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[Republished here with the permission of Christian Scholar's Review and Phillip E. Johnson.]
As might be expected, legal terms and concepts are fairly prominent in Phillip Johnson's Book, Darwin on Trial.1 And Johnson, a U.C. Berkeley law professor, moves early on to deal with questions about a lawyer's qualifications to write on evolution. His background, he writes, is "more appropriate than one might think," because as a lawyer he specializes in analyzing the logic of arguments and the assumptions behind them, matters which are crucial to one's assessment of Darwinism. And it is no special handicap not being a scientist, because the topic cuts across many different scientific disciplines as well as philosophy, and "a scientist outside his field of expertise is just another layman" (p. 13).
I'm not sure I find this completely convincing,2 but I won't challenge Johnson's rationale. Instead, I will turn it to my own advantage by using it to justify this philosopher's comment on a lawyer's book on evolution. (Philosophers, need I remind the reader, are also professionally concerned-some would say we are obsessed-with logic and arguments.)
It is obvious that Johnson is pleading a case, but what exactly is the case? In spite of the title, Darwin really is not on trial in this book, though he comes in for his share of criticism. Two chapters refer at some length to the Arkansas and Louisiana "balanced-treatment" trials, but Johnson has no desire to reargue those cases; indeed he admits that "to say that a supernatural being created mankind is certainly to advocate a religious position" (p. 7), one which cannot be promoted in a public school classroom. In the middle chapters of the book, where he is examining the evidence for evolution, he gives the decided impression of  a defense attorney picking holes in the case for the prosecution. But if Johnson is a defense attorney, who or what is he defending? No ready candidate is in view. But the nature of the case being made finally becomes clear in the last four chapters of the book, on "The Rules of Science," "Darwinist Religion," "Darwinist Education," and "Science and Pseudoscience." Here it is evident that Johnson is indeed a prosecuting attorney; the accused is not so much Darwin, however, as the leaders of the contemporary Darwinist establishmentindictment is a lengthy one, but may be summarized in the following points:
1. Darwinists consistently claim for their theory a far higher degree of certainty than is warranted by their evidence, unless it is assumed at the outset that God can have nothing to do with the origins of living creatures and therefore that a fully naturalistic process of evolution must have occurred. 2. Darwinists frequently use their science as a platform for antireligious (or antitheistic) pronouncements; at the same time they argue, in other contexts, that religion and science are separate realms and should not be confused. (That is to say: it is only a trespass of religion on the domain of science that should be feared; the issue of trespass in the other direction is not a problem.) 3. Darwinists frequently attempt to suppress debate about the validity of their theory, usually by branding their opponents as religious fundamentalists. 4. Darwinists attempt (usually successfully) to control the teaching of evolution in public schools and universities, insisting that it be presented as unchallenged fact with no serious consideration of difficulties or conflicting evidence.
Johnson makes a strong case for each point of his indictment; if I were sitting on the jury, I would be inclined to vote "guilty as charged."3 (I would listen to the defense attorney first, of course-but it would take some pretty fancy footwork for the defense to get around the record Johnson has compiled.) If a conviction is obtained, it would seem that the appropriate disposition of the case would be repentance on the part of the accused, and a reversal of the pattern of behavior noted in the indictment, as follows:4
1. Darwinists should be considerably more modest in their claims for their theory, acknowledging difficulties as well as claiming successes where this is justified. 2. Darwinists should observe their own ban on mixing religion and science, and refrain from religious and anti-religious pontifications in the name of science. 3. Darwinists should welcome debate over their theory, not try to suppress debate with ad hominem attacks on their critics. 4. The presentation  of evolution in schools, universities, and museums should be consistent with 1-3 above; it should be nondogmatic, open to consideration of difficulties and objections, and free from metaphysical and religious pronouncements in the name of science.
These are worthy objectives; a reform of Darwinist behavior along the line indicated would do wonders towards improving the climate of the current debate. In particular, the direction for teaching about evolution in the schools indicated above is arguably superior to any of the likely alternatives, such as the dogmatic presentation of evolution, "balanced treatment" for creation-science, or soft-pedaling the whole issue in the interests of minimizing controversy.5 None of this will be easy to accomplish, of course; the battle is uphill all the way. But Johnson deserves credit for raising the issues comprised in his "indictment" of leading Darwinists.
