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Critique of Intelligent Design

Evolution vs. Creationism

The Art of ID Stuntmen

Faith vs Reason

Anthropic Principle

Autopsy of the Bible code

Science and Religion

Historical Notes


Serious Notions with a Smile


Letter Serial Correlation

Mark Perakh's Web Site

The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth?

Why Phillip Johnson's Darwin on Trial and the "Intelligent Design" movement
are neither science--nor Christian

by Brian Spitzer

Posted on August 4, 2002


  1. Introduction

  2. Darwin on Trial

  3. Lawyer games

  4. Just the facts, ma'am

  5. How science isn't done

  6. Did they really say that?

    1. Colin Patterson

    2. Steven Jay Gould

    3. Nature on the British Museum of Natural History

  7. Tricks of the trade

    1. Distortions and inventions

    2. The tautology argument

    3. The missing links which aren't, and other examples

  8. The log in your own eye

    1. Selective use of evidence

    2. The moving target

  9. Johnson's response

  10. Conclusions

  11. Additional examples

    1. Bait-and-switch

    2. Selective use of evidence

    3. Ad hominems and innuendo

    4. Misrepresentations of science

    5. Quote mining

    6. Begging the question

    7. "Straw man" arguments

    8. Conspiracy theory

  12. Discussion

1. Introduction

Lawyers are not the best-respected professionals in our society. Being a lawyer gives one a certain prestige because law requires expertise, like medicine or science, but we tend to put lawyers in the same shady box as salesmen and politicians. We don't trust them. And--perhaps--there are good reasons not to. Courtroom lawyers are called upon to represent the guilty as often as the innocent, and they are duty-bound to build the best case that they can. It follows logically that a courtroom lawyer will spend half of his or her time trying to convince a jury of the truth; the other 50% of the time, they are trying to persuade the jury to believe something which isn't the truth.

This is not only permissible in the courtroom, it's necessary for our justice system to work. It's ironic that a system of justice requires what could be called 'injustice' from its participants, but that's what the law demands: lawyers playing parts which they may not even believe. Our law dictates that even the guilty should be represented in court, and most of us would agree that this curious tangle of competing fictions turns out to make our justice system more just. Because of this, it is entirely acceptable for a lawyer to play his or her false part in court, just as it is acceptable for an actor to play someone fictional on the stage. But when people assume false identities offstage, we call them impostors. I would argue that when a lawyer plays lawyer games outside the courtroom, it is just as morally wrong.

Of course, you can't have a debate without having debating tactics. It's entirely fair, inside the courtroom or out, to showcase the facts that are most favorable to you. In the same way, it's perfectly fair to write a radio ad pointing out that your brand of widgets is cheaper and more reliable than your competitor's--if those favorable facts are actually true. But we're all aware of sleazy sales pitches where the tactics are used to obscure or distract attention from the relevant facts. I am not claiming that the line between these two is crystal-clear. But I am claiming that those who try to sway public opinion--especially if they are laying claim to the moral mantle of Christianity--are ethically bound to stick to the fair methods and leave the lawyer games in court.

2. Darwin on Trial

Darwin on Trial, the book by Phillip Johnson which founded the neocreationist movement of "intelligent design", was written in 1991. I first encountered it in 1996. At the time I knew nothing at all about creationism. A friend--like me, a serious Christian as well as a scientist--suggested that I take a look at it, and I was curious enough to do so. There are certainly things about the book which I applauded, at the time. I've always been irritated by pop-science works which try to make statements about God (or the lack thereof) as though these statements are supported by scientific fact, and I was glad to see someone taking on Richard Dawkins. But even without much training (I had only a B.A. in biology), while reading through Johnson's book I began to notice some puzzling things. At first, they were quite small: a claim in one place which contradicted a different claim in another. A strange lapse of logic-perhaps excusable on account of the author's inexpertise? Statements which didn't fit with what I knew firsthand about science and scientists.

I was naive. I assumed that a Christian writing to other Christians would provide a scrupulously fair and accurate account of the facts.[1] But the deeper I got into Darwin on Trial, the less naive I became. And the clearer it became that the driving force behind Johnson's book was neither fairness nor accuracy.

A few years passed with this troubling thought at the back of my mind. I entered graduate school and started doing real science myself. And, the more I learned, the less I trusted Darwin on Trial. I finally challenged myself to put my mistrust to the test. Perhaps Johnson was merely confused about some things. What I should do, I told myself, is look at the sources he actually used in writing Darwin on Trial, and see what they say. Perhaps part of what Johnson says is accurate; perhaps his sources misled him in places. So I went to the campus library and started checking his claims.

I was a lot less naive when I finished that task. I found that almost every scientific source cited by Johnson had been misused or distorted, in ways ranging from simple misinterpretations and innuendos to the construction of what appears to be outright fiction. The more closely I examined Darwin on Trial, the more inaccuracies I found, until it became almost impossible to catalogue all of the misleading statements in Johnson's work. This book-upon which the "intelligent design" movement is trying to hang a program of social reform and public education-is perhaps the ugliest and most deceptive book I have ever seen.

It may seem irrelevant to critique a book over a decade since it was published. But Darwin on Trial was the work which founded the "intelligent design" movement, and Phillip Johnson is still regarded as the "godfather" of that entire school of thought. Later "intelligent design" creationists have adopted many of his exact arguments, as well as many of the questionable tactics and strategies used in Darwin on Trial. Perhaps most importantly, nobody in the "intelligent design" movement has, to my knowledge, ever criticized or disavowed any of the claims in Darwin on Trial. As I will show, this book is so full of questionable tactics that it would be hard for any informed reader not to notice any of the inaccuracy. All of the stars of the "intelligent design" movement, by their silent approval of these tactics, stand under a cloud of suspicion at the very least.

Many Christians have welcomed the "intelligent design" creationists in the belief that they are fighting for God and truth. But, as the televangelism scandals of the 1980's should remind us, there are some more unsavory reasons for seeking celebrity in the Christian community: money, fame, applause, or power, especially political power. In short, there are a wealth of reasons why Christians need to be careful about trusting the stars of the "intelligent design" movement. And even well-intentioned debaters, if they let their desire to win the argument outstrip their respect for the facts, will turn out a product which is grossly misleading. Integrity is important. If--as I will show in this essay--the claims of "intelligent design" are more a product of debating tactics and tricks than they are a fair and honest presentation, Christians need to seriously consider whether they can support this movement in good faith.

3. Lawyer games

To understand a lawyer's book, talk to another lawyer. Darwin on Trial has been reviewed by, among other people, a practicing lawyer by the name of Thomas C. Sager. In his review, Sager makes some very interesting points about the legal profession which he and Johnson share. He puts it succinctly: "The job of a lawyer is not to find the truth, (that is the job of the judge or jury) but to defend (or prosecute) the client.... The standard is to vigorously argue on behalf of one's client, rather than to pursue an abstract 'truth' or even 'justice'." Sager goes on to note: "In supporting the client, the lawyer may use any ethical means available. It is perfectly ethical for a lawyer to make ad hominem attacks on the opposing witnesses, to present incomplete information to a jury, to bring in irrelevant data, and of course to use a wide panoply of rhetorical skills and tricks. Science, obviously, has different goals. But the lawyer's orientation should be kept in mind when analyzing Johnson's book, because he is a lawyer, he has titled his subject a trial, he pursues it as a trial, and his job is to prosecute Darwinism. Lots of things are 'fair', from his point of view."[2]

Johnson might protest that none of these tactics--ad hominem arguments, half-truths, and rhetorical sleight-of-hand--are technically lies. I am not interested in quibbling over fine shades of meaning in such definitions; in my view, deliberately misleading people does not become more acceptable because it goes under a different name. To a certain extent, it does not even matter whether these inaccuracies are deliberate or not. If Johnson is being intentionally misleading, that is an ethical and intellectual crime. If he is merely letting a desire to attack evolutionists override his concern for careful and accurate research, that indifference to fairness is also a crime, though a lesser one. In either case, Darwin on Trial cannot safely be trusted at face value as a guide to the facts.

4. Just the facts, ma'am

Phillip Johnson, perhaps even by his own admission, is not terribly interested in facts. Indeed, the heart of the argument against evolution which is presented in Darwin on Trial--and echoed throughout the "intelligent design" movement up until the present day--is that science isn't actually about facts. According to Darwin on Trial, it's about "ideology." The accusation is that evolutionary scientists are all hopelessly biased, wedded to an atheistic ideology, and that the only reason they support evolutionary theory is that they need some way to explain the marvels of biology without bringing up God.

This is a clever strategy, because a number of well-known and outspoken scientists are in fact atheists, and the Christian community in America has long had a vein of simmering resentment against a few individuals, like Richard Dawkins, who have preached atheist ideology while calling it science. Johnson taps into this vein skillfully, claiming that "Darwinism" is not only the view that natural forces created biology as we see it today, but also the insistence that God is a mere fable, uninvolved in evolution or--for that matter--anything else.

The problem is that this argument isn't true. The truth is that biologists are overwhelmingly convinced that the theory of evolution really does explain the natural world accurately. That's why they support it, not some "ideology." Johnson and the other "intelligent design" creationists are aware that a large number of evolutionists maintain a deep faith in God. However, if the "intelligent design" creationists acknowledged them, they would have to admit that there are other reasons besides ideology to agree with the theory of evolution. Their strategy has been to deny that these people exist. A Gallup poll conducted in 1982 [3] found that only about 10% of Americans think that "Man evolved over millions of years from less developed forms. God had no part in this process." 90% of us, then, reject "Darwinism" as Johnson defines it, and the "intelligent design" creationists are fond of quoting this statistic. What they avoid mentioning is the other half of the poll, in which Gallup went not to the average American but to the average American scientist. About 40% of scientists declared their belief in both evolution and in an actively intervening God very much in control of the process. Either 40% of the scientists in America are fighting tooth and nail in defense of an ideology which they actually reject, or--based on the very poll which Johnson likes to cite--Johnson's argument about ideology is bunk.

