Phillip E. Johnson

by Doug Linder (2004)

If, on the issue of evolution, anyone deserves the title of a modern-day William Jennings Bryan, it is probably law professor Phillip E. Johnson.  From the unlikely post of the Boalt Hall Law School on the UC-Berkeley campus, Johnson ventures to the hinterlands to fire up the locals challenging the scientific establishment’s assumptions about evolution and its place in the high school curriculum.  In three books and numerous articles attacking Darwinism, Johnson has made the case that the evidence for evolution is surprisingly weak and that the theory is a threat to morality and ethics.  What distinguishes Johnson from most of his colleagues in the creationist camp and makes him such an effective spokesperson for the movement is that he really understands not just some—but all—of the primary arguments for evolution, but still is able to say, with erudition and undeniable reasonableness, “I beg to differ.”  Johnson has even earned the grudging respect of physicist—and outspoken atheist— Steven Weinberg who, in his book Dreams of a Final Theory, calls him “the most respectable academic critic of evolution.”

Johnson grew up in a largely secular home in Aurora, Illinois.  As he tells it, “We went to Sunday School because it was good for us kids.  We’d drop my dad off at the golf course on the way.”  He attended Harvard in the late 1950s, where he “played at being the leftist” but found that his instincts kept pulling him in a conservative direction.  He attended the University of Chicago Law School before serving served as law clerk to Chief Justice Earl Warren.  After his Supreme Court experience, Johnson turned down a professorship at Yale Law School to take a position as Berkeley because, he says, the professors there “were more like me—public school types,” not the “little too preppy” faculty he encountered at Yale.  As he began what would become a more than thirty-year career teaching criminal law in California, Johnson still was, by his account “a perfectly ordinary, middle-of-the-road secular rationalist.”

Johnson’s early thirties became a period of disillusionment.  His wife left him to raise the kids while she moved on to pursue a career in “artistic politics.” He found his academic career boring and shallow, and his “nominal agnosticism” left him feeling unfulfilled. 

Johnson knew he needed centering, at he found it in his conversion to Christianity at the age of 38.  He married his present wife, Kathie, and their experiences at the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley became an increasingly important part of their lives.

Johnson’s “evolution” made him increasingly skeptical of academic culture.  Everywhere he looked, he found what academics were calling “reasoning” he saw as “rationalization.”  “The problem with rationalism,” as Johnson put it, “is that it isn’t rational.”  The premises that academics operate from are a matter of choice—and to Johnson’s mind, in many cases the choice is highly suspect.

Eventually, Johnson’s interest in exposing suspect premises led him to evolution.  Johnson, by his own account, recognized that “if Darwinism is true, Christian metaphysics is fantasy.”  He felt compelled to test his Christian beliefs by taking a sabbatical in London and plunging into the diverse and complex literature (Johnson calls it “circular reasoning, deception, and pseudo-science”) on the subject of evolution.

What Johnson found as he read Richard Dawkins, Isaac Asimov, Stephen Jay Gould, and the other authors of well-known Darwinist books was, in his words, a “stunning” indifference to facts and reasoning that appeared to him “unscientific, illogical, and dishonest.” 

In response, Johnson shaped the strategy that guides the current campaign against Darwinism.  He is optimistic his forces will win back control of the culture.  He writes, Darwinists “say they won that control in 1925 after the Scopes trial, as dramatized in Inherit the Wind, and that some people just haven’t heard the news.  Their celebration may be premature.”  He sees pro-evolutionists as “very worried” and “gaining practice in explaining away defeats rather than just in crowing over victories.”

Johnson calls his recipe for victory “the wedge strategy.”  Part of the strategy is a result of avoiding the sorts of “traps” Clarence Darrow and other defense attorneys set out in the Scopes trial.  He tells his supporters to focus on whether a Creator has to do the creating and avoid being drawn into other issues—as Bryan did in 1925--such as Noah’s flood or what transpired in the Garden of Eden.  In fact, Johnson urges his army to keep “the Book of Genesis out of the debate because you do not want to raise the so-called Bible-science dichotomy.”  Rather, he advises, “phrase the argument in such a way as you can get in heard in the secular academy and in a way that tends to unify the religious dissenters.”

