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Phillip E. Johnson: "Response to Hasker," Christian Scholar's Review, Vol. XXII, No. 3, 1993, pp.297-304.


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Response to Hasker

By Phillip E. Johnson

[Republished here with the permission of Christian Scholar's Review and Phillip E. Johnson.]


The December issue of the CSR included "Mr. Johnson for the Prosecution," a review essay by William Hasker on the book Darwin on Trial, by Phillip E. Johnson. In this response, Phillip Johnson corrects some misinterpretations of his views as given in the review essay, and also restates the basis for his opposition to the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution. Mr. Johnson teaches law at the University of California in Berkeley.

I will respond to Hasker's review essay on three topics: (1) the blind watchmaker thesis; (2) the fossil evidence regarding the common ancestry thesis; and (3) the "What is your alternative?" objection.

The blind watchmaker thesis

According to Richard Dawkins, "Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose." This appearance is misleading, Dawkins says, because science tells us that a combination of random genetic changes and natural selection did all the work of biological creation. In Dawkins' words,

Natural selection is the blind watchmaker, blind because it does not see ahead, does not plan consequences, has no purpose in view. yet the living results of natural selection overwhelmingly impress us ... with the illusion of design and planning.1

This blind watchmaker thesis is what gives Darwinian evolution its strong tilt towards atheism. The point is not that the blind watchmaker thesis disproves the existence of God, but rather it makes God superfluous as our creator. If you want to be both a Darwinist and a theist, you can think of God as watching benignly while mutation and selection proceed along their undirected course. If you prefer to apply Occam's razor and discard the God hypothesis, nothing of importance is lost. What you may not do-if you want to avoid being shut out of rational society as a creationist-is to suggest in public that God either programmed evolution in advance or stepped in from time to time to do something to guarantee that evolution would eventually produce humans.

There is an inherent conflict between Darwinism and theism, but the nature of the conflict is generally misunderstood. God's sovereignty is not threatened by [298] any discoveries we may make about natural processes. God can work through natural processes that are accessible to scientific investigation, including mutation and natural selection. It is not true that God retreats where science advances, if by science we mean knowledge derived from observation and repeatable experiments. It is not empirical science which excludes God, but naturalistic philosophy.

The conflict between Darwinism and theism arises because the blind watchmaker thesis is a product of naturalistic philosophy, not observation or experiment. How do we know that mutation and selection can create complex organs, or new types of plants and animals? The allegedly confirming evidence is woefully inadequate. Artificial selection, which in any case works under the direction of purposeful human intelligence, produces specialized variants within the limits of the gene pool. Selection observed in nature produces only shifts in population frequencies, as in Kettlewell's observations of peppered moths in the English Midlands. The fossil evidence is practically impossible to reconcile with the thesis that evolution proceeds by the accumulation of micromutations, which is why fossil experts from T.H. Huxley to S.J. Gould have toyed with saltationist alternatives.

For atheistic materialists, the state of the empirical evidence is, one may say, immaterial. The blind watchmaker (i.e., some purposeless material force) has to have done the creating because nothing else was available. Allow an omnipotent deity into the picture, however, and a serious difficulty arises. I repeat: the difficulty is not that God could not use mutation and selection to create. It is that we have no good reason to suppose that Darwinian selection was the mechanism of creation unless we make the naturalistic assumption that nature had to do its own creating.

Theists who accept Darwinism as "science" are thus likely to absorb naturalistic habits of thought as well as naturalistic conclusions. This may take the form of finding some theological reason to endorse Darwinian evolution regardless of its empirical difficulties. Thus theistic evolutionists argue that direct action by God in history would imply some defect in the original plan, or that God is devoted to genealogical continuity, or that God respects a division between "salvation history" (where miracles are allowed) and natural history (where they are not).2 There is nothing wrong about trying to reconcile two seemingly authoritative sources of truth, but science is a jealous master that insists on occupying the whole realm of factual reality.

That means that theists are tolerated only as long as they respect rules made by scientific naturalists. The appropriate attitude for scientists to take towards a God who defers to their authority is one of indifference, not active hostility. It is [299] therefore not surprising that many Darwinists are not "overtly antireligious" until someone raises the possibility that God might have taken an active role in creation. Anyone who threatens Darwinists with that hateful prospect can expect to feel the full blast of their hostility-as evidenced by that Stephen Jay Gould book review that Hasker quotes in his footnotes.

The Common Ancestry Thesis and the Fossil Evidence

Hasker writes that "common ancestry" provides the best explanation of curiosities like Panda's "thumb, and also of the rare cases of plausible macroevolutionary sequences in a fossil record overwhelmingly characterized (in Gould's words) by "sudden appearance and stasis." The first point is to define common ancestry.

