A REVIEW OF:
An Easy-To-Understand Guide For
Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds(1)
Phillip E. Johnson
James Kidder, Ph.D.
University of Tennessee/Oak Ridge National Laboratory
In his first foray into the world of evolutionary biology, Darwin on Trial2, Phillip Johnson raised the issue that the practice of evolutionary biology did not allow for the formation of non-mainstream ideas on the subject and was, thus, circular in its interpretation of the data. This ought be a valid concern to all scientists and Mr. Johnson's criticisms should not be taken lightly. In his new book, Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds1 however, Johnson has gone one step further by proposing that not only is "Darwinism" (a term he never clearly defines) a lie but that its perpetuation in the scientific community must be contested. In his first book, he presented the illusion of being open-minded. Here he does not. This is even suggested by the title. If our minds are to be open, should we not be "assessing" Darwinism rather than "Defeating" it?
The book has two main parts: 1. What people have said about evolutionary theory, and 2. the theory of evolution and the nature of science in general. The first is meant to lead into the second.
In the first part, it is hard to find fault with Johnson's method of attack. He seizes on the statements of well-known individuals and organizations that have stuck their necks out very far in defense of evolutionary theory. His opening example is a statement from the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) from 1995 which read, in part:
The diversity of life on earth is the outcome of evolution: an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.(NABT)3Subsequently, in response to criticisms regarding the use of the words "unsupervised" and "impersonal", the NABT removed these words from their mission statement4
He also makes great use of famed evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley, who wrote:
In the evolutionary pattern of thought there is no longer either need or room for the supernatural. The earth was not created, it evolved. So did all the animals and plants that inhabit it, including our human selves, mind and soul as well as brain and body. So did religion. (Huxley 1960)5. (Mr. Johnson did not provide this citation).It is in Johnson's best interest to point these things out. However, while these statements are forceful, neither is scientifically defensible. The reason this is so stems from the nature of science and the nature of philosophy. As with all other scientific theories, evolutionary theory cannot confer meaning on the world. One would not use the theory of gravity to examine whether or not angels and demons exist. The same is true for the theory of evolution. Huxley's statement that evolution creates a world free of the supernatural imbues evolutionary theory with a power that it does not have, nor could have.
The biological theory of evolution states that organisms are modified in form through descent and that this modification is a result of changing gene frequencies. Evolution can only describe this in terms of the natural world. The theory is silent about the creation of life or of the world. It simply does not have that kind of explanatory power.
In recent years, A vocal minority of scientists, however, have loudly stated that evolution denies the existence of God. They believe that modern science can relieve us of the "burden" of supernatural ideas (Depew 1995)6. Recent supporters of this viewpoint are PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne. This is philosophical naturalism. Johnson has focused his attack on this extreme position, and is correct to point out the philosophical errors of these individuals and organizations. He is also correct to say that if these are the prevailing educational trends, they represent a bias in the scientific establishment. But he is not correct in this assessment.
Having spent some twenty years working in a biological science, I am not convinced that this is the case. My experience is that the vast majority of scientists go about their business neither trying to prove or disprove the existence of God. They simply perform science as though things around us behave in an ordered way. This is known as methodological naturalism. This method of investigation works and it works very well.
Once the reader gets to the second part of the book, the discussion of evolution, the fossil record and science in general, the wheels fall off. The book, as a whole, suffers from three major problems: 1. misuse of analogy; 2. lack of understanding of the palaeontological record, and 3. mischaracterization of scientific arguments concerning evolutionary theory.
1. Misuse of analogy
Phillip Johnson demonstrates time and again in this book a knack for creating analogies out of potentially complex concepts or events. Unfortunately, in many cases, these analogies are either incorrect or misleading.
Johnson tells a fictionalized account of the Challenger Space shuttle disaster in which a no-name student suggests that tragedy will strike if they do not postpone the launch due to cold weather. Because she is unknown, no one listens to her, although she has worked out all of the calculations completely. Tragedy does strike and all aboard are killed. This analogy is particular effective because it has dual implications. First, as is clear from the context of the analogy, the student is meant to represent the well-thought out critical analysis of the non-evolutionist and the NASA engineers the unyielding, uncritical, non-self examining evolutionary perspective. On the second level, the student represents the anti-establishment whose ideas do not match those of the mainstream and will, therefore, never be accepted. Thus, science will continue like a juggernaut, never questioning its conclusions.
