Phillip Johnson. Photo from Berkeley Law, University of California.

Comments by Brian Shilhavy
Editor, Health Impact News

Law Professor Phillip Johnson passed away on November 2, 2019 at the age of 79.

I became aware of Professor Johnson in 1991 with the publication of his book, Darwin on Trial.

Johnson’s book was highly controversial, and changed American culture. In the early 1990s when he wrote this book, it was career suicide for anyone in academia to take a position against Darwinian evolution, and most of the criticisms of Darwin were found in religious circles under the teaching of “Creationism.”

It took a law professor like Phillip Johnson, who was not part of the field of biology or other natural sciences, to write a scholarly critique of Darwin’s theories without the threat of censorship, loss of funding, or losing tenure at a major U.S. University.

As a law professor at the prestigious University of California Berkeley, his voice demanded to be heard, as he took a legal approach to examine the evidence of Darwin’s theories.

Many believe that his foundational book, Darwin on Trial, was the beginning of the modern day “Intelligent Design” movement.

Intelligent Design separates itself from “Creationism” as it looks at the scientific evidence in the field of origins, and draws conclusions based on the scientific evidence, without relying on any religious teachings. It concludes that the science points to an intelligent design in nature, and leaves the question of “who” the designer is to religion.

We are including an article here written by David Klinghoffer, a Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute.

Remembering Phillip E. Johnson (1940-2019): The Man Who Lit the Match

by David Klinghoffer
Evolution News

Excerpts:

The Significance of Phillip Johnson

Phillip Johnson, law professor emeritus of UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, is widely recognized as the godfather of the contemporary intelligent design (ID) movement. As the author of several books and numerous articles explaining scientific, legal, and cultural dimension of the debate over ID and Darwinism, Johnson was one of the most prolific authors in the formative years of the movement.

It was Johnson’s 1991 book Darwin on Trial that first convinced many thinkers that neo-Darwinian evolution was buttressed more by a philosophy of naturalism than by the scientific evidence. Johnson’s influential writing became the magnet of scholars from a variety of fields — biology, chemistry, physics, philosophy, theology, and law — to forge the intelligent design movement.

The stories of many of these scientists and scholars are told in the volume Darwin’s Nemesis (InterVarsity Press, 2006). But Johnson too recounted — with humble surprise — the impact of his work in the 2008 volume Intelligent Design 101:

Fifteen years ago I published a book that I thought might add a few ounces of balance to the debate over Darwin’s theory of evolution. The main thrust of that book, Darwin on Trial, was that evolution is propped up more by naturalistic philosophy than by the scientific evidence.

Much to my pleasant surprise, this book turned out to be the match that lit the tinder beneath a stockpile of dry logs. This is not to my credit; the logs had been piled high, and the tinder gathered. Darwinian naturalists had accumulated a large stock of public discontent. [p. 23]

The Right Questions

Part of Johnson’s vision as a legal scholar has been knowing how to ask the right questions. The 1980s was an era of controversy for Biblical creationists. While young earth creationists and old earth creationists squabbled about whether Noah rode a dinosaur, or a camel onto the Ark, elite materialists were happy to take over the culture.

With the mind of a law professor, Johnson was a master at spotting issues. And the key issue he saw in the origins debate was not the age of the earth or the differing interpretations of Genesis by Christians. It was a more fundamental question of interest to theists and non-theists alike: Is life the result of blind, undirected natural causes, or is it the result of purposeful design? By focusing on this question, Johnson transformed the entire origins debate. Johnson continues:

Darwin on Trial became a uniting force around which many like-minded individuals — scholars of many stripes, churchgoers, students, and even open-minded agnostics who dared extend their skepticism to Darwin — could rally. For many, that rallying cry ultimately became “Intelligent Design!”

It has been often said that all truth passes through three stages. First it is ignored. Then it is violently opposed. Finally, it is accepted as being self-evident. This seems to be the arc that intelligent design is traversing.

Objective Education, Not Censorship

Many were content to ignore Johnson’s ideas until they actually started to impact public education. In 1999, members of the Kansas State Board of Education voted to soften the dogmatism that had dominated evolution-instruction.

Yet Johnson was critical of the 1999 Kansas decision because it removed some aspects of macroevolution from the curriculum. Johnson has always been a proponent of objective education — not censorship. He argued in The Wedge of Truth that students should learn both the evidence for and against Darwinian evolution:

What educators in Kansas and elsewhere should be doing is to ‘teach the controversy.’ Of course students should learn the orthodox Darwinian theory and the evidence that supports it, but they should also learn why so many are skeptical, and they should hear the skeptical arguments in their strongest form rather than in a caricature intended to make them look as silly as possible.

In 2001, the Ohio State Board followed Johnson’s approach and required students to critically analyze the evidence for and against Darwinian evolution. Objective evolution education had won.

It was around this time that Darwin-lobbyists realized that they better stop ignoring Johnson, and start telling the world that unless students are prevented from questioning Darwinism, the sky will fall.

What You Saw, What You Got

ID critics quickly learned that the most effective way to target ID was not to address its arguments, but to make accusations of secret, sinister motives among proponents. One imagines the godfather Phillip Johnson in a smoky dark room handing “wedge documents” to his eager followers, charging them to go forth and baptize converts to intelligent design.

On the contrary, with Phillip Johnson, what you see is what you get. As John Mark Reynolds explains in Darwin’s Nemesis:

Phillip Johnson is one of those rare individuals who is always the same person. He asks the same hard questions in Sunday School as he does in the Berkeley classroom. He has a unified personality. I have seen him in hundreds of different situations, and there is no split in his soul. [p. 27]

While Johnson wouldn’t flatter himself with such praise, he too observes that he has never hidden anything. “I always find these conspiracy theories amusing because our strategy has been transparent from the beginning,” writes Johnson. “After all, I titled my fifth book The Wedge of Truth: Splitting the Foundations of Naturalism.”

What is more striking is Johnson’s gentlemanly responses to critics. “He is not a hater, not even of his enemies,” writes John Mark Reynolds. “This is why so many who disagree with him can still respect him…He suffers fools gladly.” (Darwin’s Nemesis, pp. 26-27)

Ironically, intemperate efforts to attack Johnson often ended up drawing people to him, creating a growing network of scientists and other scholars interested in intelligent design. Biochemist Michael Behe explains how a biased critique of Darwin on Trial in the journal Science led Behe to join the ID movement:

The news item made me so mad that I wrote a letter to the editor of Science, which they published … I wrote that this Johnson fellow appears from his book to be a rather intelligent layman, and that scientists would do much better to address the substance of his arguments than to rely on ad hominem attacks. About a week later I received a letter with a return address of Boalt Hall. … I was now in the loop—I was within the circle of Phil Johnson’s acquaintances and useful contacts. [Darwin’s Nemesis, pp. 44-45]

Behe’s story is not unusual for members of the ID movement. Attracted by his intellect, character, and boldness, a new generation of scientists and scholars became connected to each other through Johnson.

The Godfather

Some critics would like to call Johnson the father of ID. In fact, they sometimes claim that Johnson, a non-scientist, invented the term “intelligent design” as a scheme to get around a 1987 Supreme Court ruling that declared creationism unconstitutional.

Aside from the fact that this story isn’t true, it’s also grossly anachronistic. ID thinking and arguments date back to the ancient Greeks, and even in its modern form, the term “intelligent design” was used long before Johnson got involved with the issue, and before any court contemplated creationism.

In this sense, Johnson is not, and cannot be the “father” of intelligent design. But the Godfather? Most definitely.

Read the full article at Evolution News.