Taken literally, the common ancestry thesis says that biological creation is simply the ordinary process of descent from parent to child, writ large over immense numbers of generations and periods of time. For example, mammals are an extremely diverse group. At sea there are whales and seals, in the air there are bats, and on land there are moles, giraffes, and humans. Literal common ancestry (LCA) says these diverse types are "related" in the same sense that degrees of cousins in a human extended family are related. The only difference is that many more generations of descent are involved, and during this time immense change has supposedly occurred by accumulation of the tiny variation that occurs in each generation. Other terms for LCA are phyletic gradualism, descent with modification, and neo-Darwinism. The essential proposition, in Ernst Mayr's words, is that "transspecific evolution is nothing but an extrapolation and magnification of the events that take place within populations and species."

LCA implies that evolution is an extremely gradual process. The Original Mammal, which was presumably small and four-footed, became a whale on one line of descent and a bat on the other, through a long series of tiny steps. Each step in the chain had to be capable of surviving to reproduce and, if natural selection is assumed to have guided the process, must have been adaptively superior to its predecessor.

If we visualize the Original Mammal as something like a rat, changing through countless viable intermediate stages into a whale on one line and a bat on the other, we are imagining something as absurd as anything in the world's treasury of fables. There is no plausible series of viable intermediates even in the imagination, and fossil evidence that such an unlikely sequence ever occurred is lacking.3 This is not an isolated example, but a typical instance of the insuperable difficulties of justifying LCA empirically. One of the most powerful examples is the Cambrian Explosion, in which the complex animal [300] groups appear suddenly, without any evidence of step-by-step descent from single-celled predecessors. If LCA from something like protozoa is the explanation for this phenomenon, nature seems to have gone to a lot of trouble to conceal the evidence. As an explanation for the creation of the phyla, LCA is a non-empirical speculation.

Another possibility is that "common ancestry" is meant metaphorically. We might justifiably say, for example, that living things have certain common features (homologies) which establish a pattern of relationship suggesting some process of development from some unobservable common source. The macromutational speculations that Gould and many others have advanced-e.g., that change occurs in big jumps through hypothetical mutations in the rate genes governing embryonic development-is along the lines of metaphorical common ancestry (MCA). The notorious hypothetical example attributed to Goldschmidt and Schindewolf-a baby bird emerging from a land reptile's egg-is about midway between special creation and LCA. There is ancestry in a sense, but not in the same sense as any kind of natural reproduction we can observe. Some extraordinary and unobservable process is added, which was capable of producing a new type without going through a lot of impossible and invisible intermediate forms.

LCA is in principle scientific, specific, falsifiable-and clearly against the overwhelming weight of the evidence. If LCA is truly falsifiable, it has been falsified. 4 MCA is quite possibly true-but so vague and unt deserve to be called a "theory." MCA merely restates the inference that some unknown process of development from an unknown common source seems to have occurred, and adds nothing of explanatory value. LCA is a scientific theory; MCA is just a label attached to a mystery.

If Hasker is defending only some undefined form of MCA, I see no need to agree or disagree. If he means to defend LCA-that is, neo-Darwinism as defined by Mayr-there is an issue worth joining. In that case, how should we evaluate the crown jewel in the Darwinist case for macroevolution-the therapsid group of "mammal-like reptiles"?

The Darwinist way of thinking, which Hasker adopts, is to count only the favorable evidence. The Cambrian Explosion and practically everything else in the fossil record may be hopeless cases, but defeats for Darwinist expectations do not matter. If any plausible macroevolutionary intermediates can be found, [301] then Darwinism has all the support it needs. Those who think this way dismiss any effort to evaluate the allegedly favorable evidence against the background of the fossil record as a whole as "rhetorical trickery,' which understandably inspires "lawyer jokes."

I am no defender of lawyers as a class, but on this subject it seems that they can teach paleontologists and philosophers something about good thinking Although paleontologists inspired by Darwinism have searched diligently for confirmation, their hopes have continually been disappointed. (See Darwin on Trial, especially Chapter 4, for details.) The fossil record in general shows extremely stable species instead of the immense numbers of transitional intermediates required by the LCA thesis. Darwinists have to explain away this consistent record of failure by saying that the intermediates weren't fossilized, or haven't been found; skeptics including Stephen Jay Gould, at least on some days-take the straighter path and say they never existed.

If Darwinists could establish one or two major macroevolutionary transitions unequivocally by fossil evidence, this would greatly strengthen their argument that the absence of evidence in other cases reflects a defect in the fossil record rather than a defect in Darwinian theory. The example must be unequivocal, however, and its evaluation must be free of any bias in favor of the theory. That researchers tend to see what they want and expect to see is well known, and Darwinists badly want to find confirming examples The Marxists and the Freudians found plenty of examples to support their false theories, and it is only to be expected that armies of paleontologists dedicated to confirming Darwinism will find something.