The problem is that on the first level, the notion that creation scientists carefully work out their calculations has been shown to be rarely true (For original arguments, see Morris (1989)7, Akridge (1980)8, Slusher (1980)9, and Lubenow (2003)10. For rebuttals of many of these arguments, see Strahler (1987)11 and Foley (1998)12) In the vast majority of cases, the evidence for creation scientists' arguments are found wanting or consist of unwarranted extrapolations of isolated phenomena to global models. Contrary to the claims of many creationists, the scientific community does not reject their claims because of the revolutionary nature, but because they do not withstand scientific scrutiny. I have personally read Lubenow's book and it can only be described as dreadful. It is the only book that I can think of that I have read in recent memory in which there are errors on nearly every page.
On the second level, the notion that no-name scientists are never heard simply does not bear up historically. While there certainly are unfortunate cases of suppression, many discoveries and inventions have arisen from work by scientists that were not considered to be in the mainstream. Charles Darwin was an unknown naturalist who started as a divinity student. The names of George Gaylord Simpson, Ernst Mayr, Theodosius Dobzhansky and Sewall Wright were completely unknown in the 1930's before they formulated the new evolutionary synthesis. History is replete with figures who have challenged the prevailing paradigms of their field and, in so doing, have revolutionized science. What sets them apart is that the hypotheses they constructed are supported by the available evidence and have stood the test of time. In no case has that been shown for a creationist argument.
Johnson uses the story of Santa Claus to illustrate the argument that belief in the supernatural is unscientific. Little kids start out believing in Santa Claus until that belief is dashed by the knowledge that it is their parents that are leaving the presents for them. As nice as this analogy might sound, it is overly simplistic and misleading. While there are certainly supernatural aspects of believing in both Santa Claus and God, the similarity ends there. There is no evidence suggesting that Santa Claus exists and considerable observational data suggesting he does not. To my knowledge, there is no such evidence for the existence or non-existence of God. No one has ever believed in God only to discover that it was kindly Mrs. Boopfaddle four doors down who was responsible for the operation of the universe.
On several occassions, Johnson equates the acceptance of evolution with a belief in some sort of anti-religious social order. Using an analogy from the movie Inherit the Wind, he makes the following statement:
"At the very end of the film the wise defense lawyer, played by Spencer Tracy, weighs the Bible and On The Origin of Species in his hands, shrugs and then puts the two books together in his briefcase. The implied message is that the two are equivalent and compatible. The Book of Nature and the Word of God are in agreement, provided the latter is interpreted in the light provided by the former. The closing gesture assures the audience that Darwinian naturalism does not aim to abolish Christianity but to liberalize it so that it is compatible with a properly scientific understanding of our origins. Fundamentalist resistance to evolution is thus shown to be not only unintelligent and futile but also unnecessary." (p. 100)This analogy suggests that "Darwinism" is a social philosophy which dictates behaviour rather than a scientific theory. Properly practiced, evolutionary theory rises or falls on its own merits, not some psychosocial interpretation of it. As mentioned earlier, that Julian Huxley believes that modern science can explain away God does not make it so. Discussions of the sociology of agnosticism by antievolutionists, while purporting to have a base in science, largely occur in the absence of it. Witness the recent reviews of the Richard Dawkins book The God Delusion. It was pasted by scientists who argued that it overreached and transgressed into psychosocial realms to which evolutionary theory could not go. As H. Allen Orr wrote:
Despite my admiration for much of Dawkins’s work, I’m afraid that I’m among those scientists who must part company with him here. Indeed, The God Delusion seems to me badly flawed. Though I once labeled Dawkins a professional atheist, I’m forced, after reading his new book, to conclude he’s actually more an amateur. I don’t pretend to know whether there’s more to the world than meets the eye and, for all I know, Dawkins’s general conclusion is right. But his book makes a far from convincing case.Creationists such as Henry Morris (1989)13 have recently used the acceptance of evolutionary theory as an explanation of the evils of society. This suggests that before there was Darwin, there was no evil. A cursory glance at the Bible and human history prior to 1859 would strongly suggest otherwise. Evolutionary theory is exactly that, a theory. No more, no less. If it has support, it goes on. If it is found scientifically wanting, it is discarded, like so many theories before it.
