Law professor Phillip Johnson attacked the simplifications and stereotypes surrounding the creation-evolution debate in a lecture in Brooks-Rogers last Wednesday.
His talk, which was titled “The Real Creation-Evolution Debate: Why its Important and Very Different from What We Have Been Taught,” attracted a near-capacity crowd of primarily community residents.
Laurie Bennett ’99, a member of the Williams Christian Fellowship, introduced Johnson. She noted that Johnson, a member of the UC Berkeley faculty for over 30 years, is also the author of several books on the subject of creationism and evolution and a former clerk to Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren. He is also the father of Emily Johnson, a visiting professor of Russian.
Johnson opened his presentation by saying that he would not try to persuade the audience to change their beliefs.
“I merely hope to present the issues so that we can search for the truth of the matter,” he said.
Johnson then began his analysis of the creation-evolution debate. He argued that the public misperception of this issue is a result of the way in which it is depicted in the media and in textbooks. According to Johnson, the debate is almost always portrayed as a breach between science and the Bible, or between rationality and faith. As a consequence of these simplifications, he said creationists are portrayed as Bible thumping fundamentalists who believe the Earth was created in seven days.
“Creationists are seen as narrow-minded people who don’t want to be bothered with the evidence. They say, ‘It’s in the book and that’s it.’ Well, obviously this is a caricature and I’m not going to talk about it,” Johnson said.
Instead, Johnson promised that he would talk about the real debate surrounding issues of creation and evolution. He opined that the real conflict exists, not between science and the Bible, but between two different definitions of science.
“Scientists are by definition supposed to follow the evidence wherever it leads them, and draw conclusions from that evidence,” Johnson said. “Some scientists, however, look for evidence that will support their conclusions. Such is the case with many of the defenders of evolution.”
As examples, Johnson cited Richard Dawkins, a noted neo-Darwinist and the author of a modern retelling of The Origin of Species entitled The Blind Watchmaker, and Francis Crick, one of the biologists who broke the DNA code.
Johnson quoted both scientists, noting that Dawkins described biology as “the study of extremely complicated things that look as though they were designed by a creator for a purpose” while Frick wrote that “biologists have to continually remind themselves that they are not looking at something designed by a creator.”
Johnson said such statements illustrate the fact that Darwinists share a fundamental assumption that nature is all there is, was, or ever will be. Scientists of this tendency believe that through the mindless process of natural selection cats, rabbits, dogs and men evolved to their current states.
Johnson contended that such reasoning is objectionable, and contrary to the notion of experimental scientific inquiry, because it is committed to explaining everything according to materialistic thought.
“These Darwinists have an a priori committment to materialism,” he said. “They can’t let the divine foot in the door. They sound a lot like those narrowed minded creationists who weren’t open to studying scientific observations.”
He noted that some scientists do allow for the role of a designer, creator or divinity in the evolutionary process, but that such concessions to theism miss the mark. In a theistic model of evolution man creates God to help explain the way things are.
“Theistic evolution is a type of slow creation, or as I like to call it ‘soft-core creation,’ that says that God is invisibly and undetectably involved in evolution,” Johnson said. “Such a model, however, can not be disproved, and is, for that very reason, intellectually unimpressive.”
Johnson has little reverence for some of the evidence that scientists have provided to support evolutionary theory.
According to Johnson, the classic textbook example of natural selection (which explains how moths in industrial England adapted to their changing environment) is a fraud. He refers to such explanations as “just-so” stories. The story goes that the smoke from factories blackened trees and made white moths easy prey for birds. Black moths, on the other hand, were not easy prey and their population increased. Thus, through the process of natural selection, the moths adapted to environmental circumstances.
“All this example shows is that the population of black moths increased,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t show that natural selection has introduced anything new into nature. Besides the inconclusiveness of this study, it has been proven to be a fundamentally flawed experiment. It turns out that the moths never rested on trees or tree trunks. Furthermore, similar population changes occurred in areas where there was no smoke from factories.”
Johnson has concluded from his research that the real dividing line in the creation-evolution debate is over philosophical differences.
“Many scientists have become slaves to materialistic philosophy,” he said. “Instead of following the evidence and leaving open the possibility for design in the world, they look for evidence to support their conclusions. Even worse, they try to distort the issues by promoting the Bible thumping image of creationism.”
In Johnson’s view, it is important to ascertain whether various entities were created by intelligent or non-intelligent processes. As an example, he noted that an archaeologist who studies a squiggle on an ancient cave wall needs to determine whether it was caused by nature or by man.
“Scientists employ an explanatory filter in countless different ways in order to determine if something has been produced by intelligence,” he said.
Johnson said this issue of intelligence or non-intelligence constitutes the central premise behind the intelligent design movement, the theory that holds that the universe was created with some design, rather than just occurred by chance.
A rather lengthy question-and-answer period followed Johnson’s talk. Questions ranged greatly, with some audience members asking for additional examples and others questioning Johnson’s critique of evolutionary science.
At a reception held after the talk, audience members expressed a wide range of responses to the talk.
Matt Atwood ’01 said he disagreed with one of the assumptions underlying Johnson’s talk.
“I don’t think the theories of evolution and creationism can ever be on a level playing field, as Johnson hopes, because creationists offer no evidence for their theory,” he said. “Johnson discredited some “evidence” of evolution, but he did not discredit it all. It is perfectly understandable that there is not more evidence for natural selection because the idea was only proposed 150 years ago, whereas the Earth has existed for billions of years.”
Judd Greenstein ’01 defended evolution.
“Johnson portrayed the evolution theory as a plot hatched by evil atheists to destroy mankind’s faith in God, claiming that the available evidence proves that evolution did not occur,” Greenstein said. “For him, the evidence leads to the ‘knowledge’ that God exists. But I don’t think that scientists make such a claim about evolution– rather, it is the best working theory we have.”
Chris Stephan ’99 said he liked some of JohnsonR
“The lecture was very interesting,” he said. “It’s always good to force a dominant theory to defend itself. Personally, I think Darwinian evolution and an Intelligent Creator are more compatible than either side acknowledges.”
The lecture was sponsored by the Williams Christian Fellowship and the Haystack Fund.