From the testimony of the Darwinists themselves, it appears that the therapsids are not an unequivocal example of a known macroevolutionary sequence. Some of the therapsid species might be transitional intermediates if we assume on other grounds that reptile-to-mammal macroevolution occurred, but opinions differ on which are the most likely candidates and the evidence is murky enough that paleontologists have even debated whether mammals evolved more than once.5 Moreover, skeletal similarity does not necessarily indicate ancestral descent. If we could actually examine live therapsids, for example, their soft parts might be utterly inconsistent with the mammal ancestry hypothesis. There is nothing unfair about suggesting this possibility, because it is misleading for Gould to claim that paleontology has found "the very best evidence it could, in exactly the predicted form and time." If that were generally the case, then [302] Darwinism would be successful as a paleontological theory because it would have made risky predictions that turned out to be accurate. As Gould knows very well, however, the overall record of paleontologists in seeking to confirm Darwinist expectations has been one of continual failure.

I would love to spark a critical re-examination of the therapsids and the rest of the fossil evidence, based on the premise that LCA is a hypothesis that needs to be confirmed rather than a dogma that needs only a plausible illustration or two. If that were to occur, I have little doubt that additional grounds for skepticism would quickly appear, and in retrospect my own criticisms would seen rather tame. Researchers are always resolving highly debatable questions of interpretation, and their conclusions quickly harden into "fact" if there is no continuing professional opposition. When a community of researchers has been unreservedly dedicated to confirming a theory for over a century, it is a safe bet that the debatable questions have consistently been resolved in a single direction.

The same considerations apply to the hominid or "ape-man" fossils, except that the enormous subjectivity that lies behind the museum reconstructions of "our ancestors" is sometimes acknowledged even in Darwinist circles. I grant Hasker's point that many creationists are as emotionally committed on this subject as the professors of physical anthropology, and I hope this concession warms the hearts of the latter group. My discussion relied upon no subjective judgments by creationists, however. The critic who debunked the claims for the Australopithecines, Lord Zuckerman, is a pillar of the British scientific establishment and a scientific materialist. In any case, subjectivity on both sides just makes my point; subjective ape-man fossil claims are not an appropriate test of neo-Darwinism as a general theory of biological creation.6

The "What is your alternative?" objection

Suppose I am right about these evidentiary points. Suppose that Darwinian evolution is a valid model only for relatively modest kinds of change, such as that observed among the finches and tortoises of the Galapagos Islands. Suppose that the evidence considered as a whole does not support either the blind watchmaker thesis or LCA, when we are talking about the appearance of major groups like [303] the animal phyla, or even the highly diverse families within the mammal class. Does it matter? Hasker says it doesn't, because the history of science tells us that "common ancestry" will reign as the governing paradigm until somebody comes up with a better research agenda. And Darwin on Trial does not attempt to present such an alternative.7

Hasker and other critics who have said this have a valid but limited point. To put it very simply, the scientific enterprise progresses by proposing theories and then improving them. Even a poor theory can at least function as a guide for research, but without any theory at all the scientists do not know where to start. From this standpoint, the only reason for criticizing an established theory is to point the way to research strategies aimed at producing a better theory. Thus scientists like Gould, perceiving the same weaknesses in neo-Darwinism that I have described, will typically explore the possibilities for macromutational alternatives like "mutations in the rate genes." More radical revisionists may speculate that organisms can somehow summon mutations as necessary to grow in some predetermined direction. Because the scientific community judges that such alternative theories raise more problems than they solve, the standard neo-Darwinian synthesis survives as the paradigm for research.

Granted all that, it remains important that we know whether neo-Darwinism is the reigning paradigm because it is supported by overwhelming evidence as the Darwinists continually claim, or because with all its defects the only alternative is having no theory at all. In the latter case, no one should be impressed by the continual pronouncements by Darwinists that their "science" proves that we and other living things either were or could have been created by purposeless material processes.

It is not enough to say that such pronouncements are philosophy, and go "beyond science." The philosophy sounds very convincing to people who have been taught that the underlying scientific claims have been established by incontrovertible evidence. Science presents its claims to the public as knowledge, in statements beginning with phrases like "we now know," or "scientists have discovered." If science really has discovered that undirected material processes produced life's complexity and diversity, it is no wonder that so many educated people see this triumph as confirming the validity of a naturalistic worldview. If [304] those people knew that the creative power of natural selection is an unconfirmed hypothesis, that Darwinism has had mostly trouble from the fossil record, and that the theory survives only because the alternative is no theory at all, then few people would pay attention to a philosophical inference drawn from such a shaky factual premise.