2. Lack of Understanding of the Palaeontological Record
On numerous occasions, in attempting the discredit the fossil record, Johnson betrays a general lack of knowledge of this record.
He states on page 39:
So don't be impressed by claims that specific fossils, like the bird/reptile Archaeopteryx and the Hominid Lucy, prove the theory of evolution. All such fossils are at most possible ancestors of living groups (like modern birds and humans), and a lot of interpretation is involved in classifying them.It is unfortunate that he has chosen Lucy to argue this point. Australopithecus afarensis, of which Lucy is a representative, is, perhaps, one of the best examples of a transitional species in the entire fossil record. There are very few characteristics of this hominid species that are not transitional. To detail but a few:
- The first premolar in apes (or bicuspid if you prefer) is long and rotated toward the front of the mouth. This is so it can constantly sharpen the maxillary canine as the ape bites down. This is known as a "sectorial premolar". In humans, this tooth is rotated so that the cusp division is parallel to the tooth row and does not stick up beyond it. The maxillary canine is, correspondingly, short. In Australopithecus afarensis, this tooth is rotated HALF-WAY and partially sticks up from the tooth row. The canine is shortened as in modern humans.
- The palate of the mouth in apes is shaped like a hard "U" with the back teeth parallel to each other. In humans, the palate is more "V" shaped. In A. afarensis, it is intermediate between these two shapes.
- In apes, there is a distinct space between the canine and the first premolar, called a diastema. In humans, this space is absent. In A. afarensis, a diastema is present but it is remarkably reduced in size over the ape condition.
- The digits (phalanges) on both the hands and feet are curved, as in apes. In humans, they are straight.
- The pelvis is flared (wide from side to side) and short from top to bottom, as in humans. In apes, it is narrow and long from top to bottom.
- The hole in the skull where the spinal chord exits the brain, the foramen magnum, is located on the bottom of the skull in Australopithecus afarensis, as in humans. In apes, the foramen magnum is located more toward the back of the skull. Having a hole at the base strongly suggests a bipedal gait.
- the knee joint, which preserves the bottom (distal) section of the femur and the top (proximal) section of the tibia shows that the femur is angled, as in humans. In apes, the femur does not angle but goes straight up from the knee. The afarensis position, once again, reflects bipedalism.
A similar scenario is present for Archaeopteryx, which has many intermediate characteristics. For a complete treatment of this fossil, please go to "All About Archaeopteryx", located at http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/archaeopteryx/info.html . Johnson remarks about the recent find in Java that Homo erectus populations may have coexisted along with archaic human and modern human populations in a fairly circumscribed geographical area. He quotes the article as saying that it is not known whether the three groups could interbreed. He then makes the statement:
Such huge areas of uncertainty support my view that general conclusions about evolution should not be drawn from the human fossil record, where the evidence is scanty and the temptation to subjectivity in interpretation is particularly great. Today's "fact" is likely to be tomorrow's discarded theory.If we are not to draw our inferences about evolution from the fossil record, from where are we to draw them? Ultimately, our understanding of evolution comes from that very same record. We have nowhere else to go. Further, the statement that "...the evidence is scanty" is vague and unsupported. What does he mean by "scanty"? In 1924, when Raymond Dart discovered the Taung child in limestone, the first thing that struck him were the transitional elements. By the 1970's thousands of bone and tooth fragments had been discovered throughout Africa, representing several hundred individual australopithecines. The same can be said of Homo erectus, with finds of at least 50 individuals throughout China and East Asia. When Neandertal fossils first started being unearthed in the early 1800's, it was thought that they represented abherrant modern humans. By the early part of the 1900's, there were too many of them to support this conclusion. It became clear that they represented a modern human precursor. On some finds of later australopithecines, characteristics can be found that are found on the earliest Homo erectus fossils. At the late end of Homo erectus, there are characteristics that are present on the earliest archaic Homo sapiens. The exact relationships between these groups is, at times, unclear, but the progression is not. In the case of the area of human evolution in which I work, the origins of modern humans, there is no question that archaic Homo sapiens gave rise to modern Homo sapiens. The question is where and when did it happen. For complete treatments of these issues, please see Smith et al. (1989)16, Stringer (1996)17 and Wolpoff (1996)18.
3. Mischaracterization of scientific arguments concerning evolutionary theory.
It is here that Phillip Johnson's book fails the most. There are numerous examples in which he makes bald statements about evolution that simply do not reflect current thought.