So far, then, so good. But the program sketched above, though of great importance, does not exhaust Johnson's agenda in this book. The free and open debate about Darwinism for which he calls could conceivably result in the complete vindication of Darwinism, perhaps in a somewhat chastened version. But Johnson is an implacable foe of Darwinism, defined as "fully naturalistic evolution, involving chance mechanisms guided by natural selection" (p. 4n).6 And while he allows for a limited amount of "microevolution" which may possibly result in the formation of new species, he is at pains to argue against the "common ancestry thesis" according to which all the organisms on the earth are descended from a single ancestral form. Chapters two through eight of the book comprise his detailed examination of the evidence and arguments for and against Darwinism and the common ancestry thesis; these chapters constitute an impressive demonstration of the breadth of Johnson's knowledge of the subject, given that he is not a professional scientist. 
On many points, his conclusions seem right on target. It is certainly true that there is at present nothing like a satisfactory theory of the origin of life from inorganic chemicals; scientists who believe such a theory can be produced do so on the basis of their confidence in the overall program rather than because any existing theory is particularly promising. The evidences which have been produced for the efficacy of natural selection (starting with the ever-popular speckled moth) fall far short of proving that it is capable of producing the kinds of major changes credited to it by evolutionary theory. And many of the major "transitions" in the evolutionary chain of descent are without evidence in the fossil record.
At other points, however, I suspect that Johnson seriously underestimates the force of the evidence for common ancestry.7 The so-called "argument from imperfection" may have more force than he allows: the panda's thumb, for example, does strike me as the sort of appendage that God (or for that matter any competent designer) is unlikely to have produced starting from scratch.8 Such considerations as these are not probative, of course, but they strike some of us as pretty convincing.
Considerably more important is the alleged transition between therapsids (mammal-like reptiles) and mammals. Johnson notes that "At the boundary, fossil reptiles and mammals are difficult to tell apart. The usual criterion is that a fossil is considered reptile if its jaw contains several bones, of which one, the articular bone, connects to the quadrate bone of the skull. If the lower jaw consists of a single dentary bone, connecting to the squamosal bone of the skull, the fossil is classified as a mammal" (p. 75). He then quotes Gould as follows:
The lower jaw of reptiles contains several bones, that of mammals only one. The non mammalian jawbones are reduced, step by step, in mammalian ancestors until they become tiny nubbins located at the back of the jaw. The 'hammer' and 'anvil' bones of the mammalian ear are descendants of these nubbins. How could such a transition be accomplished? the creationists ask. Surely a bone is either entirely in the jaw or in the ear. Yet paleontologists have discovered two transitional lineages of therapsids ... with a double jaw joint-one composed of the old quadrate and articular bones (soon to become the hammer and anvil), the other of the squamosal and dentary bones (as in modern mammals).9
 Johnson comments on this as follows:
We may concede Gould's narrow point, but his more general claim that the mammal-reptile transition is thereby established is another matter. Creatures have existed with a skull bone structure intermediate between that of reptiles and mammals, and so the transition with respect to this feature is possible. On the other hand, there are many important features by which mammals differ from reptiles besides the jaw and ear bones, including the all-important reproductive systems. As we saw in other examples, convergence in skeletal features between two groups does not necessarily signal an evolutionary transition (p. 76).