In 1991, Johnson published the first of his three books attacking evolution, Darwin on Trial.   Darwin on Trial begins with the other trial, the one that took place in Dayton in 1925.  Johnson attributes William Jennings Bryan’s intense opposition to Darwinism to fears that “its acceptance had encouraged the ethic of ruthless competition that underlay such evils as German militarism and robber baron capitalism.” The reader of Darwin on Trial is left without doubt that Johnson’s problems with Darwinism, like Bryan’s, come in large part from his concerns about how the naturalistic philosophy behind the doctrine might tend, over the long run, to deteriorate public morality and ethics. 

The Scopes trial was, for Johnson, not a triumph of clear thinking over ignorance—but it was, he acknowledges, “a public relations triumph” for evolution. He blames the Lawrence and Lee and their fictionalized retelling in Inherit the Wind. With obvious resentment, Johnson points to the depiction of Clarence Darrow as a “heroic defense lawyer who symbolizes reason itself,” while William Jennings Bryan is but a narrow-minded mouthpiece for intolerant “religious fanatics.”

But Johnson reserves his real indignation for scientists.  He clearly is incensed with the way the scientific community has dismissed any and all suggestions that evolution is less than demonstrated fact.  According to him, facts are piling up on the other side.  He argues, for example, that evidence suggests “DNA mutations do not create evolution in any significant sense.”  He contends that the fossil record shows a distinct lack of intermediate species and is skeptical—as Bryan was—that evolution could produce a complex organ such as the human eye.  What good is “five percent of an eye” he wonders?  Instead, he argues, the fossil record shows few transitional species and long periods of little change in speciation followed by sudden bursts, in which tens of thousands of new species appear in the blink of a few million years.  Moreover, Johnson argues, “The fossil problem for Darwinism is getting worse all the time.”

What bothers Johnson most of all seems to be the suggestion that life emerged from the “right chemicals sloshing around in soup.”  He cites Fred Hoyle in arguing this is about as likely a “tornado sweeping through a junkyard” and assembling a Boeing 747.  He also points to Francis Crick, who won the Nobel Prize for his co-discovery of DNA.  Crick found the spontaneous organization theory so implausible that he suggested, as a more likely alternative, that the stuff of life, the original building blocks for evolution, arrived when extraterrestrials sent the stuff to earth in a last-ditch effort as they faced extinction on their own planet. Rather than consider such a far-fetched theory, Johnson asks, “why not assume life is what is so evidently seems to be, the product of creative intelligence.”

Johnson’s most controversial and most interesting contention is that fully naturalistic evolution cannot be made—as most modernists think it can—compatible with theistic religion.  In that sense, especially, Johnson has taken up Bryan’s mantle.  He has become the eloquent voice warning of the moral implications of accepting a doctrine that leaves little or no room for design or conscious purpose. “Make no mistake about it,” Johnson shouts from the page 116 of Darwin on Trial, “In the Darwinist view, which is the official view of mainstream science, God has nothing to do with evolution.”  Evolutionary biologists see nature as a closed system, not open to influence by God or any other supernatural force. 

In Johnson’s view, both scientists and modernist theologians have conspired to paper over the basic incompatibility of scientific naturalism and religion.  He is disdainful of the assertion of the National Academy of Science that there is no “irreconcilable conflict between religion and science”—at least science as most scientists imagine it.  He sees more politics than truth in paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould’s statement that evolutionary biologists fall along “an entire spectrum of religious attitudes—from devout daily prayer and worship to resolute atheism.”   


Bryan writes in his Scopes summation that thoughts about evolution prompted Darwin’s own falling from God.  When Darwin first wrote Origin of Species, “a first cause, having an intelligent mind” was strong in his mind.  But “very gradually” his belief in God declines until he concludes that he “must be content to remain an agnostic.” Evolution, Bryan writes, led Darwin inexorably “down and down and down to helpless and hopeless agnosticism.” He laments that “so many scientists” forfeit “one after another, every vital truth of Christianity.”  He cites statistics showing that in 1925 only a minority of biologists said they were “believers in a personal God.” 