There is plenty of other evidence suggesting that Johnson should know this argument to be just that: bunk. Upon reading through the sources cited in Darwin on Trial, I found that the distinction between science and atheism was drawn quite clearly on a number of occasions It is made repeatedly by theologian Langdon Gilkey (Creationism on Trial, pp.34-35, 97, 175-176)[4] and scientist Douglas Futuyma (Science on Trial, p.217)[5], both of whom are cited by Johnson. While Darwin on Trial points out that evolutionists like Dawkins, Julian Huxley, and Steven Jay Gould claim or imply that God is dead, it neglects to mention that all these figures have been criticized harshly and publicly by evolutionary biologists for muddying the line between scientific conclusions and metaphysical preferences. Johnson has a ready excuse: he claims that any time scientists say that they are not atheists, it is only to fool the public--or, as he puts it in one of his nastier moments, "for fear of jeopardizing the funding for scientific research" (p.127). However, Darwin on Trial gives no evidence to back up this accusation. That's because no such evidence exists. If Johnson wants to convince us that his accusations of atheism are not just conspiracy theory, he has had plenty of opportunity to do so. Several reviews of his book have criticized him for pretending that the personal views of a few inflammatory scientists are the consensus view of the scientific community, but Johnson has made no attempt to correct his claims or provide evidence for them. To my knowledge, neither have any of the other leaders of "intelligent design" creationism. There can be no denying it: stereotypes are rhetorically handy. But they aren't honest. The attempts by a few scientists to clothe their personal philosophies in the authority of science are certainly deplorable, and I believe that Christians are right to deplore them. But is the correct response to meet one mistruth with another?

The way science works--methodological naturalism, to call it by its highbrow name [6]--is to try to explain the world in terms of ideas which can be empirically tested. The tests can be experimental, or one may posit an hypothesis and then look for those empirical signs which would follow logically if that hypothesis were true. Johnson's strategy is to claim that this is the same as atheism (see, for example, pp.116-117 of Darwin on Trial). This argument does not stand up for long under scrutiny. We may not call it by such an elaborate name, but when a plumber tries to find out why your sink is clogged, or when police try to solve a crime, or when an engineer tries to design a bridge--in fact, whenever anyone tries to figure out pretty much anything about the physical world we live in--they are using methodological naturalism. You yourself use it every day. So do the "intelligent design" creationists.

Scientists aren't precommitted to atheism. They're precommitted to a scientific method that can actually work. The only alternative to methodological naturalism--that is, to trying to understand the world in terms of ideas which can be empirically tested--is to try to understand the world in terms of ideas which can't be tested at all. See if you can unclog your sink that way.

Johnson should, by now, be painfully aware that this argument does not hold up. He has been challenged clearly and publicly (for instance, by Robert Pennock)[7] to present a working alternative to methodological naturalism. Despite the fact that he has had over a decade to work out a method for what he calls "theistic science", Johnson has had nothing to say. Writes Pennock: "This is not surprising, for he has consistently refused to say anything positive about how a theistic science is supposed to work." If Johnson really feels that scientists have other options--if we really do have a choice other than methodological naturalism in science--he should give us a hint about what those options are. Until the intelligent design creationists explain to scientists what other methods they could be using, I find it very hard to blame the scientists for considering methodological naturalism to be a limited but indispensable tool.

5. How science isn't done

Darwin on Trial misrepresents science just as it misrepresents scientists. Johnson seems to suggest that any event which has not been directly observed may be dismissed as "pure philosophy", but inferential evidence-as he should know from law-can prove a point as well as direct observation. Essentially all modern science, including particle physics, astrophysics, geology, microbiology, and chemistry, relies on inferential evidence. He claims that scientists disagree over "every detail" of evolutionary theory, but Douglas Futuyma, on p.171 of Science on Trial (again, a book cited in Darwin on Trial) explains accurately and clearly what is and is not in dispute in the scientific community. On p.30 of Darwin on Trial, Johnson dismisses evolutionary mechanisms such as developmental constraints and pleiotropy--despite the fact that they are proven, genuine mechanisms that are not only compatible with Darwinian theory but are practically logical outgrowths of it. Darwin on Trial claims on pp.72-73 that, because developmental processes are different in different classes of tetrapods, the resulting traits cannot be homologues of one another; but this is only true if evolution adheres strictly to the principle of recapitulation [8], a principle which was rejected decades ago by modern science. It suggests on p.80 that Archaeopteryx is just a mosaic along the lines of the platypus (it isn't); suggests on p.94 that the isolation of present-day taxa is at odds with the theory of evolution (this is incorrect); and on pp.95-96 claims that neutral theory is incompatible with Darwinian theory (a conclusion soundly rejected in at least one paper actually cited on the subject in Darwin on Trial)[9]. After examining the sources which Johnson himself used in writing Darwin on Trial, I find it very difficult to understand how a writer with a serious concern for fairness could have reached the conclusions which are stated in Darwin on Trial.

Serious misunderstandings of science pervade Darwin on Trial. For example, Johnson suggests that all scientists stick to the Darwinist party line out of self-interest--apparently unaware that scientific careers are made not by conformity but by coming up with radical new ideas. Any working scientist could have told him that. He does not understand basic scientific terminology (such as the word "tentative", for example, an error which he has not corrected even after being informed of it), or how the "self-correcting" nature of the scientific enterprise works. Many of these misunderstandings are so basic that Johnson seems to have done little or no research on the topic. In short, rather than do the work involved in understanding how science actually works, Johnson apparently made up a picture of modern biology which he finds useful for rhetorical purposes. Is this really the sort of work on which a true intellectual movement can be founded? Is this the sort of ethics with which the Christian community wants to ally itself?

6. Did they really say that?

a. Colin Patterson

Most damning of all is the way in which Darwin on Trial represents the views of other individuals. In several cases, Johnson cites the published opinions of scientists on various matters; it is therefore possible to set his book side-by-side with the original statements and see if they match up. Time and time again, they do not. Even on a generous reading of the material, and even granting that Johnson may have misunderstood the more technical writing, there is in my judgment absolutely no honest way to read those original sources and represent them as Johnson has. It is hard to know whether Johnson simply neglected to read his sources with any sort of care, or whether he actually chose to misrepresent them; in either case, these misrepresentations say a great deal about the credibility of Darwin on Trial.

Johnson claims at several points in Darwin on Trial that evolutionists, while they keep up a solid public front, are secretly unconvinced by the modern theory of evolution. In his first chapter, Johnson says that scientist Colin Patterson disavowed the theory of evolution in a speech at the American Museum of Natural History in 1981. Specifically, Johnson says: "according to Patterson, Darwin's theory of natural selection is under fire and scientists are no longer sure of its general validity." (p.9); "Patterson suggested that both evolution and creation are forms of pseudo-knowledge, concepts which seem to imply information but do not." (p.10); "'Evolution' can mean anything from the uncontroversial statement that bacteria 'evolve' resistance to antibiotics to the grand metaphysical claim that the universe and mankind 'evolved' entirely by purposeless, mechanical forces. A word that elastic is likely to mislead, by implying that we know as much about the grand claim as we do about the small one. That very point was the theme of a remarkable lecture given by Colin Patterson at the American Museum of Natural History in 1981." (p.10); and states that the point of this lecture was that "a fact of evolution is vacuous unless it comes with a supporting theory" (p.12). Johnson reluctantly supplied me with a transcript of this speech. Upon reading it, I found that the speech was not about the theory of evolution at all. The theory of evolution is barely mentioned in passing.

What the speech was actually about was systematics, the arcane art of giving names to organisms. In the early 1980's, there were two schools of thought which clashed strongly on how to assign such names. Patterson championed one school of thought, called "pattern cladism." Adherents to pattern cladism felt that patterns of shared characters were the only important factors in assigning names to groups. For example, they would consider "mammals" a valid group because they share features such as hair, live birth, and mammary glands. The other school of thought was "evolutionary taxonomy", which argued that important evolutionary developments should be the basis of naming groups of organisms. An evolutionary taxonomist would put special emphasis on the evolution of warm-bloodedness and feathers in birds, and make "birds" a separate group from "reptiles." A pattern cladist would note that birds share more features with some reptiles than those reptiles do with other reptiles, and conclude that "birds" should really be a subgroup of the Reptilia. Even though one school was called "evolutionary taxonomy", it should be pointed out that the cladists in no way rejected Darwinian theory. In fact, doing cladistic systematics would be utterly pointless if the organisms in question hadn't evolved from a common ancestor. The pattern cladists simply felt that evolutionary history wasn't all that relevant to the names tacked onto different groups of organisms.

Patterson's speech is not about the folly of evolutionary theory; it is about the folly of evolutionary taxonomy. Patterson has said so publicly: he is on record as saying that the 1981 speech "concerned systematics, nothing else." Patterson's views on evolution itself can perhaps best be demonstrated from the textbook he wrote (titled, appropriately enough, Evolution).[10] In the introduction he states: "evolution is about what Darwin called 'descent with modification'--it concerns the idea of common or shared ancestry and the belief that all species are related by descent. I think that belief is now confirmed as completely as anything can be in the historical sciences." (Johnson cites this book in Darwin on Trial, so it is hard to argue that he is not aware of Patterson's real views.) I read Patterson's speech and his book closely. In neither of them is there any statement, express or implied, that Patterson considered the theory of evolution to be "pseudo-knowledge"; there is no discussion whatsoever of evolutionary theory being "vacuous", and the quote from Evolution plainly shows that Patterson soundly affirms the general validity of evolutionary theory. Patterson is firm in insisting that names should be assigned to groups of organisms on the basis of shared characters rather than on inferences about their evolutionary history, but this is rather different from saying that evolutionary biology has no content!

Simply put, Johnson took a few sentences from Patterson's speech and placed them in a different context, where they appeared to state something which their author did not intend--indeed, where they appeared to state something which their author has publicly rejected as a valid interpretation of his views.[11]

b. Steven Jay Gould

On p.11, Darwin on Trial contains a quote from paleontologist Steven Jay Gould, presented in a fashion which is similarly misleading. In this quote, Gould states that the neo-Darwinian synthesis, "as a general proposition, is effectively dead, despite its persistence as textbook orthodoxy." Anyone reading this section of Darwin on Trial will unavoidably go away with the impression that Gould is renouncing evolutionary theory. This in and of itself should make one suspicious that Gould's words are being misused, since Gould has been one of the most visible defenders of evolutionary theory in the modern era.

