Darwin on Trial is the title of a book on evolution that has ruffled the feathers of the secular scientific community. Though a Christian, author Philip Johnson critiques evolutionary theory from a secular standpoint as he examines the philosophical games many scientists play to protect their evolutionary ideology.
Evolution as Fact and Theory
Johnson, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, attacks head-on the often-heard statement that evolution is both a fact and a theory, an evolutionary dogma that has been a major source of confusion for a long time. Evolution is a fact, Darwinists say, in that they know that evolution has occurred. It is a theory in that they are far from understanding the mechanisms by which evolution has occurred. In the eloquent words of evolutionist Stephen J. Gould,
Evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas which explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away while scientists debate rival theories for explaining them. Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s, but apples did not suspend themselves in mid-air pending the outcome. And human beings evolved from apelike ancestors whether they did so by Darwin’s proposed mechanism or by some other, yet to be discovered. (Evolution as Fact and Theory)
There are numerous problems with this explanation. First, if evolution is a fact, then evolution is equivalent to data. This hardly seems appropriate. Second, the comparison of evolution to gravity is misleading. We can go into any apple orchard and observe apples falling from trees. But where do we go to observe humans evolving from apelike ancestors? Apples falling from trees fits into the category of science we can term operations science which utilizes data that are repeatable and observable at any time. Humans evolving from apelike ancestors, however, would fall under the category of origins science. Origins science involves the study of historical events that occur just once and are not repeatable. We can only assemble what evidence we have and construct a plausible scenario, much like the forensic scientist Quincy did in the old television show. The so-called facts of human evolution, by Gould’s own definition, are the fossils and the rock layers they are found in. That humans evolved from apelike ancestors is a theory that attempts to explain and interpret these facts.
Later in the same article Gould states the real definition of fact under which evolution fits. He begins by saying that fact does not necessarily mean absolute certainty. Then he says, “In science, fact’ can only mean confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.'” In other words, evolution is a fact because a majority of scientists say so, and you are “perverse” if you do not agree. We quickly begin to see that evolution holds a privileged place in the scientific community, which will go to extraordinary lengths to preserve that status.
A Theory in Crisis
Johnson’s book, although the most recent, is not the first to question evolution’s status as fact. Michael Denton, an agnostic medical researcher from Australia, caused quite a storm with his 1985 book, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. Denton’s point is that orthodox Darwinism has such a stranglehold on the biological sciences that contradictory evidences from fields such as paleontology, developmental biology, molecular biology, and taxonomy are passed off as intramural squabbles about the process of evolution. The “fact” of evolution is never really in question.
Like Johnson, Denton points out that Darwinism is not a fact. It is a mechanistic theory that is still without a mechanism. While moths and fruit flies do respond to environmental stimuli, our observations of this process have been unable to shed any light on the means by which we have come to have horses and woodpeckers and wasps. The origin of complex adaptations has remained a mystery. The fossil record is pockmarked with gaps in the most embarrassing places. Darwin predicted innumerable transitional forms between major groups of organisms, yet the few transitions that are suggested are surrounded in controversy.
Another “fact” that fails to withstand Denton’s scrutiny is the assumption that similar biological structures owe their similarity to a common ancestry. Homology, which studies these similarities, assumes for example that the forelimbs of amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals are similar in structure because they evolved from the same source. Denton reveals, however, that these same classes of vertebrates go through remarkably different stages of early embryological development. This was certainly not a prediction of Darwinian evolution.
Even more importantly, Denton reports that comparison of the sequences of proteins from different organisms actually supports the pre-Darwin system of classification, which was based on creationist principles.
Also, the many chemical evolution scenarios are caught in numerous intractable dilemmas that offer little hope of resolution (see Scientific American, Feb. 1991).
Rules of Science and Evolution
Another issue that Philip Johnson treats in his book is the fact that the rules of science tend to be stated and followed differently depending on whether you are talking about evolution or creation. Professor Johnson refers specifically to Judge William Overton’s decision striking down the Arkansas Creation/Evolution Balanced Treatment law. In his written decision, which was reprinted in its entirety in the prestigious journal Science, Judge Overton reiterated five essential characteristics of science that were given by opponents of the bill during the trial. Science, in the judge’s opinion, must be
- Guided by natural law
- Explanatory by reference to natural law
- Testable against the empirical world
- Tentative in its conclusions–that is, not necessarily the final word
Judge Overton decided that creation- science does not meet these criteria since it appeals to the supernatural and is therefore not testable, falsifiable, or explanatory by reference to natural law. Johnson points out that philosophers of science have been very critical of the definitions of science given in the decision and have suggested that the expert witnesses provided by the ACLU attorneys got away with a philosophical snow job. Critics have pointed out that scientists are not the least bit tentative about their basic commitments, especially about their commitment to evolution. From my own experience, all one has to do is attend any scientific meeting to see that some scientists are anything but tentative about their ideas. Also, scientists study the effects of phenomena (such as gravity) that they cannot explain by natural law. Finally, critics have noted that creation-science, as proposed by the Arkansas law, does make empirical claims (such as a young earth, worldwide flood, special creation). Mainstream science has said these claims are demonstrably false, which raises the interesting question, How can creation-science be both unfalsifiable and demonstrably false at the same time?