How should we evaluate this exchange? The point at issue, of course, is not the possibility of an evolutionary transition with respect to this or that feature, but whether such a transition has actually occurred. And the evidence cited in this instance seems to suggest that it has. This is not simply a case of "convergence with two disparate groups displaying similar features. The point is rather this: the therapsids, beginning with a typical reptilian jaw structure, display a sequence of forms which approach closer and closer to the mammalian model. Then the early mammals, beginning at this same time, pick up at just the point the therapsids had reached in their own development. If all this happened as a result of a series of special creained to say that the Lord had done a remarkable job of simulating an evolutionary transition! It would certainly be helpful to know what was going on in the reproductive systems, but since (with rare exceptions) soft tissue does not fossilize, that information is just not available to us. Johnson seems to be suggesting that we should disregard the evidence that we have, because of the lack of a kind of evidence it is impossible to get.10
He then goes on to make a large point of the fact that we cannot identify with confidence a single line of descent, because there are a number of therapsids which are equally good candidates for mammalian ancestors, and a number of mammals which might be the first of that class. This has led some to suggest that the transition actually occurred several times in different (though closely related) lineages, but Darwinian theory tends to frown on this. If we insist on a single transition, then the situation is that we have several good candidates for the mammalian ancestor but have no way of knowing which was the actual ancestor; similarly, we have several possible "first mammals" but no way of knowing which was really the first. It is hard to see why this should constitute a major problem, though it would certainly be more satisfying to have definite answers.
Johnson, however, sees things differently he writes:
If our hypothesis is that mammals evolved from therapsids only once ..., then most of the therapsids with mammal-like characteristics were not part of a macroevolutionary transition. If most were not then perhaps all were not (p. 77).
This strikes me as truly remarkable reasoning. Consider a parallel example: Two youth gangs have been fighting it out in the street with rocks, and in the morning a plate-glass storefront is found to have been shattered. The explanation,  you may think, is obvious-but not necessarily. It is reasonable to assume that no more than one rock was responsible for breaking the window: for two or more rocks to have broken it they would have to have struck it simultaneously, which is quite improbable. But if that is so, then most of the rocks thrown last night were not responsible for breaking a window. If most were not, perhaps all were not. More likely, the window was broken by an unexplained, and possibly supernatural, act of "special destruction."
Things become even stranger when we turn to the Research Notes11 in the back of the book. There Johnson refers to an article by James A. Hopson12 which argues for an evolutionary model of the therapsid-mammal relationship as preferable to the creation-science model of Duane Gish. After discussing Hopson's argument, Johnson says, "This proof may be good enough to make Hopson's specific point, which is that for this example some form of evolutionary model is preferable to the creation-science model of Gish, but his argument does not qualify, or purport to qualify, as a genuine testing of the common ancestry hypothesis in itself" (p. 174). At first sight, this is just bewildering. Surely the point at issue just is the comparative merits of evolution over against special creation as an interpretation of these fossils; if Johnson is conceding that point, then why all the fuss?13 I am not sure of the answer to this, but I think the point lies in the final sentence: in order to test the common ancestry hypothesis we must look at all of the evidence relevant to this hypothesis. And since (in Johnson's opinion) this evidence overall is not sufficient to establish the hypothesis, we are justified in rejecting what he admits to be the most plausible interpretation of the evidence in this particular case. Here it is impossible not to see the attorney for the defense, insisting doggedly that every link in the prosecution's case must be proved "beyond reasonable doubt."
The transition from apes to humans was long the focus of speculation-and pointed questions from creationists-about the "missing link," but recently it has become a prize exhibit for evolution. Gould asks:
Would God-for some inscrutable reason, or merely to test our faith-create five species, one after the other (Australopithecus afarensis, A. africanus, Homo habilis, H. Erectus, and H. Sapiens), to mimic a continuous trend of evolutionary change?14
 Johnson's reply focuses on the strong emotional impact of hominid fossils on paleontologists; as Roger Lewin says, "There is something inexpressibly moving about cradling in one's hand a cranium drawn from one's own ancestry."15 Johnson comments, "Lewin is absolutely correct, and I can't think of anything more likely to detract from the objectivity of one's judgments. Descriptions of fossils from people who yearn to cradle their ancestors in their hands ought to be scrutinized as carefully as a letter of recommendation from a job applicant's mother" (p. 81). As an example of such scrutiny, he cites a study by Zuckerman, who concluded that the Australopithecines probably walked like modern apes rather than like humans, thus considerably reducing their plausibility as human ancestors. Johnson notes, however, that Wilfred Le Gros Clark performed a rival study that came to more acceptable conclusions, and the consensus of the experts, meaning those who had the most to lose, was that Zuckerman was a curmudgeon with no real feel for the subject" (p. 82). Sound, objective judgment is thus seen to reside with Zuckerman and Johnson!16
The glaring omission from Johnson's discussion of this topic is any mention of the immense emotional significance of hominid fossils for special creationists. All the special creationists I've known (and there is no reason to think Johnson would be an exception) are prepared to bet the farm on the special creation of human beings. Johnson could, if pressed, admit the evolution of pandas and their thumbs from bears and their paws. It is even possible that he could accept the evolution of early mammals from therapsids-though I suspect he would be extremely reluctant to allow this. But if he were to admit the evolutionary transition from apes to humans, all the rest of the controversy would be purely academic. Objectivity, anyone?