On page 78, he states:
Most molecular biologists accept Darwinism uncritically because they are scientific materialists and have no alternative, but the Darwinian mechanism plays no role in their science.This is simply untrue. There are a vast number of molecular biologists (those who study genes and their role in biology), Vincent Sarich19, Alan Templeton20, David Maddison21, Allan Wilson23, Mark Stoneking
Theories of chemical and biological evolution aim to contradict my hypothesis of intelligent design, by showing that purposeless natural processes can do the creating by evolution.(p. 43)Evolutionary theory simply states that evolution as it is thought to have occurred is opportunistic. This process is neither random nor is it necessarily purposeless. To say that something is purposeless is to know the moving force behind it. We do not know this. Contrary to the statements of the NATB and Julian Huxley, we cannot know whether or not evolution is purposeless. The theory does not permit it.
On Page 57, Johnson asks us to use terms precisely and consistently.
Evolution is a term of many meanings, and the meanings have a way of changing without notice. Dog breeding and finch-beak variations are frequently cited as typical examples of evolution. So is the fact that all the differing races of humans descend from a single parent, or even that Americans today are larger on average than they were a century ago (due to better nutrition). If relatively minor variations like that were all evolution were about, there would be no controversy , and even the strictest biblical fundamentalists would be evolutionists.Firstly, I would ask Mr. Johnson to show how the terms have changed. Ever since the turn of the century, evolution as it applies to biological entities has been easy to define: change in gene frequencies in a population over time. It has never meant more than that. That information can be found in any basic textbook on the subject (e.g. Futuyma 1986(26), Grant 1991(27), and Levinton 1988(28), Evolution is thought to act through four major forces: mutation, selection, genetic drift and genetic flow. These have also not changed in more than 100 years. Whether you are a punctuationalist or a gradualist, those four forces make things happen.
The example of dog breeding being evolution is correct. The breeders purposefully chose dogs with certain physical characteristics or temperaments and used them to sire the next generation. Whether it is artificial selection or natural selection, it is evolution. His statement about all humans being descended from a single parent is a peculiar read of the replacement theory of modern human origins. Firstly, no palaeoanthropologist, not even the most ardent replacement promotor, would ever say that the human race is descended from one parent. An effective population size (the smallest number of people to keep a population going for more than a few generations) for humans is around 50 people. The human population likely never got anywhere near this low a number. Secondly, this is only one interpretation of the available data and, therefore, is not a "fact" as one is normally described. Thirdly, the origins of modern humans can hardly be called a "minor variation", since it involves the change from archaic Homo sapiens into modern Homo sapiens, an area many creationists have trouble with.
On page 59, he states
Don't let anybody tell you that mechanism is mere detail; it's what the controvery is mainly about. When critics subject the mechanism to detailed criticism, Darwinists very quickly run out of evidence. That's when they want to substitute a vague "fact" which will later be inflated to include the whole theory. It's another example of bait and switch.Johnson clearly has not done his homework. If I were to list the available evidence supporting evolution, we would be here a very long time and you would have to read several thousand pages. No vague "facts" here. Johnson is right, the mechanism is extremely important, and the mechanism is sound. Very few palaeontologists debate that evolution has occcurred (including Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge, despite some creationists' claims to the contrary). What is debated is the timing of evolution. In some parts of the fossil record, it appears that evolution has proceeded slowly with some species arising from those before. This is known as phyletic gradualism. It appears to have characterized major parts of the human fossil record. In other parts of the fossil record, evolution appears to have proceeded quickly with the fairly sudden appearance of multiple species. In 1972, Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge29 formulated a mechanism that could explain this suddenness: punctuated equilibrium. It is likely that all lineages are subject to both gradualism and punctuationism throughout their history. These mechanisms are scientifically sound.
There are numerous other examples in which Johnson's reading of the fossil record or of evolutionary theory is lacking. Additionally, it is worth noting a scholarly problem. Johnson is remarkably selective in the citations he provides. In some instances, they are referred to in the end notes, which serve as a running commentary. In other instances, citations are missing. While this may be an acceptable practice for non-scientific disciplines, it is not acceptable for a book assessing the merits of a scientific theory.
