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Robert Pennock

The Evidence Against the New Creationism: Robert Pennock

In his writings, law professor Phillip Johnson portrays himself as a soldier in the "culture wars," the point man in a "wedge strategy" to break apart the "religion" of evolution and to bring creationism into the mainstream. Johnson's is a philosophical attack, and the movement he leads is top-heavy with philosophers, such as William Dembski, Robert Koons, Stephen Meyer, J. P. Moreland, Paul Nelson, and Alvin Plantinga. It also includes conservative commentators, such as John Ankerberg and Nancy Pearcey, and even some scientists, like Michael Behe, Walter Bradley, and Jonathan Wells. In Tower of Babel, I discussed the most important contributions of these intelligent-design creationists (hereafter IDCS), and new writings of established creationists such as Norman Geisler, Henry and John Morris, and Hugh Ross. Contrary to Johnson's charge, I did not portray all creationists as Genesis literalists, but I was careful to describe (in their own terms) the interesting theological factionalism among Christian antievolutionists and antievolutionists who start from other religious viewpoints.

Johnson has organized an uneasy alliance against a common enemy. IDCS unite in their opposition to evolution and in their disdain for those Christians who believe one can be a theist while accepting its truth. William Dembski draws the new creationists' line in the sand, writing that IDCS "are no friends of theistic evolutionists." Johnson labels such believers "theistic naturalists" to highlight what he takes to be the incoherence of their "accommodationist" view. It is such compatibilist positions that his wedge aims to split, which is why, as he admits, so many Christian theologians oppose his movement.

Johnson says that IDCS push "the details" into the background. What this means is that they try to keep hidden their specific beliefs about the age of the earth, Noah's flood, and the goings-on in the garden. But scientists know that when testing a scientific hypothesis, the Devil is in the details. Johnson's generic design hypothesis that "God creates" is too vague to be tested scientifically, so science properly remains agnostic about the question, leaving such matters to religion.

Readers should thus beware when Johnson says IDCS want to resolve issues by "unbiased scientific testing," for theirs is not science as ordinarily understood, but rather something that would be taught in a special "department of theological science." The revolutionary "theory of knowledge" that this yet-to-be-developed theistic science will follow rests on what Johnson describes in Reason in the Balance as "the essential, bedrock position of Christian theism about creation," namely, the opening lines of the Gospel of John (1:1–3). According to Johnson, when the Bible says that in the beginning was "the Word," it speaks of "information," and "plainly says that creation was by a force that was (and is) intelligent and personal." However, knowledgeable readers will recognize that IDCS' references to complexity and information theory are no more than designer window dressing on a basic God-of-the-gaps argument.

Besides its obvious political utility, it is hard to know what to make of Johnson's claim that he is "so determined to keep the Bible out of the debate," for he often, though selectively, cites scriptural authority. He be moans, for instance, how naturalism has corrupted even the law, so that legislators no longer assume the authority of biblical morality, on issues ranging from divorce to homosexuality. In Tower of Babel, I show what happens when one drops the standard framework of methodological naturalism out of the law in the way that IDCS recommend it be dropped from science. Johnson continues to decline to de fend his proposal on his home turf.

As in the above case, Johnson simply ignores other arguments in Tower of Babel and reissues his usual brief. He writes that one could "flunk an undergraduate" who failed to get the "obvious points" he makes about the two examples he discusses—points that "bright high school students" should easily understand. However, bright students always do their reading, and they will see that I included these examples because IDCS say misleading things about them. The Grant's finch research is one of several studies showing not only that we can observe the Darwinian mechanisms at work in nature (sexual as well as natural selection) but also that we can measure them and see that they operate as predicted to produce functionally adaptive morphological changes. If there is any "fallacy of extrapolation," it is made by Johnson, who conveniently ignores the relevant causal processes exemplified, and seems to think that two data points are sufficient to infer "cyclical" variation within a fixed type. Creationists believe in some magic, uncrossable boundary that defines biological species, and Johnson fails to address the challenges I made to this view. Don't be fooled by talk of "genetic information" or "adaptive complexity." IDCS provide no definition or measure of these concepts, and no evidence that natural mechanisms cannot produce an "increase" in these, or even that an increase is necessary to evolve new species.

Johnson's discussion of Dawkins's computer simulation is particularly misleading, for I included that case specifically to show how IDCS regularly misrepresent what Dawkins explicitly claimed about his program and the way that it supports evolution. I also provided my own alternative example and de scribed other computer models that evolve using genetic algorithms, neither of which has the feature of a specific target that IDCS claim (falsely) "smuggles intelligence" into the procedure. Genetic algorithms can generate just the sort of novel, functional, and specific complexity that IDCS say is impossible without intentional design. Evolutionary computation is a rapidly developing field that is proving its power theoretically and in practical applications, from airplane wing design to, yes indeed, computer software development. (I made no claims about symphony orchestras.)

The only new item in Johnson's article is his acknowledgement that languages evolve. This is an important admission, for Johnson is usually careful not to say anything about the "details" of his position that could fracture his alliance. Traditional creationists do reject linguistic evolution, and for the same reason they reject biological evolution, because it goes against a plain reading of Genesis, which states that God specially created the different languages in the great confusion at Babel. I discuss this case, because the theory of the evolution of languages matches that of the evolution of biological species in all of its most significant elements: the structure of the theory, the kinds of evidence available, and how the central evolutionary hypothesis of descent with modification is justified. It is easy to see the flaws in the creationists' arguments in this context. Of course, the evolution of languages has some special features because the causal processes involved allow, for instance, Lamarckian as well as Darwinian mechanisms, but linguistic evolution does indeed challenge the IDCS' central claims. No one designed English, or any other natural language. Languages do not need special intentional design to evolve from one into others, and neither do species.

To test Johnson's claims about the adequacy of his response, I gave an advance copy of his article to a class of undergraduates to evaluate who had already read Tower of Babel. The students all recognized that Johnson had failed even to engage, let alone rebut, the book's arguments about the cases he mentions. In their papers, many pointed out how he also ignored arguments that undermined IDCS' claims about in formation and complexity and the viability of a supernatural "science." Others noted the ways that he substituted rhetoric for argument (like that dig about flunking undergraduates).

Johnson addressed his book Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds to the bright high-schoolers he hopes will join his movement, and perhaps he is right that they will understand his points better than college students and those in the "mainstream intellectual community" do, who are supposedly blinded by their "devotion" to Darwinism. IDCS portray scientists as being either leaders or dupes of a materialist empire they compare to the former Soviet Union. Evolutionary scientists are purportedly struggling to retain their "cultural power" as evolution—their "dogmatic philosophy"—teeters on the brink of collapse. Their methods do not involve evidence but rather "bias," "hype," "stereotyping," and "appeal to prejudice," not to mention "smuggling" and "seduction." By defending scientists from these unfounded charges, I now stand accused of the same crimes.

In fact, I made no attempt to defend materialist metaphysics (nineteenth-century or otherwise) in Tower of Babel, but discussed how Johnson confuses this with science's reasonable methodological constraints. Johnson's own philosophy is an odd jumble of postmodernism and premodernism that subverts the possibility of unbiased testing. IDCS say material processes can't produce new species, but they fail to tell us how they think immaterial intelligences do the trick, or how their theological science will investigate such claims. The "best scientific thinkers" are not holding their breath for an answer. Johnson is content to hammer away at science, driving his wedge between it and religion, while concealing the details of what his movement would put in its place.

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