darwinists have turned to the molecular evidence in recent years to validate “evolution.” The molecular clock hypothesis upon which Jukes relies is embroiled in complex controversy, but for present purposes a single point will suffice. Whatever else the molecular comparisons may or may not prove, they tell us nothing about how one kind of creature (e.g., a rodent) can change into another (e.g., a whale). The theory is based on the premise that molecular changes are mainly neutral, meaning that they have no substantial effect upon features important for adaptation.
The point of Darwinism is not to describe molecular relationships but to get rid of the Designer and substitute the Blind Watchmaker. As a consequence the science education organizations are engaged in a campaign of indoctrination against the concept of creation. By that I do not mean biblical literalism, but the much broader notion that a purposeful intelligence is responsible for our existence. I regret that Irving Kristol misunderstood me on this point. No doubt that is my fault for not avoiding the word “creation,” but it is just too good a word for me to allow either the scientific naturalists or the biblical literalists to capture it for their own purposes.
The science educators are not staying away from the topic of creation, but rather are campaigning against the idea. When accused of this they prevaricate, hiding within the vagueness of terms like “evolution” and “religion.” The President of the august National Academy of Sciences resorted to the following classic of Newspeak: “A great many religious leaders accept evolution on scientific grounds without relinquishing their belief in religious principles.” He wouldn’t have signed his name to that statement if he had expected to be questioned closely about what he meant by “evolution,” “religious principles,” and “scientific grounds.”
Gareth Nelson refers briefly to the many points on which we agree, but then moves quickly to the safer ground of comparing today’s science-education establishment favorably to the Sorbonne theologians of 1751. I concede that the Darwinists do not show heretics the implements of torture, but they do use all their institutional power to ensure that critics do not get a fair hearing. That is what Jukes and Provine have in mind when they suggest that responsible editors know better than to publish essays like mine. Darwinists also pursue a steady campaign of disinformation, slandering dissenters as “creationists” (i.e., biblical literalists) who deny “evolution” (observable adaptive modifications or relationships) because they just can’t bear to face the facts.
If I could have one wish, it would be for a fair opportunity to persuade the real scientists that the Darwinists are taking advantage of them. The scientific community need not panic just because somebody wants to show that Darwinism has been grossly oversold to the public. If evolutionary biology is having trouble with its mechanism, and is in danger of having its philosophical undergarments exposed to public view, why not enjoy the spectacle?
The real danger to science is that it is being linked to a dogma that can’t stand close examination in order to further an ideological agenda that goes way beyond the proper concerns of science. The worst kind of science education is the kind that tells students it is wrong to question the pronouncements of authority. The corrective doesn’t require giving a place in science class to the biblical literalists. To borrow Irving Kristol’s prescription, “Our goal should be to have biology and evolution taught in a way that points to what we don’t know as well as what we do.” I would only add that it would help if we could get the science educators to define that word “evolution” precisely and use it consistently.
* Like “evolution,” “intermediates” is a term which can be used with different meanings. What Darwinism requires is not fossils that are in some vague sense intermediate between major groups, but fossils that can establish common ancestry and direct liries of descent from ancestor to descendant. According to University of Chicago paleontologist David M. Raup, “If Darwin were writing today, he would probably still have to cite a disturbing lack of missing links or transitional forms between the major groups of organisms.” This is after 130 years of very determined efforts to confirm the theory.
Phillip E. Johnson is Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of a forthcoming book on Darwinism.
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