I would encourage anyone interested in this area to read this book, if for no other reason than to find out where creationism is headed. With its sweeping generalizations and half-truths, however, it will likely raise the blood pressure of the average scientist. Johnson, in many ways, represents the new attack against evolutionary theory, which is not just to attack the fossil record but to argue that it represents an evil in the world to be stamped out. While he does not particularly succeed at either point, he does point out the limitations of the science of evolution and what we can and cannot get away with saying. He has rightly called Julian Huxley, the NABT and some others on the carpet for saying things about evolution that cannot be supported. For that, he is to be commended. In many instances, however, he has simply not got his information correct. He must do this if he is to be taken seriously in the scientific community.
(Numbers in parentheses at the end of each citation refer to text notes)
Akridge, R (1980) The Sun Is Shrinking. ICR Impact Series no. 82:i-iv. San Diego: Institute for Creation Research. (8)
Cann, R L (1992) A mitochondrial perspective on replacement or continuity in human evolution. In G Brauer and F H Smith (eds) Continuity or Replacement: Controversies in Homo sapiens Evolution. Rotterdam: A A Balkema (24)
Depew, D (1995) Darwinism Evolving: Systems Dynamics and the Genealogy of Natural Selection. Cambridge: MIT Press (6)
Foley, Jim (1998) Fossil Hominids. The Talk Origins Archive Avalaible at http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/fossil-hominids.html Futuyma, D (1986) Evolutionary Biology. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, Inc. (26)
Goodman, M (1986) Rates of molecular evolution: the hominoid slowdown. Bioessays 3: 9-14. (25)
Gould, S J and N Eldredge (1977) Punctuated equlibria: the tempo and mode of evolution reconsidered. Paleobiology 3: 115-151. (29)
Grant, V (1991) The Evolutionary Process: A Critical Study. New York: Columbia University Press. (27)
Huxley, J (1960) The evolutionary vision. In Evolution After Darwin: The University of Chicago Centennial. Volume III: Issues in Evolution (5)
Johanson, D C, M Taieb and Y Coppens (1982) Pliocene hominids from the Hadar formation, Ethiopia (1973-1977): stratigraphic, chronologic, and paleoenvironmental contexts, with notes on hominid morphology and systematics. Am J Phys Anthropol 57(4): 545-604. (15)
Johanson, D C and M Edey (1981) Lucy, the Beginnings of Humankind. New York: Simon and Schuster. (14)
Johnson, P E (1995) Darwin on Trial. Downer's Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press. (2)
Johnson, P E (1997) An Easy-To-Understand Guide For Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds. Downer's Grove, Illinois:Intervarsity Press. (1)
Levinton, J (1988) Genetics, Paleontology and Macroevolution. New York: Cambridge University Press. (28)
Lubenow M L (2003): Bones of contention: a creationist assessment of human fossils. Grand Rapids,MI:Baker Books (10)
Maddison, D R (1991) African origin of human mitochondrial DNA reexamined. Systematic Zoology 40: 355-363. (21)
Morris, H (1989) The Long War Against God. Ada: Baker-Books. (13)
Morris, J D (1989) "Was 'Lucy' an Ape-man?" Back to Genesis. Acts & Facts November: d. (7)
National Association of Biology Teachers. (1995) Annual Policy Statement. (3)
National Center for Science Education Reports (1997) v. 17(6): 4 (4)
Sarich, V (1968) The origins of the hominids: an immunological approach. In S L Washburn and P C Jay (eds) Perspectives on Human Evolution. New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston (19)
Slusher, H (1980) Age of the Cosmos. ICR Technical Monograph no. 9. San Diego: Institute for Creation Research (9)
Smith, F H, A B Falsetti and S M Donnelly (1989) Modern human origins. Yrbk Phys Anthropol 32: 35-68. (16)
Stoneking, M (1994) In defense of "Eve"--a response to Templeton's critique. Am Anthropol 96(1): 131-141. (22)
Strahler, A. (1987) Science and Earth History. Prometheus Press. (11)
Stringer, C B (1996) African Exodus: The Origin of Modern Humanity. London: Jonathan Cape (17)
Templeton, A (1981) Mechanism of speciation--a population approach. Ann Review Ecol 12:23-48. (20)
Vigilant, L, M Stoneking, H Harpending, K Hawkes and A C Wilson (1991) African populations and the evolution of human mitochondrial DNA. Science 233: 1303-1307. (23)
Wolpoff, M H (1996) Human Evolution. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. (18)