The truth of the matter is, of course, that for all of us who have any interest in the matter- hard-core Darwinists, special creationists, theistic evolutionists, and fence-sitters the - question of human origins is of immense intellectual and emotional concern. It is quite appropriate to point this out and to warn against the subjective distortions which have often arisen out of this concern. What is not acceptable is to use this fact to discount as "biased" the evidence and arguments on one side only, while granting to the other side (one's own) a position "above the fray" as a wise and impartial observer.
In the meantime, the fossils remain. The Australopithecene and Homo habilis fossils are not the product of the "Darwinist imagination" (p. 80), but of many years of patient searching- much of it frustrating and, in the earlier years,  underfunded and decidedly unremunerative. If they are to be discredited this will take more than some vague suspicions and a disputed study or two. If or the other hand they are taken at face value, I think the question Gould asks is extremely telling-why would God "set us up" by making it look as though there were an evolutionary transition when in fact there was not?
It will be evident by now that I think Johnson is being less than fair with the evidence-that in order to discredit evolution, he is setting the standard of proof unreasonably high. Clearly this is an important issue; how much proof is required is bound to have a major effect on which theories are found to be acceptable-but how is the issue to be settled? Is the question of the level of proof required simply another subjective "call," which further complicates the dispute rather than helping to resolve anything?
Actually there is a fairly simple and straightforward answer to this question, though the application of the answer in particular cases may present difficulties. Applied to the present case, the correct standard is this: the common ancestry thesis should be accepted if it is better supported by evidence and argument than its strongest competitor. In saying this, I am drawing on one of the best-learned lessons in recent philosophy of science, a lesson which has been stressed especially by Thomas Kuhn and Imre Lakatos: the evaluation of a scientific hypothesis does not, in the typical case, focus on just one hypothesis at a time; rather, the concern is with pairs (or other multiples) of competing hypotheses.17 One of the reasons Karl Popper's "falsificationism" has been generally abandoned is that it would lead to the rejection of far too many hypotheses; many theories, in fact, are "born falsified" in that, right from the outset, they fail to conform to all the known data in the field under study. If a hypothesis which has shown significant promise encounters anomalous data, the normal scientific response is to retain the hypothesis until a superior replacement hypothesis emerges. And that is why I say that in order to assess the common ancestry theory we need to see if it is better supported than its strongest competitor.
If we seek to apply this test in the present case, however, we encounter a formidable difficulty; namely, that Johnson does not offer an alternative theory. What he says about his own view is really extremely limited; even the few assertions I have made about his views are in part based on inference rather than upon his direct statements. (So far as I can tell, he never says in so many words that the evolution of human beings from apes is an unacceptable hypothesis for him, though I have no doubt that this is the case.) So it is simply not possible to test  the common ancestry thesis and special creationism against one another, because there isn't any creationist theory which is specific enough to be tested.
It is clear from his book, however, that Johnson would not accept the requirement I have stated; he would claim that it is perfectly possible to evaluate and reject the evolutionary hypothesis without having a special creationist theory to compare it with. Johnson's favorite philosopher of science is Karl Popper, and Popper, unlike Kuhn and Lakatos, doesn't accept the notion that theories have to be evaluated in pairs. Johnson summarizes Popper's view as follows:
Popper's inspired contribution was to ... describe science as beginning with an imaginative or even mythological conjecture about the world. The conjecture may be wholly or partly false, but it provides a starting point for investigation when it is stated with sufficient clarity that it can be criticized. Progress is made not by searching the world for confirming examples, which can always be found, but by searching out the falsifying evidence that reveals the need for a new and better explanations (p. 147).18
Good scientists, then, make conjectures and then look to see if they can be refuted. The evidence of history, however, seems to be against Popper on this point. I am not presently aware of any major theory which has become entrenched in some field of natural science, and then has been abandoned without being replaced by a better theory.19 Popper might claim, to be sure, that this should have happened on numerous occasions, but such methodological preachments, unsupported by history, have little weight. Philosophers of science do not have any better way of determining what good scientific practice should be, than by examining good examples of science as it is actually practiced.