When I read Gould's actual article [12], I found that the first part of that sentence--omitted by Johnson--makes clear that Gould wasn't referring to all of evolutionary theory. Gould's true opinion is that "if [biologist Ernst] Mayr's characterization of the synthetic theory is accurate, then that theory, as a general proposition, is effectively dead, despite its persistence as textbook orthodoxy." What is Mayr's view that Gould is denouncing? Gould cites Mayr clearly: "The proponents of the synthetic theory maintain that all evolution is due to the accumulation of small genetic changes, guided by natural selection, and that transspecific evolution is nothing but an extrapolation and magnification of the events that take place within populations and species." It is this last phrase in particular to which Gould is taking exception. Gould goes on to argue that the gradualism, reductionism, and panselectionism championed by Mayr are unnecessary and possibly incorrect. If this were pointed out publicly, Johnson might respond by saying that the disagreement between Gould and Mayr was about the fundamentals of the theory of evolution, but Gould's article emphasizes that this is not the case: "None of this evidence, of course, negates the role of conventional selection and adaptation in molding parts of the phenotype with obvious importance for survival and reproduction. Still, it rather damps Mayr's enthusiastic claim for 'all evolution... guided by natural selection.' The question, as with so many issues in the complex sciences of natural history, becomes one of relative frequency. Are the Darwinian substitutions merely a surface skin on a sea of variation invisible to selection, or are the neutral substitutions merely a thin bottom layer underlying a Darwinian ocean above? Or where in between?" Note that, by Darwinian, Gould means exclusively those changes due to natural selection; there is not, of course, anything about neutral variations (those variations "invisible to selection") which contradicts evolutionary theory. Nor are gradualism, reductionism, or panselection necessary elements of the theory.

Gould's article, therefore, is not criticizing anything central to the theory of evolution. There is nothing in this article to suggest that Gould considers evolutionary theory in general to be "effectively dead", and nothing Gould has written before or since supports Johnson's claim that Gould has renounced evolution. The simpler explanation is that Johnson found it useful to portray Gould's views inaccurately, just as a lawyer in court may find it useful to twist a witness' words.

c. Nature on the British Museum of Natural History

Yet another striking example of distortion concerns a series of letters and editorials in the journal Nature about the British Museum of Natural History, discussed in Darwin on Trial on pp.135-142. Johnson's story is this: an exhibit opened at the BMNH questioning the validity of the theory of evolution. After a biologist, Beverly Halstead, wrote to Nature to denounce this "heresy", a firestorm of letters erupted, with evolutionists admitting publicly that they really weren't convinced by Darwinian theory. The story ends with the exhibit being "cleaned up" and the dissent suppressed.

I read all of the letters and editorials cited in Darwin on Trial, as well as all other letters about the BMNH published in Nature during that period. The real story has almost nothing to do with the conspiracy theory Johnson presents. The "substantial issue", as Johnson puts it, was not that the Museum was going public with doubts about evolution or evolutionary theory. The Museum never did anything of the kind. What Halstead's letter objected to was the fact that the Museum, under Colin Patterson's influence, had organized its exhibit around the principles of cladism. Halstead--a paleontologist who disliked the cladistic method for naming organisms--believed that, because not all of the scientific community accepted cladism, it was inappropriate for the Museum to present cladism as though it represented the views of all biologists. Halstead likens cladists to creationists, but not because cladists are antievolutionists, as Darwin on Trial implies. (In fact, most evolutionary biologists working today are cladists!) Halstead makes the comparison because cladists assume (for convenience) when arranging organisms in groups that no organism in that group is a direct ancestor of any other. Creationists who insist on the separate creation of man and other animals also insist on an absence of ancestry when considering hominid fossils and modern humans, but the resemblance stops there.

Halstead's letter appeared in Nature on November 20 of 1980. Darwin on Trial suggests that the entire exchange of letters called into doubt the validity of the theory of evolution, but the topic of the "validity of Darwinism" doesn't even come up until February 26, three months later. At that point, an editorial in Nature noted that the Museum's exhibit included the phrase "If the theory of evolution is true..." and commented that, since the theory of evolution is not in dispute among serious biologists, the use of such a phrase could only serve to confuse visitors.

According to Johnson's story, the next editorial-entitled "How true is the theory of evolution?"--admitted that biologists were not confident in the theory. It did no such thing. The article wasn't about the validity of the theory of evolution or any other theory. It was about what scientists mean when they say that a theory is "true." Technically, no scientific theory can ever be completely proven. The best modern example of this is the fact that the entire edifice of Newtonian physics was found by Einstein to be wrong--"untrue"--even after engineers used it successfully to land manned spacecraft on the moon. (Clearly, a scientific theory can be remarkably correct and still be "untrue".)

Because all scientific theories are technically unproven, no theory, be it germ theory, atomic theory, Einstein's theory of relativity, or even the theory that the earth is round, can be called "true." Placing the theory of evolution alongside these other unproven theories hardly suggests that scientists are in doubt about it.

The editorial goes on to say that the BMNH should be careful to clarify for the public the difference between scientific objections to evolutionary theory and objections with no scientific basis. Darwin on Trial claims that this article "implied that Darwinism is a metaphysical system sustained partly by faith" (p.139). This is false. The editorial noted that philosopher of science Karl Popper classified the theory of evolution, and all other theories about past events, as "metaphysical" since they cannot be confirmed by direct observation, but there is no suggestion whatsoever that the editorial writer considered the theory of evolution lacking in empirical support. Consider the following excerpts from the editorial: "Darwinism is consistent with the data to which Darwin had access more than a century ago. One of the remarkable features of the theory is that it remains consistent with the vastly greater body of data now available."; "The result [of the new science of molecular biology] is a striking confirmation of the general character of the relationships suggested by Darwin and his contemporaries."; "...the way in which the theory of evolution has been able to survive such a long succession of discoveries bearing on the mechanism of inheritance--the rediscovery of Mendelism, the discovery of chromosomes, the recognition of what genes are and the recognition that genes are usually pieces of doubleanded DNA-is striking evidence of its overwhelming consistency. No theory of such a grand scope in the physical sciences has done as well in the past century." Most telling is the fact that Johnson knows what Popper meant by the term "metaphysical"--it is actually discussed on pp.150-151 of Darwin on Trial. He cannot, therefore, claim that this misrepresentation was an accident.

Johnson's representation of Halstead's original letter is false; his claim that "the Museum's staff was 'going public' with doubts about neo-Darwinism and even the existence of fossil ancestors-doubts that had previously been expressed only in professional circles" is false; his claim that "the editors of Nature belatedly discovered that Darwinism is more controversial among scientists than they had realized" is not supported anywhere by anything in the series of letters and editorials. Basically, Johnson has taken quotes out of context and out of order from the series of letters and editorials, and reassembled them as part of a completely different story which happens to support his position.

The three examples cited above are only a few of many instances in which Johnson has taken quotes from scientific sources and placed them in a different context so that they seem to say something which is completely unsupported, if not actually contradicted, by the original material. Such a practice violates not merely standards of academic accuracy but basic, everyday ethics.

7.Tricks of the trade

a. Distortions and inventions

In Johnson's book Defeating Darwinism, he exhorts his readers to examine claims critically. However, the research underlying Darwin on Trial is neither careful nor critical, and I would submit that it is not worthy of any true intellectual movement. Johnson's arguments distort scientific views in the same way that they distort scientists' words. For example, he notes that, when Darwin first wrote The Origin of Species, he made his case for natural selection by making an analogy to a more well-known practice: artificial selection, the process by which breeders have been able to produce wide varieties of domesticated animals and plants (p.17). Johnson then writes: "The analogy to artificial selection is misleading. Plant and animal breeders employ intelligence and specialized knowledge to select breeding stock and protect their charges from natural dangers. The point of Darwin's theory, however, was to establish that purposeless natural processes can substitute for intelligent design." This misrepresents the point of the analogy. It's true that Darwin's overall theory states that natural processes can create the apparent "purpose" and "design" in living organisms-but that's not the point Darwin was making with the analogy to artificial selection. The remarkable variety of forms produced by artificial selection merely illustrates the fact that, over many generations, organisms can be changed quite radically without huge jumps. The analogy is about process, not purpose.[13]

Another type of distortion comes on p.66, where Johnson pretends that "Darwinists assume that the relationship between, say, bats and whales is similar to that between siblings and cousins in human families." This is not an assumption but a conclusion drawn from various lines of evidence, including fossils, molecular data, biogeography, and present-day comparative studies. The theory of common descent predicts that similarities and differences among species should be arranged in particular patterns; these predictions have been confirmed in striking detail.

One type of distortion which deserves special mention is the way in which Darwin on Trial deals with uncertainty in science. Often, Johnson cites a small uncertainty, or an unknown detail, and claims that the uncertainty is enormous and that the detail is actually a fundamental part of evolutionary theory. On p.19 he claims that "selective change is limited by the inherent variability in the gene pool." He allows that "It might conceivably be renewed by mutation, but whether (and how often) this happens is not known." There is much that is unknown about the processes of mutation, especially as they relate to the generation of variation upon which selection can work, but Johnson would have you believe that the uncertainty is much greater than it is. The evidence that variation recharges naturally is quite strong--if it didn't, natural populations couldn't have any variation at all for many traits--and in most cases it is hard to imagine a process which could possibly stop that variation from recharging.

In many cases, instead of presenting well-researched facts, Johnson substitutes what are apparently his own opinions or biases, unsubstantiated by any research. For example, on p.17, Johnson claims that Darwin's analogy to artificial selection, made in the Origin of Species, was accepted by scientists in Darwin's day only because the "receptive audience for the theory was highly uncritical." No historical work or history of science is cited in the research notes for this assertion. Furthermore, this assertion is contradicted by everything I have ever read on the topic. Darwin's theory was immediately subjected to fierce criticism from all sides, according to every historical sketch I have seen.

Similarly, Darwin on Trial claims that mutations are always harmful, never useful (p.17), a claim which is contradicted by a vast body of scientific research, and for which Johnson's research notes cite no supporting evidence. On p.18 Darwin on Trial states that natural selection is only conservative and that "there are definite limits to the amount of variation that even the most highly skilled breeders can achieve." No sources are cited for either of these claims, which are not supported by any scientific fact that I know of. Johnson's suggestions that species lack sufficient genetic capacity for major changes is flatly contradicted by the evidence: in Science on Trial, on p.117 (Johnson actually quotes a different passage from this very page), Futuyma cites experiments which selected for alteration of species "well beyond its original range of variation", and notes that researchers have been able to select for entirely new traits. It is not clear where Johnson got any of these claims that he is making. Certainly none of them are supported by his sources.

b. The tautology argument

Population genetics is the study of how gene frequencies in a theoretical population change in response to various natural mechanisms, such as selection, drift, assortative mating, and so on. Population genetics essentially asks the question, "If evolution by natural selection happens, what is the behavior of a population under these circumstances?" Of course, since these are theoretical populations only, there is no mechanism behind selection in these mathematical models. In real life, say in a population of hawks, there is a reason why a gene will spread through the population--for example, it might confer slightly keener eyesight on its bearer, or more efficient flight. In the imaginary realm of population genetics, though, "fitness" is not the outcome of particular traits as it is in the real world; "higher fitness" just means that this hypothetical allele has been assigned a higher probability of "reproducing" than some other hypothetical allele. As population geneticists will freely admit, this mechanism-free way of thinking about fitness is tautological--"the survival of the fittest" among these theoretical genes merely means "the survival of the ones that survive." Of course, biologists working with real organisms think about fitness in terms of mechanisms, but on p.22, Johnson claims that the way of thinking of fitness in population genetics "spread to the zoologists and paleontologists, who found it convenient to assume that their guiding theory was simply true by definition. As long as outside critics were not paying attention, the absurdity of the tautology formulation was in no danger of exposure." The statement that zoologists and paleontologists "found it convenient to assume that their guiding theory was simply true by definition" is a fiction. Johnson either has not read or chooses to ignore the thousands of papers published by evolutionists who have gone to great lengths to test the theory of evolution rather than assume its accuracy--not to mention the fact that the theory of evolution had already been confirmed by several decades of zoology and paleontology before the population geneticists came up with their abstract populations.