Bryan is at his most eloquent when he warns of the danger that evolution presents to religion.  “Do these evolutionists stop to think of the crime they commit,” he asks, “when they take faith out of the hearts of men and women and lead them to a starless night?  What pleasure can they find in robbing a human being of the ‘hallowed glory of that creed’?”  Shed no tear for Scopes, Bryan writes.  “What is the taking of a few dollars from [Scopes]…in comparison with the crime of leading one away from God and away from Christ?” 


Johnson is equally unimpressed with modernist Christian theologians who have advocated the acceptance of “theistic evolution”—evolution initiated by God but which still employs the principle of natural selection identified by Darwin.  In Johnson’s opinion, such theologians either misunderstand the degree to which randomness is the central feature of Darwinian evolution, or they fail to appreciate the incompatibility of the randomness principle with the purposive God of Christianity. He complains that theistic evolutionists “are even harder to reason with than the atheistic evolutionists.”  They seem to believe that “they could get along well with the secular world if it weren’t for those troublemaking fundamentalists.” 

Johnson finds a strange bedfellow in Cornell professor William Provine who provocatively asserts that persons who cling to their religious beliefs while accepting evolutionary biology “have to check brains at the church-house door.” After participating together in “a friendly debate,” Johnson and Provine struck up an unusual friendship.  Provine assigned Johnson’s Darwin on Trial as reading for the 400 students in his course on evolutionary biology at Cornell, and asked them to write term papers responding to the arguments presented in the book.  At Provine’s invitation, Johnson flew from Berkeley to Ithaca to guest-lecture the biology class and meet with graduate students.  The event was so successful that Provine extended a similar invitation the next fall.

Johnson and Provine share a conviction that Darwinism removes the need for a creator God.  Other prominent supporters of evolution admit as much.  Even Stephen Jay Gould, who professes that religion and science constitute “non-overlapping magisteria,” concedes that, after Darwin, it is clear that “no intervening spirit watches lovingly over the affairs of nature.”  Richard Dawkins described natural selection as “the blind watchmaker” that constructs without purpose, plan, or thought of the future.  Stephen Weinberg argues that science in general must rule out supernatural forces to progress: “The only way any sort of science can proceed is to assume that there is no divine intervention and to see how far one can get with this assumption.”  As Johnson ruefully notes, with the help of Darwinism, science can get very far indeed.

Johnson thinks the vast majority of evolutionary biologists are atheists—as well they should be if they take their scientific beliefs seriously.  The lack of purposive principles in nature means that morality or ethics are human creations.  As such, they might be useful guideposts for maintaining an orderly and accommodating society, but are no more than that.  Moreover, scientific naturalism implies that our behavior is shaped by heredity and environmental factors and that free will—and the judgment that comes with it—is an illusion.  He also argues that the notion of an afterlife, central to many religions, becomes nonsensical, once the philosophy of scientific naturalism is accepted. Concede all those things, Johnson asserts, and the game is over.

“I do not think the mind can serve two masters,” Johnson declares.  A clear-thinking person must choose between naturalism and religion.  Johnson admits that he does not know which is true, only that only one can be true: “If the blind watchmaker thesis is true, then naturalism deserves to rule.”  Johnson makes it clear which master he has—either by a leap of faith or a deduction from the evidence— chosen.

Johnson carried his fight for open debate about evolution to Ohio in 2003.  He campaigned there for a state rule that allows public school biology teachers to make the case against, as well as for, evolution.  Johnson toured the state, speaking to “large, enthusiastic church crowds,” and offering seminars for interested ministers.  In the end, his efforts were successful, and the Ohio State School Board adopted the controversial rule in October 2003.

The transcript of the Scopes trial, surprisingly, finds the defense making arguments that would seem to support, rather than undermine, the actions of the Ohio School Board.

Ohio’s decision to authorize teachers to present critiques of evolutionary theory left the National Academy of Sciences distressed.  According to the scientific organization, “Negative argumentation…is antithetical to the scientific method.”  Johnson called the decision “a victory for the fact of divine creation and for intellectual integrity.”  It is one more sign that, as he sees it, “the tide of battle is at last turning.”  The “scientific triumphalists” now remind Johnson of Napoleon’s army in Moscow: “They have no safe line of retreat.”

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