At this point it is appropriate to say something about creation- science. Like Johnson, I deplore the fact that creation-science is widely perceived as the only creationist alternative to the prevailing evolutionary paradigm. (And if Johnson's book helps to correct this perception, it will have performed a good service.) Nevertheless, there is an important sense in which the creation-scientists have earned their right to be so regarded. For they have, at least, put forward a concrete, reasonably detailed alternative to evolution; they have defended it vigorously, and have even carried forward (in the Creation Research Institute) a kind of research program in its behalf. Nothing like this is true of the "progressive creationist" view Johnson supports.20 It is not spelled out in any sort of satisfying detail; it  is defended almost exclusively by attacking Darwinism; and to my knowledge there does not exist any such thing as a progressive creationist research program. No doubt the detailed views of creation-science are in error at most of the important points, and I have no hope at all for the success of their research program. But with regard to the struggle against evolution they have grasped one central fact: you can't beat something with nothing.
In spite of these disagreements, it must be said that Johnson's book is remarkably provocative, and it may be the best defense of special creationism available. The book is engagingly written and is accessible for undergraduates on up. It deserves to be widely read, but in the interests of fairness and balance it should be read together with defenses of Darwinism and critiques of special creationism.21
1Phillip E. Johnson, Darwin on Trial (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1991). Page references in the text are to this book. return to text
2Stephen Jay Gould writes, "the density of simple error is so high that I must question [Johnson's] wider competence," and goes on to give a number of examples (impeaching a Self-Appointed Judge" [review of Darwin on Trial], Scientific American, July 1992 p. 119). return to text
3Let me emphasize here that I am supporting these charges against the leaders of contemporary Darwinism; they do not necessarily apply to all Darwinists, in particular not to those Christians who accept a Darwinian account of evolutionary development. One referee states, "one cannot assert that Carl Sagan, William Provine, and Richard Dawkins represent the entire scientific community. In my experience most scientists pay little attention to science and religion interactions; they may not be very religious but most are not overly antireligious either." return to text
4I believe that Johnson would in general agree with these points, but I am responsible for the formulations as given here. return to text
5A different assessment comes from one referee, who writes, "I believe points 3 and 4 are already largely in place in circles where scholarly discussion is welcomed, but one is required to bring some solid ideas in order to challenge evolutionary theory." With regard to the teaching of evolution, however, he states: "there is no good alternative scientific theory to evolution that fits the existing data," and "It is not good pedagogy to emphasize sophisticated difficulties to an audience learning the basic concepts."return to text
6There is a problem about this definition. The word "naturalistic" here would, I think, normally be taken to mean that evolution occurs through purely natural processes, in accordance with natural law, and without supernatural intervention. On the same page, however, Johnson glosses the term as follows: "fully naturalistic evolution-meaning evolution that is not directed by any purposeful intelligence." But this is untenable. If this is meant as a definition (which is certainly how it appears), the definition is question-begging: Johnson wins an easy (but worthless) victory over Christians who accept Darwinism by building into the definition of Darwinism an inconsistency with Christian theism. If on the other hand the explanation is meant as an inference, it is grossly fallacious: the fact that evolution occurs through purely natural means in no way entails that it is not directed by God. (If it should turn out that the planet earth was formed from interstellar gas, dust, etc., by natural processes without divine intervention, would Johnson conclude that the formation of the earth was not directed by God?) return to text
7For the rest of this paper, I shall concentrate on the common ancestry thesis, because I think that is the logical place to start in evaluating evolution. That is to say, it is more reasonable to begin by establishing whether evolution occurred, before engaging in the debate about how it occurred. return to text