On a related topic, on p.97, Johnson also seriously misrepresents the views of Motoo Kimura on neutral evolution. Kimura has argued that two or more different alleles at a given locus may have essentially the same effect on the survival and reproduction of an organism,[14] and that they may therefore be considered "neutral" with respect to one another. The truth of this is fairly obvious, and the same mathematics which can be applied to completely neutral mutations--those where there is no impact on the appearance of the organism at all--can be applied to these "pseudo-neutral" alleles. Johnson claims that this argument is "merely another attempt to rescue the natural selection hypothesis from potential falsification by redefining it as a tautology." There is nothing at all tautological or illogical about the assertion that two alleles with slightly different functions, in Kimura's words, "may be equally effective in promoting the survival and reproduction of the individual." (In fact, it is hard to imagine a universe in which such things did not occasionally occur.) Johnson claims that "If fitness is determined only by the brute fact of survival and reproductive fitness, then there is no effective difference between neutral and selective evolution." He is wrong. The way in which gene frequencies change in populations over time--and that is, of course, what the entire field of population genetics is all about--depends very much on whether one allele tends to get reproduced more often than others. Here, Johnson does not seem to understand the difference between the basic forces of drift and selection.

c. The missing links which aren't, and other examples

A striking example of Johnson's failure to do thorough research is found on page 75 of Darwin on Trial and the following pages. Johnson mentions, in his review of the vertebrate sequence in the fossil record, four groups of fossils (not including hominids): rhiphistidian fish, Seymouria, the therapsid mammals, and Archaeopteryx. On p.79, he states: "The mammal class includes such diverse groups as whales, porpoises, seals, polar bears, bats, cattle, monkeys, cats, pigs, and opossums. If mammals are a monophyletic group, then the Darwinian model requires that every one of the groups have descended from a single unidentified small land mammal. Huge numbers of species in the direct line of transition would have to exist, but the fossil record fails to record them." Similarly, on pp. 53-54, he states that no primitive bats or whales occur in the fossil record. I spent less than an hour checking these claims before finding one source[15] which lists over three hundred and fifty fossil species or groups of species which are considered to be transitionals within the mammals. Furthermore, the author of this source was careful to note that this list was nowhere near complete. Primitive primate-like fossils are known and species-to-species transitions are known within the primates; an early fossil bat is known, with appropriately primitive characters; transitional fossils for bears are extremely clear; transitionals for seals and cats are known; there is a whole chain of fossil genera leading up to whales; there is a transitional sequence for cattle as well as for pigs (not to mention very good transitional records for voles, mice, elephants, and ruminants). All of these are organisms which Darwin on Trial claims the fossil record "fails to record." Of course, if Johnson believes that these specimens do not represent true transitionals for some reason, he is welcome to explain to the rest of us why. Such a contention would be perfectly scientific and respectable if documented and backed up with careful study. No such documentation or study exist in Darwin on Trial.

The errors or misrepresentations go on. Johnson apparently does not realize that neutral traits cannot be expected to change under artificial selection (p.18), fails to mention a large body of work on female mate preference (p.30), attacks ideas which evolutionary biologists abandoned decades ago (p.79), and does not seem to grasp the distinction between natural selection and adaptation (p.144) or between common descent and natural selection (pp.151-152). There are a large number of other errors, any of which he could have avoided by consulting with a competent biologist before publishing his book. Several of these errors have been pointed out by reviewers of the first edition of Darwin on Trial; they remain uncorrected in the current edition. Johnson has apparently read almost no history or history of science on the subject of Darwin and Darwinism. The philosophy of science he uses is perhaps thirty years out of date and at least one reviewer has pointed out that he employs it incorrectly.[16] He has not bothered to read more than half-a-dozen articles from the primary literature (by contrast, a thorough undergraduate thesis might require a hundred or more). Furthermore, some of the sources he does employ are extremely suspect. Several of them have not passed through any peer-review process, a process which is absolutely mandatory before a source is considered to have any scientific authority. Johnson accepts The Bone Peddlers, a book by William Fix, as authoritative, despite the fact that the later chapters, by his own admission, "accept evidence of parapsychological phenomena uncritically." Another questionable source he relies on is The Neck of the Giraffe, by Francis Hitching. A little research revealed that Hitching is apparently a believer in Mayan pyramid energy and other paranormal phenomena, as well as some sort of professional psychic.[17] He has no scientific credentials of any kind. Johnson accepts Hitching as an authority nonetheless.

In short, Johnson is claiming to understand the entire field of evolutionary theory--a vast field which draws evidence from dozens of different subfields--on the weight of research which would not be acceptable for an undergraduate term paper. He ignores basic academic standards and principles, and has ignored almost all subsequent criticism on questions of fact. Any of these failings would be more than enough to disqualify Darwin on Trial as a respectable academic work.

8. The log in your own eye

a. Selective use of evidence

In his book Defeating Darwinism, Johnson lists a number of 'tricks' which he says evolutionists use to fool laypeople into believing their arguments. The strategy Johnson is using here is one which is regularly seen in political races: candidates often try to "steal the thunder" from their opponents by pre-emptively accusing them of their own worst faults. Johnson himself uses the exact strategies he denounces, over and over again, in Darwin on Trial. For example, one such 'trick' listed by Johnson is "Selective Use of Evidence." Many of the examples I have noted above (for instance, the use of excerpts from Patterson's 1981 speech, or Johnson's omission of most of the fossil evidence) are just such selective quotation. There are many more such instances in Darwin on Trial. On p.25, Johnson invokes a phenomenon called "selection plateaus", which, if taken by themselves, suggest that there is a permanent boundary to the amount of change which can be achieved by natural selection. However, Johnson fails to mention that such plateaus are to be expected under any evolutionary scenario (Darwinian or otherwise), omits the fact that selection can continue to change populations after hitting a plateau (the rate of change simply slows), and does not mention that some large-scale selection experiments never hit a plateau at all. On p.100, Johnson quotes a review of molecular evolutionary theory by Allan Wilson,[18] but his quotation is extremely selective: he quotes what is perhaps the only sentence in the entire review which is at all skeptical about molecular clocks, leaving a very skewed impression of Wilson's article.

The most striking example of the selective use of evidence, though, appears on p.25. Johnson claims that the idea that evolutionary theory is a tested scientific hypothesis is one "which deserves our most respectful scrutiny", and states that we must face a critical question: "what evidence confirms that this hypothesis is true?" Johnson then proceeds to list six examples from Futuyma's Science on Trial, and concludes that these examples are simply inadequate as a foundation for the sweeping claims of evolutionary theory.

These six examples, examples of natural selection at work today, are of course totally inadequate to establish evolutionary theory as a science. But, of course, no evolutionary biologist has ever claimed that one slender line of evidence is enough. Johnson's sources certainly don't claim this; on p.36 of Science on Trial, Futuyma notes that Darwin's theory originally drew its support from fields as diverse as "comparative anatomy, embryology, behavior, geographic variation, the geographic distribution of species, the study of rudimentary organs, atavistic variations ('throwbacks'), and the geological record to show how all of biology provides testimony that species have descended with modification from common ancestors." Futuyma specifically points out that the importance of the theory of evolution rests on its ability to tie many distinct threads of evidence together into a single explanation (pp.66-67 of Science on Trial). Futuyma's book makes clear that a great many types of evidence can be brought to bear on evolutionary theory: taxonomic (in the form of homologies, embryology, and vestigial structures or functions), fossil evidence, or biogeographical, for example. In fact, the biogeographical evidence (i.e., where species occur on the globe relative to one another) was the single line of evidence which most convinced Darwin that species had evolved, but biogeography is not addressed at all in Johnson's book. Another extremely important line of evidence which Johnson avoids discussing is the fact that natural selection can only generate structures or functions which serve to promote the survival and reproduction of the individual organism. Any complex structure which does not serve such a functionuctures which exist only for the good of other species, for example, or which exist only for the sake of beauty-could not possibly have been formed by natural selection. The fact that no such complex structures or functions have ever been found (as Futuyma notes, for example, "No one has ever found a case of a species altruistically serving another, without any gain for itself") suggests powerfully that natural selection is responsible for the complex structures and functions we see in the biological world.

From Darwin on Trial, it is clear that Johnson knows that these other lines of evidence are important and relevant. After all, he spends most of the rest of the book discussing homologies, fossils, and various other, inferential evidence. But his "respectful" review of the facts somehow manages to leave all of this out. Comically, the rest of the book depends on Johnson's contention that the theory of evolution is not supported by the scientific facts-facts which he deliberately avoids discussing. Never were such grand pretensions built on so shaky a foundation.

b. The moving target

This is a classic "bait-and-switch" strategy: Darwin on Trial leads the reader to expect a careful, thorough examination of the evidence, and at the last minute substitutes a minor subset of the evidence which no-one considers sufficient to 'prove' evolutionary theory. Johnson uses similar strategies to distract the reader from important points several times in Darwin on Trial. For example, on p.30, Johnson acknowledges that Darwin suggested a standard by which his theory of evolution could be falsified-but he then shifts the topic to whether or not Darwin suggested other mechanisms of evolution, avoiding the main point (that complex structures which serve other species could not have been generated through natural selection). On p.70, he quotes Steven Jay Gould's claim that imperfections in organisms are strong evidence for evolution, but then shifts the topic again, stating that Gould is making theological speculations. This ignores Gould's point, which is that the pattern of imperfections seen in biological organisms is very consistent with the theory of evolution. In his chapter on molecular evolution, Johnson protests that evolutionists went to the molecular evidence looking for confirmation of their theory rather than without preconceptions. Even if this were true-and he presents no evidence to support his allegation-it dodges the most important question, which is: did the molecular evidence turn out to be consistent with evolutionary theory? And unless the evolutionists' preconceptions somehow altered the molecular structure of every species on the planet, why are these supposed preconceptions relevant anyway? A similar trick is employed on p.99 when Johnson claims that "the molecular clock hypothesis assumes the validity of the common ancestry thesis which it is supposed to confirm." This is misleading. The molecular clock does not merely assume common ancestry; it goes on to test that thesis. Johnson is apparently trying to distract the reader from the facts: namely, that the theory of common ancestry passed the test with flying colors.

