Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

Phillip Johnson

The Evidence Against the New Creationism: Phillip Johnson

Robert Pennock's book is an all-out attack on the "new creationists," a.k.a. the Intelligent Design Movement (hereafter IDM), an informal group of which I am currently the most prominent representative. It is an honor to be the main subject of a book-length attempted demolition by a professor of philosophy, and I welcome the opportunity to respond.

Here is where the debate stands, as I see it. The IDM aims to transform the evolution/creation debate by focusing on the main issue and pushing the details to the background. The main issue is the scientific naturalist claim that the origin and development of life can be explained employing only unintelligent natural causes like chance, chemical laws, and natural selection. This claim is as important for philosophy and theology as it is for science. The neo-Darwinian theory was discovered by a science that was committed a priori to methodological naturalism, the principle that research should always be guided by a commitment to discover strictly natural causes for all phenomena. Most educated people today have been taught to regard the theory as unassailably confirmed by objective scientific testing. Many think that it follows that the success of the theory provides a powerful justification for basing research in all fields, including even biblical studies, on methodological naturalism. Darwinism (i.e., naturalistic evolution) is thus not just a scientific theory but a creation story so culturally dominant that it is even protected by judge-made law from criticism in the public schools.

We in the IDM argue that the supposed confirmation of the neo-Darwinism as a general theory is the product of philosophical bias in the selection and interpretation of evidence. When the evidence is interpreted without a bias in favor of naturalism, it does not support the claim that evolutionary biologists have discovered a mechanism that can create life in the first place, or cause simple life forms (like bacteria) to develop into complex plants and animals, or build even relatively simple adaptive organs such as bacterial flagella. Our argument makes no reference to the Bible or to any other authority other than empirical testing. Indeed, we argue that it is the Darwinists who embrace a religious prejudice by refusing to give fair consideration to evidence or reasoning unless it supports their a priori commitment to naturalism.

I will illustrate the difference between IDM thinking and Darwinian thinking with two examples from Pennock's book. The first is the most famous instance in which evolution by natural selection has actually been observed, the variation in finch beaks on an island in the Galapagos. To tell the story as briefly as possible, the average size of the beaks in the island population increased by 4 to 5 percent after a devastating drought, probably because the larger-beaked birds had an advantage in opening the last tough seeds that remained. A few years later there were floods, again killing most of the birds, following which the average beak size returned to the predrought norm. Nothing new emerged, and no permanent change occurred.

Pennock says that the scientists "were able to see the Darwinian mechanism at work, sculpting individual traits." He argues that to accept such an example of "evolutionary change within the type is tantamount to accepting it generally," because "[t]here is no essential difference in kind between microevolution and macroevolution; the difference is simply a matter of degree." To set any limits to change would be arbitrary, because all creatures are made from the same genetic material and one needs only to change a fraction of the genes to produce a new species. Hence, for Pennock the cyclical finch beak variation demonstrates a mechanism that is in principle capable of the kind of major changes, producing new species and even new phyla, that we call "macroevolution."

From our IDM viewpoint, this example—hyped in textbooks and TV programs as proof that the Darwinian mechanism has actually been observed—tells us nothing about how birds or other animals might have come into existence. It is not merely a matter of saying that small changes do not necessarily add up to large changes, although the fallacy of extrapolation is a notorious path to absurdity. The more important point is that variation of the finch beak sort involves no increase whatsoever in genetic information or adaptive complexity. When evaluating such an example we have to make allowances for the limited time available for observation, but a process that never gets started isn't going to reach a distant objective no matter how much time we give it.

Besides the experimental failure, there is a theoretical reason to conclude that a combination of random mutation and natural selection cannot create new complex organs or organisms. Even the simplest of living organisms, the bacterial cell, is a miniaturized chemical factory far more complex than an airplane or a computer. Such a complex entity requires an enormous quantity of information in the form of instructions that tell the many parts just what they are to do and in what order they are to do it. Even the archmaterialist Richard Dawkins agrees that a single cell requires a program with more information than all the volumes of the encyclopedia, and a complex organism like ourselves contains trillions of cells working in concert. The genetic information, like the information in a book or computer program, is complex, specified, and non repeating, which means that it cannot be the product either of random movement (which produces disorder) or chemical laws (which produce simple, repetitive order). (For a more complete explanation, see my review of The Fifth Miracle, by Paul Davies, http://www.arn.org/docs/johnson/fifthmiracle/).

