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World Magazine December 13, 2003

Dr. Phillip Johnson is World Magazine's "Daniel of the Year"

By John Perry

A TRIUMPHANT THEORY gathers lots of momentum in 144 years. Its gravitational field comes to include the most respected scientists, the most prestigious institutions, and the massive weight of popular opinion. Its true believers gain research grants and build their academic careers upon it. Its veracity goes unquestioned, its assumptions unchallenged.

But what if it's wrong? What if it's built not on a rock but on the shifting sands of conjecture, junk science, and political correctness?

In a perfect world, legitimate challenges to the theory would be welcomed. But in the public and professional world of Darwinian evolutionism, 144 years of received wisdom threaten the careers and reputations of all who oppose it. What quixotic and clueless renegade would dare to stand fast against Darwin's irresistible force?

Enter a courtly, mild-mannered but confident law professor who makes no claims as a scientist but who knows a sloppy argument when he sees one. Enter Phillip Johnson, WORLD's Daniel of the Year for 2003.

Our previous five Daniels—John Ashcroft, Franklin Graham, Ken Starr, Sudan's Michael Yerko, and Christian teens who faced killers at Columbine High School and Wedgwood Baptist Church—did not go looking for trouble, but trouble came to them because they refused to bow to the idols of our time. So it has been with Phil Johnson, whose road to intellectual combat began innocently: Fifteen years ago, during a sabbatical from his endowed chair at the University of California, Berkeley, the law professor saw a book through the window of a London shop that caught his interest.

The Blind Watchmaker, by Richard Dawkins, was a vigorous defense of Darwinian evolution. The more he read, the more Mr. Johnson believed that the arguments in support of random creation and natural selection were hollow and indefensible. Here was a fundamental scientific theory—invincible on the surface—built on suppositions and surviving in secret through inertia and intimidation.

Mr. Johnson answered in 1991 with a book of his own, Darwin on Trial. He made no effort to replace the evolutionary theory of Darwin with something else: His expertise is in assessing evidence. His only point was that the logic and argument that evolutionists from Darwin forward depended upon was insufficient to make their case. "The question I want to investigate," he wrote in the first chapter, "is whether Darwinism is based upon a fair assessment of the scientific evidence, or whether it is another kind of fundamentalism."

Over the next 150 pages or so Mr. Johnson systematically annihilated the Darwinist claims that evolution was a fact beyond question. Like a black belt in judo, he used his opponents' own weight against them. Selective breeding as an explanation for evolving species? "The reason that dogs don't become as big as elephants, much less change into elephants, is not that we just haven't been breeding them long enough. Dogs do not have the genetic capacity for that degree of change." Fossils as proof of Darwin's theory? "If evolution means the gradual change of one kind of organism into another kind, the outstanding characteristic of the fossil record is the absence of evidence for evolution."

Darwinians were apoplectic. William Provine, an evolutionary biologist at Cornell, thought the book was "worse than most of the garden-variety creationist tracts." Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, writing in Scientific American, called Darwin on Trial "a very bad book ... full of errors, badly argued, based on false criteria, and abysmally written."

The personal and professional attacks against Mr. Johnson continue to the present day, in part because he's a Christian and therefore suspect. Like a lawyer, he relies on expert witnesses in preparing his case, but that doesn't keep Darwinians from jumping on him because he's not a scientist himself. Educators, science department chairs, and even some Christian professors and leaders condemn him. Mr. Johnson responds, "When you challenge one of those givens, of course you risk being identified as a loony and excluded from a respectable conversation. I've had to deal with some harsh words, but that's the lot of anyone who takes a controversial position ... it's a contact sport!"

Phil Johnson became used to contact at an early age: He entered Harvard at 17, was first in his law-school class at the University of Chicago, and clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren. Now his base of operations is a Berkeley neighborhood 10 minutes from San Francisco Bay that—except for the later model cars parked at the curb—could be straight out of the 1940s. The quiet streets are lined with clapboard or stucco bungalows built so close together that there's barely room for a driveway between them. Picture windows keep watch over a sidewalk broken here and there by the roots of old trees. Small porches are awash in potted flowers. Several chimneys still have old television aerials strapped to them with rusted metal bands.

Mr. Johnson answers the door in a long-sleeved blue-checked sport shirt open at the collar, khakis, and comfortable shoes. He doesn't look like an iconic figure in the battle to challenge the international Darwinist juggernaut; he looks like a college professor with 36 years of teaching under his belt. Two characteristics set him apart from the average 60-something California bungalow dweller. First, his eyes, which fairly burn with the fire of new ideas and the passion to discuss them. Second, his wonderful and rich baritone voice, strong and articulate even at low volume, masterfully modulated and never raised above the level of normal conversation.

There's no obvious evidence of the devastating right-brain stroke he suffered in the summer of 2001, just after his 61st birthday, but he begins a conversation with mention of it. "A right-brain stroke does not affect speech or language capacity, but it does affect the organization of things," he explains, "even like telling you how to get to the house. That's why Kathie [his wife of 22 years] gave you directions."

And so, at an age and with medical experience that would lead many to retire, Mr. Johnson patiently explains for the nth time the central issue: "The assumed creative power of the Darwinian mechanism, natural selection, was never proved. In fact, the scientific evidence viewed without bias not only fails to support the claim that random mutation and natural selection can create marvels of intricate, organized complexity, the evidence actually tends to show that the mechanism has no such power. I say we must evaluate the evidence independently of any commitment to naturalism. This horrifies the mandarins of science" because they share a dark secret: "Evolutionary science has attempted to provide an alternative to the creation and has failed."