Another criticism of evolutionists in Defeating Darwinism is that they use vague and untestable terms and arguments. Vague and untestable statements are Johnson's bread and butter, when he's not simply insinuating things. For example, throughout Darwin on Trial, Johnson insists that there is a fundamental difference between minor variations or "microevolution" and larger, creative changes, or "macroevolution" (pp.66, 68-70, 81, 91, 111, 117, 151, 153, for example). However, he carefully avoids discussing where the boundary between micro- and macroevolution lies, or how one could tell objectively whether a change is "creative" or not. The failure to make these definitions renders his arguments untestable and, by his own standards, valueless. Another good example is on p.98, where Johnson claims that natural selection "permits variation only within boundaries". What empirical evidence do we have for these boundaries? Where exactly are they?

No matter what changes breeders manage to make through artificial selection, it can always be claimed that these are only "minor" or "uncreative" changes. There is no way to test Johnson's arguments scientifically, because the goalposts can simply be moved every time a challenge is met. What's the simplest explanation for this? Does Johnson want mobile goalposts? It's possible; mobile goalposts are tactically very useful. If you read carefully through Darwin on Trial, you will notice a remarkable number of places where Johnson suggests or insinuates something rather than stating it outright, or where he leaves a logical argument vague rather than well-defined. Usually, this is a good indication that he is trying to lead the reader to a false conclusion without actually saying a lie outright. This strategy is a variation on the theme of "plausible deniability"; by suggesting falsehoods rather than stating them clearly, Johnson can always protest later that he wasn't really lying, or that his critics have simply misunderstood his point. His critics aren't infallible, of course-myself very much included-but it is a curious coincidence that the point Johnson seems to be making so often turns out to be false. Johnson is not stupid, and I have no doubt that he could state his ideas clearly, if that were his goal.

In summary, Darwin on Trial contains an enormous number of questionable tactics which can only be described as 'trickery'. In reading carefully through Darwin on Trial, I found that Johnson used the very 'tricks' he denounces in Defeating Darwinism a total of fifty-eight times in the first two chapters alone.[19] I should emphasize that I was being strict in my reading, but if I am right about even a tenth of these violations, then Johnson's work is certainly no model of trustworthiness.

9. Johnson's response

If the facts I've listed above were not enough, there is--last but not least--my personal correspondence with Johnson. When I first started to do the research which led to this review, I contacted Johnson to ask him if there were any sources not cited in his research notes which were important in supporting the views expressed in Darwin on Trial. Although, as noted above, Johnson makes many assertions about scientific fact which are not backed up by any references in his research notes, I felt it irresponsible to draw hard conclusions without making sure that the research notes told the whole story.

Johnson first flatly refused to help. I explained myself more fully, saying that I was simply trying to verify some of his factual assertions. To this, he responded that the controversy was not about scientific facts but philosophy. When I pointed out that factual assertions are very much a matter of scientific facts, he changed tactics, claiming that he did not have time to answer "open-ended" questions.

To be agreeable, I accepted this at face value and posed a simpler question instead, asking Johnson if he would provide me with a transcript of an interview he had with Colin Patterson in London. (At the time I was puzzled by Johnson's representation of Patterson; Johnson had provided me with a transcript of the ANMH speech, and I knew that Patterson hadn't been talking about the theory of evolution in that speech, but I still hoped that perhaps Johnson hadn't utterly misrepresented Patterson's views.) Johnson told me to publish my views and that he would then respond to them. I explained that it would be inappropriate to publish anything on the subject without trying to do thorough research first--which naturally involved trying to figure out what Patterson said during that interview! Johnson's response was that he stood by what he had written in Darwin on Trial. I explained that I accepted this fully, but that this did not answer my question. In this last letter, I asked him to please either provide the information I had requested or explain why he chose not to do so.

At this point I had received five letters from Johnson, each with a different excuse for why he was not answering my questions. I eventually had to send the last letter a second time, because Johnson simply failed to answer it. When pressed, he finally admitted that he had no intention of providing me with any information. He would not say why.

This bizarre correspondence is perhaps especially notable in light of the dedication to Darwin on Trial. Johnson piously dedicates his book to "those brave souls who asked the hard questions even when there was never a chance of getting a straight answer; and to those in science who want to allow the questions to be asked." My correspondence with Johnson is an excellent example of not being able to get a straight answer--and the questions I was asking were not even hard ones. When it comes to the critical examination of his own ideas, there seem to be a great many questions which Phillip Johnson has no intention of permitting. Since Johnson's dedication suggests that biologists are the evasive ones, I should add one further point: in the past several years, I have corresponded with, and asked favors from, evolutionary biologists on many occasions. None of them have ever answered those requests with the evasiveness which I received from Phillip Johnson.

10. Conclusions

The facts I have listed above all point to one conclusion, and they are only the tip of the iceberg--there are many, many instances of trickery and misleading arguments which I haven't discussed in this document. Johnson's repeated attempts to stereotype evolutionists as atheists despite the fact that he has every reason to know otherwise; the way in which he has quoted evolutionary biologists out of context to give impressions which are not true to their views; the omission of vast amounts of evidence; the numerous examples of rhetorical sleight-of-hand and inflammatory rhetoric; his refusal to correct his work even when errors have been pointed out to him by reviewers; his refusal to follow the norms of intellectual inquiry--all of these patterns suggest that his intention is not to present an honest, accurate picture to his audience. They suggest, instead, that he is a lawyer playing the lawyer's game. I am not the first person to reach this conclusion about Johnson. For example, philosopher of science Michael Ruse (who initially found that he agreed with Johnson on certain philosophical issues) found himself regretting his trust in Johnson after Johnson misused statements made by Ruse at an American Association for the Advancement of Science symposium in 1993. Ruse wrote that Johnson's abuses broke him "from my complacent dream that perhaps we had moved on from the early crude days, where science was so clearly being attacked by people who had no genuine interest in finding the truth." Ruse added bluntly: "Johnson's response showed that his concern was not at all in scholarly debate. He merely wanted to take shots, simply to win at any cost." (Ruse's comments are used by Johnson--abused, Ruse might say--in the Epilogue to the second edition of Darwin on Trial.)

It is useless to try to explain science to someone who isn't interested in what the facts have to say. And it's useless to try to learn anything from such people. If they are clever, as Johnson is, they can find a way to claim that almost any fact supports their position. If evolutionists agree on something, it's a dogmatic orthodoxy; if they disagree, they're squabbling about every detail of evolutionary theory. If a piece of evidence seems to count against evolution, evolution has been disproven; if it seems to count for evolution, that merely shows that evolution is unfalsifiable. If scientists state that they are personally atheistic, they are clearly exposing the rotten metaphysical heart of evolution; if they state that they are religious, they are clearly trying to cover the rotten heart up. If we learn anything new, it's evidence that our current theory is completely false; if what we learn is exactly what we expected, it's only because we were precommitted to finding it in the first place. If we point out where creationists are wrong, we are persecuting the underdog; if we ignore them, we are refusing to face the fact that they're right. If a piece of evidence supports one part of evolutionary theory, it doesn't support that other part. If we find a strong piece of evidence for evolution, there ought to be more just like it. If an evolutionist speaks out in favor of Darwinism, it's because they were strong-armed into it; if they say anything which can be taken out of context to suggest any skepticism about evolution, it's resounding proof that nobody in science believes the theory.

I gave Johnson every chance I could to show that he was trustworthy. The academic community has done the same. The vast number of falsehoods and distortions; the trickery and stereotypes; the misleading way in which Johnson represents scientists and their views as well as science itself--the sheer number of these instances suggests that Johnson has little or no interest in truth or science. His focus is, as Futuyma puts it, "rhetoric, the tool of the Sophists, who taught their pupils how to win arguments, rather than how to seek for truth."

I would liken Darwin on Trial to a different ancient and infamous group. Jesus denounced the Pharisees for their hypocrisy: they observed formal rituals on the outside, but in their hearts they were corrupt. A "whitewashed tomb" is an excellent description of Johnson's arguments and the "intelligent design" movement which is founded on them. They are painstaking about appearing scientific, lavishing effort on their public relations and trying to dazzle their audience with large, intellectual-sounding words. But inside, both morally and intellectually, the movement founded by Phillip Johnson and Darwin on Trial is dead. And it is the exact opposite of education. Those who support it should ask themselves what sort of science can be built on such a thorough disregard for accuracy. Whether or not biological life as we see it today took shape through evolutionary processes, the "intelligent design" movement founded on Darwin on Trial is doomed to failure, because it abandoned at the outset the respect for truth which is fundamental to any science.

Johnson is a very good lawyer. But science doesn't need lawyers; instead, it needs witnesses willing to tell "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." In my opinion, a comparison between Johnson's words and his sources show that his approach is ethically bankrupt. What is even more disturbing is the fact that Darwin on Trial, even according to many proponents of "intelligent design", is perhaps the best that the movement has to offer. As one "intelligent design" creationist put it publicly: "Philip Johnson is the Godfather of all this [intelligent design]. He made the point first and best." These are the people who are trying to dictate what our children learn in the public schools-and this book, with all of its inaccurate and deceptive statements, is one of the books which they would like to see in the classroom.

Johnson fits perfectly a quote applied to the last generation of creationists: "Scientific creationism is an intolerable assault on education not merely because it is the antithesis of reason, but because it is opposed to the very foundation of true education: intellectual honesty. Surely education should teach the courage to weigh evidence and draw conclusions dispassionately, and to recognize their consequences, however hard or distasteful. Scientific creationism teaches, instead, the standards of the Madison Avenue marketplace: how to further your aims by guile, seductive catch phrases, selective quotation of evidence. ...[S]cientific creationism teaches by its tactics more than by its words: truth is not the object of brave and honest search. Truth is whatever you can convince people it is. But to accede to these standards in education is to teach dishonesty and cowardice."[20]

"Intelligent design" creationists complain that our society's morals are being eroded because schoolchildren are being taught to think like scientists. God help our society's values if we teach our kids to think like Phillip Johnson.

