Book review: Darwin on Trial
Committed Theistic Evolutionists (CTEs) are not having it all their own way. I refer to those who have enthusiastically embraced the materialist’s explanation for the origin and history of all things, while constantly assuring the Christian world that it’s ‘OK’ to do so. In fact, they insist, the only ones who would disbelieve evolution are those so committed to ‘biblical literalism’ as to blind them to fact.
In 1985 Michael Denton (a double-doctorate molecular biologist who is neither Christian nor creationist) published his Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. While taking long geological ages for granted, this very thorough hatchet job on the whole macro-evolutionary scenario made it a little harder for CTEs to persuade the Christian in the pew to accept evolution and twist or reject the Genesis record.
And now into the fray comes this new book, Darwin on Trial, by Phillip Johnson, law professor at a prestigious university (University of California at Berkeley). Johnson, while proclaiming himself a theist and a Christian, totally denies any (and evidences no) commitment to ‘biblical literalism’. He, too, writes as if long ages were fact. His interest came from reading, about the same time, both Denton’s book and Richard Dawkins’s proevolutionary The Blind Watchmaker. He has elsewhere, quite rightly, called Dawkins’s book a ‘brilliantly written polemic, and notable for the absence of supporting evidence.’
The responses to Johnson’s book so far by CTEs vary from enthusiasm to dismay, which highlights the fact that it puts them in a real dilemma. On the one hand, they have in him an ally as he assaults the materialistic philosophy which is pushed as an intrinsic part of evolution. CTEs have always insisted that belief in evolution does not mean belief in ‘evolutionism’ (their word for materialism, the belief that matter and chance are the ultimate realities). Also, Johnson makes it plain, right up front, that he would have no problems with believing that God ‘could have used’ a long, slow, evolutionary process. For him, there appear to be no awkward matters of biblical authority, and no reason to raise difficult questions about death before Adam or other Gospel-related matters (not one of those dreaded creation science fundamentalist types, you see).
So far, so good for CTEs. But now comes their two-fold problem. First. Johnson convincingly shows that evolution itself, as currently taught in all its facades and all its variously proposed mechanisms, is inherently materialist philosophy from start to finish. In the process, the ‘compatibilism’ approach of CTEs is painted as distinctly naive.
Second, like Denton, he is not just writing as a critic of a particular mechanism or interpretation of evolution. With his incisive legal mind, he systematically and calmly dissects the evidence for the whole transformist idea, and finds it utterly unconvincing, seriously flawed, based on circular reasoning, and propped up by ad hoc arguments (hence the embarrassment for CTEs who demand that God ‘did it that way’). He takes special and convincing aim at the very influential evolutionary apologetics of Stephen Gould. In short, he shows how this naturalistic ‘Darwinist religion’ (the title of one of his chapters) has become a non-falsifiable dogma.
Johnson does not try to replace evolution with any alternative explanation—he decisively rejects the logical fallacy that it is not permissible to expose the fatal flaws in a scientific theory until and unless one has a better one to put in its place. He writes as the coolheaded sceptic encouraging scientific agnosticism about origins, implying that he would have no problems with evolution/common descent (though he would prefer a theistic version) if the evidence was convincing.
I particularly enjoyed his rebuttal of Gould’s claim that evolution and religion are compatible because renowned evolutionist Dobzhansky was ‘a lifelong Russian Orthodox’. Johnson quotes from Dobzhansky to show beyond any doubt that evolution itself was the god he worshipped. Johnson compellingly demonstrates that the full religious agenda of evolution is rarely spelt out to the public. When we are assured that evolution in no way threatens religion, by this is meant ‘true religion’ as defined by their world view. To the common establishment claim (backed to the hilt by CTEs) that science and religion are ‘mutually exclusive areas of thought’ Johnson writes:
‘…they never meant that the realms of science and religion are of equal dignity and importance. Science for them is the realm of objective knowledge; religion is a matter of subjective belief. The two should not conflict because a rational person always prefers objective knowledge…[they hold that] religions which are based on intellectually untenable ideas (such as that there is a Creator who has somehow communicated His will to humans) are in the realm of fantasy.’
While the author nowhere deals harshly with biblical creationists, he seems to rule this framework out of court because it (along with the Darwinian one he attacks as ‘pseudoscience’, using the arguments of science-philosopher Karl Popper) is based on an a priori commitment. His closing chapter is a plea to ‘clear the decks’ of all pseudo-scientific baggage and allow science to operate by exposing the Darwinist framework (along with all others) to falsification.
He seems to suggest that only a truly unbiased, dispassionate examination of the evidence has a hope of getting us closer to the truth about origins. In fact, of course, no one is truly unbiased about such a subject, and the framework of thought within which you choose to operate will reflect that metaphysical bias. Clearing the decks of what the Creator Himself has revealed effectively holds that Genesis is not revealed truth about origins; merely an alternative bias.
The many well-presented anti-evolutionary arguments reveal the author’s very impressive scope of knowledge and understanding. The book’s powerful body-blow against the current dogmatism in science teaching will be of immense value to creationists who are struggling against evolution’s stranglehold on public education. While campaigns to compel specific creation teaching in public schools are, in our view, ill-advised for many reasons, it would be a major and realizable, advance, if anti-indoctrination, pro-openness positions like Johnson’s were to filter through to science teaching and curriculum statements.
Darwin on Trial differs from Denton’s book in dealing far more powerfully with the logical and philosophical areas. Anyone who has received a letter of reply from a politician or school principal defending the current pro-evolutionary dogmatism can confirm that the fundamental arguments they raise concern the philosophy of science and religion, not the actual evidence.
I would recommend all concerned Christians to become thoroughly familiar with this book, and to work to see it in every school, university and public library in their area. Secular authorities will find it hard to raise valid objections, as none of their usual arguments apply to this book. And getting your ‘true-believer-evolutionist’ acquaintances to read it should see barriers broken down in a good number of them.