8See Stephen Jay Gould, The Panda's Thumb: More Reflections on Natural History (New York: W. W. Norton, 1980), pp. 19-26. In brief, the situation is this: the panda is unique among animals in having a thumb and five fingers. The explanation for this is that the ' thumb is not a true digit; rather, the radial sesamoid bone of the wrist has become enlarged and capable of a degree of movement. The resulting appendage has no joint and is less mobile than a true thumb, but it is of considerable use to the panda, especially in stripping edible leaves from bamboo. The evolutionary hypothesis is that by the time pandas evolved from bears, all of the five digits were genetically "committed" in a way that precluded the first digit's becoming an opposable thumb, so the panda's need for a thumb was met through the odd arrangement described above. return to text
9Stephen Jay Gould, "Evolution as Fact and Theory," in Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes (New York: W.W. Norton, 1983), pp.258- 259, cited by Johnson on p. 76. return to text
10Gould asks, "Now, how am I supposed to uncover fossil evidence of hair, lactation and live birth? A profession finds the very best evidence it could, in exactly the predicted form and time, and a lawyer still tries to impeach us by rhetorical trickery. No wonder lawyer jokes are so popular in our culture" ("Impeaching a Self-Appointed Judge," p. 120). return to text
11In the back of the book there is a set of Research Notes for each chapters these notes identify the sources of quotations and contain further discussion and background information on the points covered in the chapter. Thus, the Research Notes serve most of the purposes of ordinary endnotes, with the advantage of being considerably more readable. return to text
12James A. Hopson, "The Mammal-like Reptiles: A Study of Transitional Fossils," The American Biology Teacher 49:1 (January 1987), pp. 16-26. return to text
13It may occur to the reader that Hopson could be basing his argument on special features of Gish's creation-science model, and that the arguments might not apply to other versions of special creation. This is not the case, however, and it seems to this scientific layman that Hopson's arguments are quite compelling. The reader is urged to consult the article and make her own evaluation. return to text
14Cited on p. 81; Johnson does not give the source. return to text
15Cited on p. 81; source not given. return to text
16Skeptics about early bipedality (such as Zuckerman and Johnson) have to come to term with the remarkable footprints found at Laetoli by Mary Leakey (see Mary D. Leakey, "Footprints in the Ashes of crime," National Geographic, April 1979, pp. 446-56). These footprints, dated at 3.6 million years, show an unmistakable upright walking posture. The two individuals who made them were rather small (estimated height around four feet), but the prints are so human-like in appearance that creation-scientists contend they were made by modern humans. It does appear that someone was walking around in those days! return to text
17See Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), and Imre Lakatos, The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes: Philosophical Papers, Volume I, ed. John Worrall and Gregory Currie (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978). Lakatos writes: "Important criticism is always constructive: there is no refutation without a better theory .... [W]hat normally happens is that progressive research programmes replace degenerating ones" (p. 6). Also, "A theory can only be eliminated by a better theory, that is, by one that has excess empirical content over its predecessors, some of which is subsequently confirmed" (p. 150). return to text
18Notice how nicely this fits in with Johnson's requirements. Evolution, he will tell us, has effectively been falsified, so we need a "new and better explanation," i.e., a special creationist explanation. Since we have already determined that evolution is unsatisfactory, we are spared the trouble of asking whether the creationist theory is any better, judged by objective standards, than the evolutionism we are abandoning. And it's a good thing we don't have to ask this, since there is not in fact any creationist theory on offer! return to text
19There may be cases in which a theory is abandoned without replacement, providing that the question the theory tried to answer is also abandoned-thus, we have abandoned theories of phrenology without replacement, because we are no longer concerned to ask how skull shape correlates with personality type; that is no longer a valid scientific question. But there is no likelihood that we shall abandon the question of the origins of living creatures! return to text
20The term "progressive creationism" is not employed by Johnson; I have borrowed it from Bernard Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954), pp. 260-293. return to text
21I wish to thank Howard J. Van Till, Frank Wilbur, and several anonymous referees for helpful comments on an earlier version of this review essay. return to text
(Hasker W., "Mr Johnson for the Prosecution," Christian Scholar's Review, Vol. XXII, No. 2, 1993, pp.177-186)[top of page]
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