11. Additional examples

The following are other examples of tricks and errors in Darwin on Trial. This is not, unfortunately, an exhaustive list. Readers interested in other reviews of Darwin on Trial and other of Johnson's books can find additional material at A Militant Dilettante in Judgment of Science.

a. Bait-and-switch

Bait-and-switch is a common tactic. You have probably received many envelopes in the mail suggesting that YOU HAVE DEFINITELY WON some enormous sum of money. Of course, when you open the envelope, you find that a much less exciting promise has been substituted for the original: you have definitely won, for example, if you have the winning prize number. It is an old and tiresome trick.

Such tricks can be found often in Darwin on Trial. For example, at the beginning of Darwin on Trial, Johnson gives a comfortably broad definition of a "creationist." Anyone who believes in a creator, he suggests, is a creationist. This big tent covers people like me, Ken Miller, and (as I noted above) at least 40% of all American scientists. By the end of Darwin on Trial, however, Johnson has substituted in the more conventional definition of "creationist", meaning somebody who rejects the theory of evolution, presumably in favor of some sort of ex nihilo creation. The tent is suddenly a lot smaller. The generous starting definition is the bait. Don't take bait. There's usually a hook in it. (As I discuss below, the entire book is something of a bait-and-switch.)

b. Selective use of evidence

On page 5 of Darwin on Trial, Johnson recounts the story of Nebraska Man, a fiasco in which a fossilized tooth was found in Nebraska. Wanting to get a jab in at Williams Jennings Bryan, who was at that moment preparing to argue the antievolutionist side in the famous Scopes Trial, Henry Osborn declared that this tooth was from a hominid, possibly an ancestor of the human race, and dubbed the hypothetical hominid "Nebraska Man" in honor of Bryan's home state. The tooth was later determined to be from a peccary rather than from a hominid. (I suspect I am not alone in finding a delicious irony in Osborn's comeuppance.) Johnson cites this example in an apparent effort to illustrate how biased evolutionists can be, and how untrustworthy their judgments are. Johnson leaves out a rather important point, however. It was Osborn and his collaborators who discovered their mistake after checking their hypothesis with further research. This story turns out to be a good example of the "self-correcting" nature of science in action.

When evidence doesn't work in Johnson's favor, his policy is to ignore it. For example, on pp.70-71 he cites Steven Jay Gould and Douglas Futuyma, both making the "argument from imperfection" which is often used to suggest that an intelligent designer--most often God--couldn't have been responsible for the rather unintelligent way in which many organisms are put together. Johnson accuses them of engaging in philosophy rather than science, saying that the "task of science is not to speculate about why God might have done things this way, but to see if a material cause can be established by empirical investigation." But their point is not theological speculation. Their point is that the features which a theory of "intelligent design" can't explain-the gills on larval salamanders, the preponderance of marsupials in Australia, and so on-make perfect sense if we consider the possibility that these organisms evolved to be what they are today. The examples given by Gould and Futuyma are striking confirmations of evolution's explanatory power in the empirical world. True to character, Johnson spends the rest of the paragraph complaining that evolutionists don't do enough empirical work.

c. Ad hominems and innuendo

One clever, but unscrupulous, way to win over an audience (even if logic isn't on your side) is to try to plant negative feelings about your opponent in their heads. Johnson carefully builds up a myth in which he and other "intelligent design" creationists are the noble rebels battling the monolithic, rigid, power structure of Darwinism. He tries to smear the theory of evolution by referring to it as "orthodoxy"(p.3). He insinuates that evolutionists are dishonest, accusing them of using a "tactically advantageous flexibility"(p.16). He claims that, in response to an article questioning evolution, Steven Jay Gould wrote an "evasive" article that "put this outsider firmly in his place"(p.11). The reader would be wise to subtract such emotionally charged rhetoric from Johnson's sentences and see what substance remains.

Johnson implies, on p.11, that evolutionists are making their claims deliberately vague to avoid having them criticized. To support this claim, he cites a quote by Steven Jay Gould, who stated that the difficulty of untangling what neo-Darwinian theory predicts "imposes a great frustration upon anyone who would characterize the modern synthesis in order to criticize it." However, what Gould is saying is that the modern synthesis makes a set of general statements but that these statements are "subject to recognized exceptions"--in other words, that the modern synthesis is complicated. Gould does suggest that the way in which these exceptions were wielded made it unfairly difficult to criticize neo-Darwinism, but Johnson blows a minor complaint into a charge of conspiracy. The best proof of this is the fact that Gould himself is wholly convinced that the theory of evolution is perfectly robust, and that it does not rest on equivocation.

There is some irony in this insinuation of Johnson's. Since Gould's quote, the scientific community has been relentlessly pushing forward toward a clearer description of neo-Darwinian theory. Ever since the "intelligent design" movement started, by contrast, one of the main planks in its platform has been to keep the identity and nature of the "designer" deliberately murky. In fact, the main strategy of Johnson and his colleagues is to focus on "problems with evolution" and say as little about their own position as possible, in order to avoid having that position criticized. Intelligent design is rife with ambiguous definitions and equivocations.

Johnson tries a similar trick on p.90, claiming that evolutionists have been "vague" about the mechanisms other than natural selection which can be invoked in evolutionary biology. Darwinists have not been "vague" about what other means of evolution exist, or how important they are; they have disagreed on the subject, and in many cases they will freely admit that they don't know how common a particular mechanism is, but they haven't been vague. Johnson's insinuation of deception is utterly unfounded. The same goes for his insinuation on p.98 that the controversy between neutralists and selectionists was invented to save Darwinism from being disconfirmed, and the insinuation on p.99 that the "molecular clock" was dreamed up to intimidate non-specialists. If Johnson really thinks that scientists do nothing but sit in their labs and plot how to fool the public, why does he think they publish so many professional papers grappling with real biological facts--like neutral alleles, alleles under selection, and the fact that the molecular clock actually exists? Apparently, in Johnson's eyes, any time biologists try to explain something which hasn't been explained before, it is just a cover-up. What would he suggest that science do, other than try to explain unexplained phenomena?

(Incidentally, in a footnote on p.100, Johnson cites an article from Roger Lewin in an attempt to call the whole idea of a molecular clock into question. Other parts of that article deserve mention. For example, Lewin notes on testing the relationship between apes and humans: "This has involved many different methods of listening to the clock ticking, including protein electrophoresis, amino acid sequencing, restriction mapping of mitochondrial DNA, and sequencing of mitochondrial and genomic DNA. Virtually all answers fall between the 5 to 10 million year period, with 7 to 8 million usually given as a good average." Lewin then cites another biologist:" 'If you need better evidence that there's a molecular clock working in there somewhere, I don't know what it is.'" Johnson tries to suggest that the controversy is over whether or not clocks work at all, whereas the upshot of Lewin's article is that, yes, they definitely work if you are careful to use them locally and not assume that they are globally dependable. The puzzle is over exactly what makes them work. [What Johnson is implying here is a little like saying that you can't depend on a quartz-oscillating clock unless you personally know exactly how it functions.] Johnson also leaves out any mention of the figure at the top of p.168 in Wilson's article, which shows just how closely the molecular-clock hypothesis matches the divergence times inferred from the fossil record for mammal lineages. In fact, the only sentence Johnson quotes from Wilson's review is possibly the only sentence in Wilson's entire article which evinces any amount of skepticism about molecular clocks!)

On p. 79, Johnson notes that George Gaylord Simpson pointed out that the mammals could be considered a monophyletic group if their (possibly numerous) therapsid ancestors shared a single common ancestor. Johnson insinuates that Simpson is pulling some sort of trick to do away with the "disturbing" possibility that mammals were derived from multiple therapsids. This is a deceptive insinuation. First, Johnson gives no reason why such a possibility would undermine Darwinism. There's a good reason for this: it wouldn't undermine Darwinism. Second, since any group sharing a single common ancestor is by definition a monophyletic group, it is hard to see what trick Simpson is supposed to be pulling--unless Johnson thinks there is something shady about applying a definition correctly.

Johnson spends several pages (82-85) doing little else but insinuating that anthropologists, because of their alleged precommitments to naturalism and human evolution, cannot be objective. He is particularly nasty in this section. It is interesting to note how he attacks the trustworthiness only of those who happen to disagree with him. On the same note, the claim that Johnson consistently implies throughout Darwin on Trial--that scientists, who are very familiar with the facts and come from a broad variety of ideological backgrounds, are somehow less trustworthy than a lawyer who has little exposure to the facts and comes to the topic with the declared goal of putting his brand of religion at the center of everything in our society [21]--is an excellent example of the sort of doublethink Johnson encourages.

In his chapter on "Darwinian Education", Johnson cites two publications in particular which he claims support his contention that Darwinists are out to brainwash society through the educational system. One is the California State Board of Education's Policy Statement on the Teaching of Science from 1989; the other is California's Science Framework, a curriculum guide. Johnson spends several pages claiming that Darwinists are trying to suppress those who would ask questions about evolution, that these documents endorse naturalism as a metaphysics and attempt to compel students not only to understand evolutionary concepts but agree with them, and so on. I read these documents. There is nothing in either to support Johnson's accusations, and both documents are very careful to avoid compelling anyone to believe in anything.

d. Misrepresentations of science

On page 12, Johnson claims that the "fact of evolution is vacuous unless it comes with a supporting theory", a claim recently repeated in other words by Johnson's colleague William Dembski in the book No Free Lunch. I would disagree; knowing that an organism can change over time into something entirely different, or that all organisms are derived from a common ancestor, would be extremely interesting even if we weren't sure exactly how it happened. And we know a lot more about the origins of modern organisms than Johnson claims. (Alert readers will have noticed the hypocrisy in Johnson's claim as well: "intelligent design", of course, comes with no supporting mechanism whatsoever.)

Pages 29-30 discuss various "subsidiary concepts", including kinship selection, pleiotropy, and sexual selection, which Johnson claims are "capable of furnishing a plausible explanation for just about any conceivable eventuality." Johnson insinuates that these concepts were invented merely to explain any difficult facts, but this is false; these concepts were developed because things like kinship selection, pleiotropy, and sexual selection have been proven to exist. Johnson claims that these mechanisms "are so flexible that in combination they make it difficult to conceive of a way to test the claims of Darwinism empirically", a claim which should come as a surprise to the many biologists who have tested these ideas empirically. There are indeed many mechanisms which might produce seemingly counterintuitive results, but all of them can be-and routinely are-tested. If these subsidiary concepts were being employed as Johnson suggests, we ought to be able to point to case after case where all of them failed to explain a puzzling observation. We can't. Ironically, the one alternative Johnson suggests to explain an anomaly--the peacock's tail--is truly an explanation which covers any conceivable event: a "whimsical Creator" (p.31).