How do Darwinists argue that their mechanism is information-creating, given the absence of any biological examples? One of the main arguments is a computer analogy most famously employed by Dawkins. Here is how Pennock describes it:

In The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins beautifully illustrates the power of cumulative selection with an example that considers the probability that a monkey banging at a keyboard would type out a line from Shakespeare at random. The chance of our monkey hitting upon the line "METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL" from Hamlet is tiny if we require him to get all 28 characters right in a single step. But switch now to a Darwinian monkey who be gins with a random string of 28 characters, produces multiple replications of this sequence with some chance of a copying error each time, and then repeats the process starting for the next set of copies with whichever of the copies is closest to the target sequence as the original. If he continues in this way, in a surprisingly small number of generations he hits the target [emphasis added].

Of course, the "Darwinian monkey" is really a computer that generates random letters and then produces the target text by retaining the correct letters when they appear in the correct places in the sequence, as they are eventually bound to do. Careful readers of The Blind Watchmaker will know that Dawkins admits that the computer analogy "is misleading in important ways," and Pennock seeks to disarm criticism by citing the warning. This concession has not prevented Dawkins or Pennock from misusing the analogy repeatedly to exploit the very feature that is misleading about it: it smuggles intelligence into an argument whose purpose is to illustrate how a text can be written without intelligence. It is not cumulative selection that writes the target text; the program designer writes the text into the computer's memory along with the instructions for retaining the correct letters and discarding the incorrect ones. The reference to Darwinian monkeys and copying errors serves only to distract attention from the fact that the computer program would require less intelligence if it bypassed the cumulative selection charade and printed the target text directly from its memory. The example illustrates intelligent design, in the form of programmed instructions.

What I have said so far should not be controversial. If scientists—and professors in general, and elite journalists—understood the issues correctly, Darwinism would self-destruct over night. Once the analytical spotlight is properly focused, few people will defend the finch-beak example as evidencing anything beyond trivial variation, or the computer selection example as anything but the kind of logical fallacy you can legitimately flunk an undergraduate for misunderstanding.

The other Darwinian arguments are no better. I doubt that any but true believers in Darwinism will be impressed by Pennock's centerpiece argument, the evolution of languages. Of course language has evolved, just as symphony orchestras and computer software have evolved. All these examples illustrate the often unpredictable results of interaction among intelligent agents. They do not support an inference that intelligence is not needed to produce either language or software.

Despite these rather obvious points, which bright high school students can readily understand, the mainstream intellectual community remains devoted to Darwinism and is predisposed to believe that the IDM is "against science." How did this perception become so widespread, and why is it so difficult to change? The primary answer is that Darwinists have successfully exploited what I call the "Inherit the Wind stereotype." They have framed the issue as "biblical fundamentalism versus scientific fact," and in such a contest only the latter can win. That is why I have been so determined to keep the Bible out of the debate, and why the Darwinists have been so determined to keep it at the center. Pennock's book is based on the stereotype, and he spares no effort to keep it alive. If you believe him, the only question is whether you are going to credit the evidence of repeatable experiments on the one hand, or some cloudy mysticism or Bible-thumping fundamentalism on the other.

If that were the issue, I would be on Pennock's side. But that is not the issue. What the IDM stands for is resolving disputed issues by unbiased scientific testing, where this is possible, without making any exceptions either for the worldwide flood of Noah or for the creative power of the Darwinian mechanism. The Darwinists want to make an exception for the latter. It is often claimed that science by its nature rejects the miraculous, but it would be more accurate to say that science ceases to call something a miracle once it has decided to accept it. The inflationary Big Bang assumes that the universe emerged at a point in time from a subatomic vacuum somehow seething with quantum particles, and expanded in a fraction of a second to cosmological size. I do not ask biologists to contemplate anything as bizarre as cosmic inflation or quantum indeterminacy, but they might consider giving credit to that everyday reality we call intelligence, which can do things that chance and chemical laws can never do.

What Robert Pennock is defending is not science, but a nineteenth-century philosophy that has survived so far because materialists have seduced the leaders of biology into their philosophical camp. Once the issue is grasped, the best scientific thinkers will agree that the term science properly understood refers to an unbiased procedure for testing hypotheses, not to a dogmatic adherence to philosophical materialism regardless of the evidence. What Pennock's argument actually demonstrates is that Darwinism can maintain its cultural power only by sowing confusion and appealing to prejudice.

Phillip Johnson is professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of many books, including most recently Objections Sustained (InterVarsity), a collection of essays, many of which first appeared in BOOKS & CULTURE.

Most ReadMost Shared