The tiny changes evolutionists point to as proof of their theory, Mr. Johnson insists, are inconsequential. Natural selection may cause a population of moths to change color as their environment changes. But that in no way proves the same process could eventually turn a fish into a human being: "Natural selection has no creative power. It only produces trivial and temporary population shifts. Anyone who says natural selection can produce a plant or animal is making that statement on naked faith, regardless of what one thinks about the Bible."

But once someone accepts the fact that random evolution couldn't produce life on Earth, it has to have developed some other way. "I looked for the best place to start the search," Mr. Johnson says, "and I found it in the prologue to the Gospel of John: 'In the beginning was the Word.' And I asked this question: Does scientific evidence tend to support this conclusion, or the contrary conclusion of the materialists that 'in the beginning were the particles'?"

Mr. Johnson notes that "if we start with the Gospel's basic explanation of the meaning of creation, we see that it is far better supported by scientific investigation than the contrary. At this point we haven't proved the Bible's claims about creation, but we've removed a powerful obstacle in the way of such belief. And all I really want to do with the scientific evidence is to clear away the obstacle that it presents to a belief that the creator is the God of the Bible.

"In my own development I first addressed the issue without reference to the Bible at all. I came to the conclusion that the scientific evidence just doesn't support the central claims of the Darwinian theory. It tends to refute them. But then I thought if Darwinism is not true, what is? If you can't do the creating without an Intelligent Designer, a creator, then there must be a creator." In subsequent books including Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, Reason in the Balance, The Wedge of Truth, and The Right Questions, Mr. Johnson argued persuasively that a supernatural power or Intelligent Designer had to have guided the creation and development of life.

That, of course, is anathema to many scientists—and of all the questions scientists argue about, the issue of evolution versus creationism has also captured the public's interest like none other. Darwin's Origin of Species was the talk of Victorian drawing rooms in 1859. The Scopes "monkey" trial of 1925 brought the biggest crowd of telegraph operators in all of history to tiny Dayton, Tenn., to send daily dispatches of Bible-against-science testimony to newspapers around the globe. Today the question of how life began and progressed is still hotly debated in scientific circles, school textbook committees, and thousands of places in between.

Instead of fighting on, it would be easy for Phil Johnson to ease into a comfortable retirement—but he has a story to tell and a passion to tell it, and neither physical condition nor barbs from evolutionists are keeping him from the task. He has become the leader of a growing movement to expose Darwin and his followers as naked emperors whose presumptions wither in the light of unprejudiced inquiry. He keeps going for the joy of demolishing a bad argument, and because the answer to whether God created the world affects everything else.

"It's a great error Christian leaders and intellectual leaders have made to think the origin of life just one of those things scientists and professors argue about," Mr. Johnson says. "The fundamental question is whether God is real or imaginary. The entire way of thinking that underlies Darwinian evolution assumes that God is out of the picture as any kind of a real entity." He points out that "it is a very short step from Darwinism in science to the kind of liberal theology we find in many of our seminaries that treats the resurrection as a faith event —something that didn't happen but was imagined by the disciples—and assumes that morality is something human beings may change from time to time as it's convenient to change it."

Resistance from some Christians to Intelligent Design has been one of Mr. Johnson's biggest surprises and greatest disappointments. He expected many scientists to attack him because their careers depend on Darwinism: "The more frustrating thing has been the Christian leaders and pastors, especially Christian college and seminary professors. The problem is not just convincing them that the theory is wrong, but that it makes a difference. What's at stake isn't just the first chapter of Genesis, but the whole Bible from beginning to end, and whether or not nature really is all there is."

Taking Christian morality out of the culture is the logical consequence of the acceptance of Darwinism. That has led to no-fault divorce, legalized abortion, a pro-homosexuality agenda, and all the other tragedies of Darwinist moral relativism. If creation is random and purposeless, all truth is relative and God is rightly "relegated to the Never-never Land of Zeus and Santa Claus." Mr. Johnson explains, "Once God is culturally determined to be imaginary, then God's morality loses its foundation and withers away. It may stay standing for a historical moment without a foundation until the winds of change blow hard enough to knock it over, like [a cartoon character] staying suspended for an instant after he runs off the cliff. We're at the end of that period now."

In some ways it seems like Christians are continuing to lose ground in the public forum and, a lifetime after the Scopes trial, still haven't been successful at establishing their position in the intellectual world—but maybe that's because of the pridefulness of those who think themselves wise. Mr. Johnson says, "Sometimes a problem is simple rather than complex, and this is a simple problem. It has a simple answer that turns on one issue: Are Christians talking about something real or something imaginary?"

He continues, "When we speak of God, Jesus, the resurrection, are we speaking of things that really happened or the things that occur only in a mythical land called religious belief? If the God of the Bible really is our creator, cares about us and what we do, then our culture has made a terrible mistake in turning away from this God because we haven't just changed a religious belief, we have repudiated reality."

Phillip Johnson has made it his mission to correct that mistake and the wrong-headed thinking that led to it. He speaks all over the country, heads the Wedge (an organization dedicated to promoting the Intelligent Design theory), and produces a flurry of internet correspondence. He is also a Daniel who befriends the lions, treats them with courtliness, annihilates them on the intellectual battlefield, humbly yet effectively neutralizes their desperate ad hominem attacks, then invites them out to dinner—preferably Indian.

And he does not give up. At the end of an interview just before Thanksgiving, he volunteered that his next speaking engagement, an hour's flight away in Los Angeles, would be his first trip since the stroke without his wife along. No doubt he would walk through the airport unrecognized, his sparkling eyes shaded by a rumpled and professorial hat. Then on to the auditorium, back into the lions' den of his own accord where, smiling and without ever raising his voice, he would once more show that life is more than time plus chance, because in the beginning there was the Word.

—John Perry, author of many biographies, is working on a book about the Scopes trial

File Date: 12.13.03

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