A similar example might be Johnson's statement on p.43 that "The prevailing assumption in evolutionary science seems to be that speculative possibilities, without experimental confirmation, are all that is really necessary." Again, this will come as news to the evolutionary biologists who spend huge amounts of time and effort testing these ideas. And, again, "speculative possibilities, without experimental confirmation" are all that fifteen years of "intelligent design" creationism has ever offered.

On p.91, Johnson claims that "'Panselectionism'--the doctrine that natural selection preserves or eliminates even minute variations--is a logical consequence of the assumption that natural selection can build complex biological structures with only micromutations for raw material." This is false. It is by now well known (in fact, it can be determined mathematically) that mutations of very small effect can be practically "invisible" to selection, especially in small populations, and some genetic material has no apparent effect on the phenotype of an organism and therefore isn't subject to selection at all. Furthermore, panselectionism rules out a number of other processes which are not proscribed by an inference to macroevolution from microevolution. Johnson seems to be suggesting here that no genes can be really neutral; if so, he is contradicted by a mass of studies on the subject.

Johnson's argument on pp.95-96 that "molecular equidistance" is at odds with the theory of evolution appears to have been taken from the work of another antievolutionist, Michael Denton. It is possible that Johnson employs it in good faith, thinking that Denton is a reliable source. Therefore I will only note here that Johnson should have run this argument past a practicing biologist, who could have told him immediately why it is mistaken. Johnson, like Denton, thinks that equidistance is an "astonishing" coincidence, and marvels: "How could such a coincidence happen? It could happen if the rate of molecular change was independent of what was going on in the phenotypes, and unaffected by natural selection." Well, that's precisely what biologists think is going on, so equidistance is not all that surprising. Why would the molecules care if they were inside a muskrat rather than a pigeon? The phenomenon of equidistance is actually remarkably strong support for the theory of common ancestry. If organisms did not share a common ancestor, equidistance really would be inexplicable. More information on molecular equidistance can be found at Sequences and Common Descent.

Johnson, like many antievolutionists, for some reason tries hard to convince his readers that prebiotic evolution is part of evolutionary biology (Chapter 8). It isn't. The rules which governed the prebiotic world are very different than the rules which govern the dynamics of populations of living organisms. Most of the tools applied to biological evolution, and the concepts which have been found to operate in populations of living beings, simply cannot be applied to the question of abiogenesis. Darwin himself specifically excluded prebiological evolution from his theory, but of course Johnson doesn't want his readers to know this. Apparently Johnson insists that biological and prebiological evolution are the same because to do otherwise would undermine his thesis-that evolution is not about science but about expelling God from the universe, start to finish. It does undermine that thesis, of course, but (of course) that thesis is also merely deceit on Johnson's part. Given the fact that this chapter has nothing to do with biological evolution, I have not reviewed the tricks used in Chapter 8. Life is too short.

e. Quote mining

"Quote mining" is the practice of hunting for quotes which appear superficially to support your position, even if the rest of the source you're quoting from clearly states otherwise. Quotes out of context are often used in this way to argue that evolutionists don't think the theory of evolution is accurate. (Any time you see such a quote, have a look at the original source rather than taking it at face value. If evolutionists didn't believe in the accuracy of evolutionary theory, they wouldn't be evolutionists.) I've mentioned several examples of this above, but there are more. On p.18, Johnson cites Pierre Grassť, saying that Grassé "concluded that the results of artificial selection provide powerful testimony against Darwin's theory." This is misleading. Grassť believed that all species descended from a common ancestor, so it can hardly be said honestly that he agreed with Johnson's claim that selection can't take organisms beyond the limits of species (or even phyla). He did not invoke any supernatural explanations, so he cannot even be considered a creationist in the conventional sense. What Grassť did believe was that species somehow "ran out of" the ability to evolve as they became more specialized. His true opinions on the theory of evolution are given in the first few pages of the book cited by Johnson: "Zoologists and botanists are nearly unanimous in considering evolution as a fact and not a hypothesis. I agree with this position and base it primarily on documents provided by paleontology, i.e., the history of the living world."[22]

More quote mining is found on pp.20-21, where Johnson cites four luminaries of biology who note that "survival of the fittest", if taken by itself, is tautological. So far, so good, but none of the gentlemen cited would agree with the suggestion which Johnson goes on to make: that evolutionary theory therefore does not explain anything. In fact, all would disagree quite strongly.

There is another example on p.38, where Johnson suggests that, in 1967, mathematicians calculated that the probability of the gradual evolution of the eye was vanishingly small; according to Johnson, they were savagely attacked by the biologists present, who insisted solely on philosophical grounds that the theory of evolution must be correct. I read the transcript of the meeting he is discussing [23] and found that it tells a rather different story. First, the mathematician in question, D.S. Ulam, emphasized repeatedly that his calculations were premature and not to be taken entirely seriously. Second, there is no indication that the biologists were insisting on the correctness of evolution because of some metaphysical commitment. The postulate that evolution (mainly by means of natural selection) has occurred can be inferred from the nature of living organisms today, not from mere faith in a theory. Given the uncertainty of the calculations and the weight of the evidence in favor of evolution, the most reasonable response for any researcher would be to suspect that there were problems with the math.

Johnson goes on to cite a speech by a mathematician named Schutzenberger, who, he implies, claimed that the theory of evolution was irrevocably flawed (and, apparently, that special creation was the best possible alternative). This second implication is belied by Schutzenberger's own words: "we are not trying to smuggle in extra-scientific principles. Thus if we claim that radically new principles are needed we also believe that these have to be found within physics." Schutzenberger's argument is abstruse, but nothing in it suggested what Johnson implies, namely that Schutzenberger's mathematical calculations had shown Darwinian evolution to be impossible.

f. Begging the question

On p.18, Johnson presents the "dogs are just dogs" argument: yes, artificial selection has produced a remarkable variety of dog breeds, but they're all still dogs. Creationists often claim that this shows that selection can't make one type of animal into another. However, were we to have found animals as distinct as a Great Dane and a chihuahua in the wild, we would have certainly put them in different species, perhaps even separate genera; they are far more distinct than a fox is from a wolf, and those are in different genera. The problem is that "dog" has an elastic meaning. Without a fixed meaning, a dog can never--by definition, even if the theory of evolution is correct in every detail--change into anything but another dog.

It could be objected here that all dogs can still interbreed, and that therefore they are all one species. But that misses the point-that artificial selection has generated an enormous diversity of forms, sizes, shapes, and behaviors, and that there's no sign (yet) of a limit to its ability to generate more. Creating two groups of animals which can't interbreed is not all that difficult--it has been done in laboratory experiments, and we have excellent evidence of it happening naturally (and frequently) in the wild. We have lots of examples suggesting that evolution can produce noninterbreeding species; dogs just don't happen to be one of them.

g. "Straw man" arguments

When a debater is faced with an argument he can't vanquish, one clever trick is this: attack a different argument--and hope that the audience doesn't notice the difference between the original and the "straw man" you've set up. Johnson spends much of his book attacking opinions that evolutionists don't hold and predictions that the theory of evolution doesn't make. For example, he implies that if the theory were correct, all species should always be going through major evolutionary alterations (p.19); but the theory of evolution predicts no such thing. He recites the argument that natural selection is just a tautology (p.20 ff.); but what he's really attacking is a particular mathematical formulation of the theory which does not include the mechanism behind selection, and his argument is invalid in nature (where selection always has mechanisms). As noted above, on p.27 he implies that scientists think that the direct observational evidence is sufficient to prove Darwinism; but no scientist believes this.

A related trick is to claim that, if the opponent's theory is true, we should be able to see or do X, where X is something the theory does not predict or which is impossible to carry out for other reasons. Johnson suggests that, because "no one has ever confirmed by experiment that the gradual evolution of wings and eyes is possible"(p.36), we should call evolutionary theory into question. How on earth scientists should be able to experimentally reproduce the gradual evolution of anything is not a topic he discusses.

Since such experiments are impossible whether evolutionary theory is correct or not, their absence can hardly count as disconfirmation of the theory. The same is true for his argument on p.66, where he seems to suggest that laboratory scientists should be able to transform a single species into animals as varied as a shark and a monkey (although, here, what he is demanding is so vague that it is impossible to be sure). In general, one of Johnson's strategies, when faced with evidence he can't ignore, is to complain that evolutionists should have found more evidence. For example, he tries to dismiss Archaeopteryx, an excellent intermediate between reptiles and birds, saying: "If we are testing Darwinism rather than merely looking for a confirming example or two, then a single good candidate for ancestor status is not enough to save a theory that posits a worldwide history of continual evolutionary transformation." (Why Archaeopteryx should exist at all if evolution didn't happen is a question Johnson finds it convenient to overlook, not to mention overlooking the vast number of other intermediate fossils now known.) Another instance where Johnson tries to distract attention from existing evidence by demanding more is found on pp.86-87, where Johnson discusses the proto-whale Basilosaurus. The fact that evolutionary theory predicted an early whale with vestigial legs like Basilosaurus, Johnson suggests, doesn't matter unless evolutionists can resolve every question involved in the evolution of whales from terrestrial mammals. The fact that we don't know every detail about how it happened is hardly relevant; what the existence of Basilosaurus seems to confirm is that it did happen. The sort of demands Johnson makes could be used to dismiss any science--because we don't fully understand quantum mechanics, should we throw away all of chemistry, for example?

A more extreme example of this same strategy is found on pp.91-92, in Johnson's preface to his section on the molecular evidence. The molecular evidence is such a striking confirmation of evolutionary theory that Johnson finds it necessary to distract the audience with irrelevant demands before he even presents the evidence. His trick here is to insist that the molecular evidence tell us all of the details of how organisms evolved from a common ancestor. Of course, evolutionists have never claimed that the molecular evidence could be applied to that question. The theory of common descent makes many predictions which are beautifully confirmed by the molecular evidence. Demanding that the molecular evidence also confirm the separate theory of natural selection is an illogical move, made only to distract the reader. A similar absurdity is found on the next page (p.93), where Johnson suggests that genetic similarities between humans and animals are unimportant because they do "little to explain the profound dissimilarities between humans and animals of any kind." Of course they don't; they are, however, exactly what the theory of common descent predicted. Who has claimed they explain anything else? These are good examples of a common ploy used by Johnson: what faced with evidence that confirms one aspect of Darwin's theory, demonstrate that it doesn't confirm another aspect and declare victory. It is hard to see how science would have gotten anywhere if it lent any credence to such silliness.