I am suspicious of rules of scientific reasoning that immunize Darwinism from negative criticism because they have an inherent tendency to mislead. What the scientific naturalists want to do is to proclaim that "evolution is a fact," and then expand the definition of "evolution" so that it includes all the elements of the blind watchmaker thesis, including its philosophical implications. A rule that Darwinism retains its status as the ruling theory regardless of how much negative evidence has accumulated will in practice give Darwinists the power to continue saying that "we now know" that the history of life was fully naturalistic. For this reason I think it is important that the Christian community in particular should have a serious discussion about the extent to which Darwinism is true or false, without having that discussion rendered meaningless by rules derived from observation of scientific practice.

If we may then discuss what is true and what is not, I reaffirm my opinion that neo-Darwinist LCA is against the overwhelming weight of the evidence for the major developments in the history of life, the therapsids notwithstanding. I am not sure if Hasker disagrees, because he defends a general concept of "ancestry" that might mean something as utterly mysterious as that complex plants and animals blossomed from single-celled predecessors overnight. In any case, the degree of gradualness or abruptness in the appearance of new things is not what is important The important thing is that (in Hasker's words) "the evidences which have been produced for the efficacy of natural selection ... fall far short of proving that it is capable of producing the kinds of major changes credited to it by evolutionary theory." It follows that Darwinists credit the mutation/selection mechanism with fantastic creative power only because of some philosophical assumptions associated with the scientific enterprise, and not because they have any impressive evidence that the creative power really exists. If more people really understood that, they would just laugh at Richard Dawkins when he says that Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.


1Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (London: W.W. Norton, 1986), pp. 1, 21. return to text

2For typical examples of this genre, which I call "theistic naturalism," see the responses of Ernan McMullin and Howard Van Till in the Symposium: Evolution and the Bible, in the September, 1991 issue of this journal. My article "Theistic Naturalism and the Blind Watchmaker" is scheduled for publication in the March 1993 issue of First Things. return to text

3The claimed Basilosaurus "whale with feet" is discussed in Darwin on Trial; its uncritical acceptance as an intermediate in an LCA descent from four-footed land mammal to whale illustrates only the power of the Darwinist will to believe. return to text

4The conclusion that LCA has been falsified is no idiosyncratic notion of my own. Stephen Jay Gould wrote in 1980 that "if [Ernst] Mayr's characterization of the synthetic theory is accurate, then that theory, as a general proposition, is effectively dead, despite its persistence as textbook orthodoxy." S. J. Gould, "Is a New and General Theory of Evolution Emerging?" Paleobiology Vol. 6(1), pp. 119-130 (1980). Gould proposed a macromutational alternative based on the "hopeful monster" notions of Richard Goldschmidt. If Gould has retreated from this position, it is not because new evidence confirming LCA has been discovered. It is because no one is able to present MCA as anything more concrete than an untestable speculation. return to text

5Failure to understand that the question is whether the mammal-like reptiles provide an unequivocal example of a macroevolutionary transition leads Hasker into that unprofitable discursion about youth gangs breaking a store window. The point is that the therapsids are claimed as the conclusive proof of macroevolution, sufficient in themselves to overcome any amount of negative evidence from the rest of the fossil record. To carry that burden we should see at the very least a single, conclusively established line of descent, not a variety of individually plausible but mutually exclusive ancestor candidates. return to text

6Since Hasker speculates about my own subjective leanings, I will try to satisfy his curiosity. The "evolution of human beings from apes" is not an unacceptable hypothesis for me. Obviously, God could have made humans unmistakably distinct from other creatures and did not do so. The hypothesis of LCA was bold but justifiable as of 1859, if it were stated in testable form rather than as a dogma. Subsequent investigation, when evaluated without extreme Darwinist bias, establishes that LCA is disconfirmed for the plant and animal kingdoms as a whole, and also in this specific case. Even if "evolution" in some vague MCA sense should turn out to be the true explanation of the similarities between apes and humans, Darwinian science has only wild speculation to offer to explain the unique human characteristics: relative hairlessness, upright posture, and especially human consciousness. I do not know whether I am a "progressive creationist." For the time being, I am content to say that, however God chose to create, it was not by neo-Darwinist LCA. return to text

7The research agenda I have in mind would not aim at the start to propose a complete alternative to neo-Darwinism. Because of materialist domination, science has concentrated on the material base of living systems, and seen the information content as arising from purely material processes. I suggest that it is the information which is primary, and the thing to be understood is how it works to direct not only protein synthesis but other important processes such as development, which are for now poorly understood. I would also encourage paleontologists to interpret their evidence without Darwinist prejudice, trying out various scenarios without regard to whether they are currently regarded as genetically possible. After a great deal more is learned about what the genetic information is and how it works, it may be possible to ask more intelligent questions about how it originated.return to text

(Johnson P.E., "Response to Hasker," Christian Scholar's Review, Vol. XXII, No. 3, 1993, pp.297-304)

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