Subversive Essays on Evolution, Law & Culture
by Phillip E. Johnson
|Publisher: InterVarsity Press|
|Downers Grove, IL|
|Reviewed by Eric Blievernicht|
|Review date: 20 August 1998|
Overview: Twenty-two thought-provoking essays by law professor Dr. Phillip Johnson on Darwinism, Christianity and related topics. Johnson has become a leader of the Intelligent Design (ID) movement, a group of intellectuals who eschew “religious” apologetics in order to engage Darwinism from a strictly secular perspective.
Anyone with more than a passing familiarity of the ongoing creation-evolution wars is familiar with the name of Phillip Johnson ever since he burst on the scene with Darwin on Trial. Johnson’s first work on Darwinism made such a splash that, like Dawkin’s The Blind Watchmaker, Denton’s Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, and Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box, it is now just sort of assumed that if you claim familiarity with the creation/evolution conflict you must have read his work.
Having become an overnight hit in the genre, as it were, Professor Johnson found himself in demand as a speaker on the lecture circuit and a writer for magazines and journals. Johnson’s ability to write wittily and evenhandedly – along with his total avoidance of anything that smacks of religious argumentation – has granted him a respect that cuts across the entrenched lines of creationists and evolutionists.
Objections Sustained is a collection of his essays, originally published in periodicals ranging from First Things to The Atlantic. Many are reviews of significant Darwinist and Intelligent Design books. In fact, I confess I read his work partly to get myself oriented for writing reviews of creationist books. Johnson notes:
Authors want to be reviewed, and they are usually grateful if the reviewer demonstrates that he has read the book carefully, no matter what opinions he expresses about it. (p. 10)
If Dr. Johnson will accept the indignity of being reviewed by a schmuck quality systems engineer, I will do my best to live up to these words.
One of Johnson’s strengths is his ability to give lay readers real insight into what is going on within the ranks of Darwinists. Creationists like Henry Morris have been pointing to the in-fighting and fierce disputes among evolutionists for years, but it was Johnson who brought the matter out of science journals and marginalized creationist publications and into the public eye.
Thus we find (p. 70-71, 78-79) Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin complaining of Richard Dawkins’ “vulgarizations of Darwinism” and asserting sociobiologist E.O. Wilson’s prime works “rest on the surface of a quaking marsh of unsupported claims.” On the other side John Maynard Smith complains that Lewontin ally Stephen Jay Gould “is giving non-biologists a largely false picture of the state of evolutionary theory” and Gould himself is “a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with”. Not to be outdone, Gould calls Daniel Dennett “Dawkin’slapdog” whose book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea is a “caricature of a caricature” in a lengthy rant in the New York Review of Books. He ends, astonishingly, by lamenting the mean-spirited comments of J.M. Smith and emphasizing that evolutionists must avoid internal “backbiting and anathematization” in their united crusade against creationists. Johnson retorts for us: “Tell that to Dawkin’s lapdog”!
This is a theme which surfaces repeatedly in Johnson’s essays. Evolution, as a philosophical foundation to the religious beliefs of its’ adherents, is not a monolithic proven scientific fact but rather a crumbling ideology, doomed to fall like Marxism and Freudianism before it. It’s adherents will band together to fend off the ever-increasing attacks of the feared infidels (creationists) but their own ideology is in hopeless disarray.
For his part Johnson is content to play the critic. This is not a personal shortcoming but rather is based on his understanding of his strengths and limitations as a law professor. He is at his strongest dissecting the logic and examining the evidence of other writer’s claims from the viewpoint of a skeptical lawyer trained to spot flaws and holes in an opponent’s argument. He advances no theories of origins of his own, preferring rather to comment on the self-destruction of Darwinism and the advance of his Intelligent Design colleagues in the natural sciences. He contrasts the famously naive story-telling of Richard Dawkins, for example, with the careful observations and detailed expositions of molecular biologist Michael Behe, who introduced the term irreducible complexity into our lexicon.
So is Johnson’s work something I, as a biblical recent creationist, can recommend wholeheartedly? Not quite. Despite my respect for the man and his work I remain concerned that his purely rationalistic attacks on evolution may cause many to abandon evolution only to adopt other ideologies not founded in biblical truth. In the end they may be no closer to Christ than before.
From a tactical perspective his approach appears to be bearing fruit and weakening both evolutionism and the whole notion of anti-theistic naturalism as a necessary foundation for science. But by attracting many other Christian intellectuals and scientists to his style of attacking evolution he leaves the defending of Genesis and biblical creation for those of us who remain.
Johnson himself implicitly acknowledges that evolution will not be overthrown until Christians (or someone else) come up with a better model to interpret the facts of natural science (p. 27.) He is too much an expert in the philosophy of science to believe that a correct model of natural history will spring up using purely rationalistic techniques, even within a strictly theistic perspective. That sort of approach leads to scientists imposing their theories as “fact” on the Bible, whether the Bible really fits perfectly with that interpretation of the scientific facts or not. Thus do the paleoanthropological and hermeneutical absurdities of Big Bang apologist Hugh Ross manifest themselves. The history and data provided in Genesis and the rest of the Bible must first be understood and oriented by Christian scholars to provide a framework in which to fit the data of natural science. The Intelligent Design movement is only a transition group, as it were, on the road to true biblically based scholarship.
Johnson may be refraining from making an appeal for such work to avoid provoking the prejudices of the secular intellectual and scientific community. This troubles me, for my understanding of Christ’s teaching is that we should not be afraid to acknowledge our beliefs and faith-based knowledge, whether the world derides us as fools for Christ or no. Perhaps if more Christian “Intelligent Design” scientists came out of the woodwork and began to work unabashedly from a biblical foundation with folks like Kurt Wise, the Institute for Creation Research and the Creation Research Society the superiority of the Creation model would be apparent to all.
In any case, I look forward to the expected collapse of biological evolutionism. Then I will suggest to Professor Johnson that he employ his wit and brilliance in engaging another hapless foe and sacred cow: geological uniformitarianism. Now that is something I’ll enjoy seeing.
(C)opyright 1998 Eric Blievernicht