Johnson clearly reveals that what is really being protected by these rules of science is not necessarily evolution, but the philosophical doctrine known as naturalism. According to Johnson, “Naturalism assumes the entire realm of nature to be a closed system of material causes and effects, which cannot be influenced by anything from the outside.”
While this doctrine does not deny the existence of God, it certainly makes Him irrelevant. Science, therefore, becomes our only reliable path to knowledge. The issue as Johnson states it, is
…Whether this philosophical viewpoint is merely an understandable professional prejudice or whether it is the objectively valid way of understanding the world. That is the real issue behind the push to make naturalistic evolution a fundamental tenet of society, to which everyone must be converted.
The consequence of this kind of thinking is that evolution is made the basis of ethical and religious statements, which is precisely what most evolutionists find repulsive about creation.
A frequent refrain from evolutionists is that the evolution/creation debate is actually a collision between science and religion. If creationists would just realize their view is inherently religious and that evolution is the scientific view, then there would be little to disagree about. Evolution belongs in the science classrooms and creation belongs only in the philosophy and religion classrooms. What gets left behind in this discussion, either intentionally or unintentionally, are the very firm religious implications of atheistic naturalism with evolution as its foundation.
We only need to look at a few sources to see the religious nature of evolution. The first source is the blatantly religious statements of certain evolutionists themselves. Philip Johnson quotes the evolutionist William Provine as stating quite categorically that
- Modern science, i.e., evolution, implies that there is no purpose, gods, or design in nature.
- There are no absolute moral or ethical laws.
- Heredity and environment determine all that man is.
- When we die, we die, and that is all there is.
- Evolution cannot produce a being that is truly free to make choices.
Statements such as these make it quite clear: the belief that science and religion are different spheres of knowledge is complete nonsense.
A second source that establishes the religious nature of evolution is the attacks of evolutionists on the God of the Bible using evolutionary principles. In his chapter on natural selection, professor Johnson provides an example from evolutionist Douglas Futuyma. Futuyma states that a Creator would never create a bird such as the peacock, whose six feet of bulky feathers make it easy prey for leopards. (Johnson turns the tables, however, by asking why natural selection would favor a peahen that lusts after males with life-threatening decorations.) It has always amazed me that people who claim that there is no God sure seem to have an intimate knowledge of what He would be like if He did exist. At any rate, if evolution can be used to discredit certain notions about the character of God, then evolution is indeed making religious statements.
A third indication of the religious nature of evolution is the knee-jerk reaction of the evolutionary establishment against any statement that even hints that evolution is a tentative theory. In 1984, a group of scientists who are Christians but who do not identify themselves with creation scientists published a booklet entitled Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy and mailed it to thousands of school teachers. The general idea of the booklet was to encourage open- mindedness on certain issues and controversies regarding evolution. Evolutionists quickly chided the publication as a clever disguise of creationism. To quote Johnson, “The pervasive message was that the ASA [American Scientific Affiliation] is a deceitful creationist front which disguises its Biblical literalist agenda under a pretense of scientific objectivity.”
In other words, anything that smells of God must be creationist and must be stamped out.
In the later chapters of Johnson’s book, he analyzes the reaction of evolutionists to the challenges that have been leveled against them. It is here that he perhaps makes his greatest contribution. One of these reactions has been to wage what is essentially an evolutionary filibuster in educating the public about evolution. Johnson cites the experience of the British Museum of Natural History when it opened an exhibit on evolution in 1981. The exhibit presented Darwinian evolution as one idea and one possible explanation. Creation was cited as another view. This tentativeness was too much for some scientists to bear. A firestorm of criticism appeared in the British science journal Nature. Many were furious that the museum would actually go public with doubts about evolution, doubts that had previously been reserved for discussion among evolutionary scientists alone. The criticism was so severe that the museum eventually removed the exhibit and replaced it with a more “traditional” evolution exhibit. One of the Museum’s top scientists, Colin Patterson, made a similar reversal concerning his view that he required faith in order to accept evolution. The criticism eventually convinced him to discontinue making these statements public.
In the United States, the Science Framework adopted by the state of California in 1989, which has a significant effect on the content of science textbooks, contained this statement concerning evolution: “[Evolution] is an accepted scientific explanation and therefore no more controversial in scientific circles than the theories of gravitation and electron flow.”
This assertion is nothing more than an appeal to authority and has nothing to do with legitimate scientific evidence. As a result of this statement, evolution is being included in science textbooks at increasingly lower grade levels. The purpose is clear: if students can be indoctrinated in evolution early enough and often enough, perhaps all this controversy can be avoided.
In summary, I have pointed out that many critical predictions of Darwinian evolution have not been fulfilled. As a result, naturalistic atheism, the underlying philosophy of much of the evolutionary establishment, has been threatened. The response of many evolutionists has been to issue increasingly dogmatic statements that appeal to authority, not to evidence, play semantic word games where evolution is called both a fact and a theory, and wage an educational filibuster aimed at squelching all dissent. The evolutionists are not likely to abandon these tactics anytime soon, but until they do, they can expect even more criticism from scholars such as Professor Philip Johnson.
Darwin on Trial by Philip Johnson (InterVarsity Press) is available from Probe Ministries.
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