Similarly, the statement that "sudden appearance and stasis in the fossil record is the opposite of what Darwinian theory would predict"(p.56) is false; Darwinian theory does not necessarily entail a constant rate of change. The same is true for the apparently arbitrary mass extinctions which have occurred repeatedly in the earth's history. Johnson claims that the record of extinctions is "disappointing to Darwinist expectations", but he does not make clear what he thinks Darwinists should have been expecting in the first place, or why they should be disappointed. I don't know of any biologists who find the pattern of extinctions "disappointing"; if Johnson does, he should let us know.

On p.78, criticizing the scientific account of the evolution of mammals, Johnson states: "The notion that mammals-in-general evolved from reptiles-in-general through a broad clump of diverse therapsid lines is not Darwinism. Darwinian transformation requires a single line of ancestral descent." This last statement is true, but it provides no support for Johnson's contention that the existence of many similar fossils makes the therapsids somehow "ambiguous." The many therapsids make it difficult for scientists to determine which of the therapsids might have been the direct ancestor of mammals, but the fact that the therapsids are excellent intermediate fossils between mammals and reptiles strongly supports the Darwinian claim that one of the therapsids is the direct ancestor of mammals. The statement on p.79 is farcical: "most of the therapsids with mammal-like characteristics were not part of a macroevolutionary transition. If most were not then perhaps all were not." This is like claiming that "most of the people in the city clearly didn't murder the poor victim who was found dead with three bullets in his back--so perhaps none of them did!" Perhaps Johnson should try this argument out in the courtroom sometime. (This argument is also suggested in Johnson's "research notes" on p.191, and on p.81 in reference to Archaeopteryx.)

In this same section of his book, Johnson claims that many similar fossils which weren't in a direct ancestral line is evidence against the idea that similarities imply ancestry. Similarities don't imply ancestry, they imply relatedness. This is a bit like claiming that your similarity to your uncle means that perhaps you aren't related to either of your parents. Another "straw man" here is the statement that the possibly polyphyletic origin of mammals from therapsids undermines the inference that similarity is due to relatedness. This is not the case; if those multiple therapsids had a single common ancestor, evolutionary theory predicts similarity among their mammalian descendents. Polyphyly would only undermine the inference of common descent if we found that distantly-related taxa share more traits with one another than they share with their closer relatives--say, if mammals and birds shared a large number of traits not possessed by reptiles. Incidentally, Johnson avoids the most important point about the therapsids: Why should such intermediates should exist if mammals didn't evolve from reptiles? The mangled logic and evasive rhetoric in this section are especially good indicators that Johnson is trying to distract the reader from the important issues involved.

h. Conspiracy theory

When he can find examples where evolutionists seem to repudiate the theory of evolution, Johnson quotes them as accurate pictures of the true state of scientists' beliefs. But when those scientists later say that their words were taken out of context, or that their earlier position was simply wrong, Johnson claims or implies that they only did this because the Darwinian establishment pressured them into it. Of course, such a strategy can be used to throw out any evidence you don't like. It has been used to argue, for example, that few people actually died in the Holocaust and that people only believe so because a Jewish conspiracy controls the media; that all men really do want to kill their fathers and marry their mothers, and that they don't say so only because these feelings are "repressed"; and so forth. In Darwin on Trial, Johnson actually makes the claim that Sir Karl Popper backed down from his statement that natural selection was tautological only because Darwinians attacked him for making it. If Johnson has any evidence for this absurd claim, he should present it. Otherwise, this can only be interpreted as something Johnson chose to make up.

Johnson spends much of Chapter Eleven insisting that Darwinians are out to brainwash everyone; in his words, "from a Darwinist perspective it is no more possible to understand evolution and honestly disbelieve it than it is to understand arithmetic and think that four times two is seven"(p.143), and Johnson suggests that Darwinists will try to break those who oppose them. The truth is that educators, even Darwinian ones, aren't interested in compelling belief; if their students understand a theory, that is enough. Belief is not required. An illustration of this might be the fact that Kurt Wise, who is not only a creationist but a creationist of the "young-earth" school, earned his graduate degree at Harvard--under the tutelage of no less than Steven Jay Gould, who is of course one of the best-known Darwinians in the world. Wise made no secret of his beliefs during that time, yet, as historian Ronald Numbers puts it, "Gould always treated him with respect."[24] The Darwinist Big Brother who Johnson is trying to invent would never have allowed such a heresy. Nonetheless, Wise got his degree simply by demonstrating that he understood Darwin's theory, though it was well known that he disbelieved it.

Another critical element of any conspiracy theory is the insistence that the conspirators are keeping everything carefully under wraps. Johnson insists many times that evolutionists don't talk about any difficulties with the theory. This is of course false. If evolutionists didn't publicly discuss their disagreements and the difficulties they find with the current understanding of evolutionary theory, creationists like Johnson would never know these difficulties existed: Johnson, like almost all creationists, does no research of his own and would have no way of learning about these things if evolutionists really wanted to keep them secret.

Conspiracy theory is really what Darwin on Trial is all about. Johnson opens his book with discussions of science and material that sounds agreeable and reasonable, but this is just the hook to draw the reader in; by the last few chapters, Johnson's venom is in full spate and he is insisting that the scientific establishment has nothing better to do than persecute harmless creationists. What is perhaps most disturbing about this book, from a Christian perspective, is Johnson's willingness to play on the baser instincts of his audience. What he is appealing to is the streak of paranoia which has developed in a Christian community that sees itself as hemmed in by secular enemies; he encourages these people to hate and stereotype rather than to seek to understand. Coupled with the almost total indifference, if not a deliberate disregard, toward accurate arguments, this makes Darwin on Trial more likely to poison believers' hearts than to forward God's purposes on earth. All in all, I find this book far more disturbing from a Christian point of view than I do from a scientific one. And that is very sad indeed.


I am indebted to Prof. Arthur Shapiro for his explanations of pattern cladism, and his discussions of various aspects of creationism. Wise suggestions on this manuscript were made by Mark Perakh, Brian Poindexter, Morgan Grey, Wesley Elsberry, Lizard6849, pimvanmeurs, chrysothamnus, michaelshopkins, and probably a few others who I'm forgetting. The remaining foolish errors are mine.

Comments and criticism are welcome; in particular, if I've gotten my facts wrong anywhere in this document, I would be grateful to hear of it.

[1]I have a great deal of sympathy for those Christians who have placed their trust in Johnson and the "intelligent design" movement. It is grim to see how the faith and generosity of spirit of the Christian community can be manipulated. Sadly, it is true that if one is willing to believe the best about other people, one will sometimes be betrayed by wolves wearing sheep's clothing.

[2]This review may be found in Creation/Evolution, vol.12, no.2, pp.47-56.

[3]"Poll Finds Americans Split on Creation Idea." 1982. New York Times, Aug. 29.

[4]Gilkey, L. Creationism on Trial (Winston Press, Inc., Minneapolis).

[5]Futuyma, D. Science on Trial.

[6]There is some debate over whether or not "methodological naturalism" excludes anything supernatural, such as God, by definition. I would argue that it does not. If God or God's action could be detected empirically, then "methodological naturalism" would be able to pick it up; however, in such a case many scientists would consider God's influence to be part of the natural world rather than the supernatural. In fact, it's hard to say what meaning the words "natural" and "supernatural" have, except that the first follows rules and can be detected empirically, while the second doesn't and can't.

[7]Pennock, R.T., 1999. The Tower of Babel. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. p.300.

[8]Johnson's insistence that the developmental patterns in tetrapods do not support evolutionary theory seems to result from an insistence on what Ridley's Evolution and classification (1986) calls "the principle of terminal addition". If evolution can only add new steps onto the end of the developmental path of an organism, then of course the earlier stages should be identical for all organisms descended from a common ancestor. There are good reasons to think that evolution would add steps to the end of the developmental path more often than to the beginning, but no justification for thinking that steps are only added at the end. Like most of biology, comparative embryology is messy, and not every detail will support a theory even if that theory is 100% correct. As Evolution and classification states: "We do not know how often, or in what circumstances, the embryological criterion is valid. Its truth is proportional to that of the principle of terminal addition: but we do not know how frequent terminal addition is in nature; and we do know that, at least sometimes, the principle is wrong. We must, in the end, deliver the same judgment on the embryological criterion as we gave for outgroup comparison. It is imperfect; it is better than nothing; further investigation may improve it."

[9]Kimura, M. The Neutral Theory of Molecular Evolution. Scientific American, Nov. 1979, pp.98-126.

[10]Patterson, C. Evolution.

[11]Creationists of various kinds have cited Patterson before in support of their views-much to his dismay. See Patterson Misquoted.

[12]First published in 1980; Paleobiology 6(1), pp.119-130.

[13]Strangely, Johnson here seems to suggest that the knowledge of animal breeders is equivalent to the knowledge involved in "intelligent design". Actually, you can breed animals without knowing the first thing about how they work-a far cry from the superhuman intelligence currently required to build even a small biological system from scratch. Artificial selection, in terms of intelligence, is a lot closer to natural selection than it is to the molecule-level engineering suggested by "intelligent design" creationists. In fact, artificial selection can even occur unconsciously, so it arguably doesn't require intelligence at all.

[14]Kimura, M. The Neutral Theory of Molecular Evolution. Scientific American, Nov. 1979, pp.98-126.

[15]See Transitional Vertebrate Fossils FAQ.

[16]A review in the Journal of Scientific Exploration 6(2), by Henry Bauer.

[17]More information on Hitching can be found at Francis Hitching: Commonly quoted by creationists.

[18]Wilson, A. 1985. "The molecular basis of evolution." Scientific American, October 1985, pp.164-173.

[19]This is not even a full accounting of the questionable practices employed by Johnson in these pages; there are a number of other tricks used in these chapters which are not listed in Defeating Darwinism.

[20]Science on Trial, pp.219-220.

[21]Forrest, B. 2001. "The wedge at work." Pp.1-53 in Pennock, R.T., ed. Intelligent design creationism and its critics. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

[22]Evolution of Living Organisms, p.3

[23]Moorehead, P.S., and M.M. Kaplan. 1967. Mathematical Challenges to the Neo-Darwinian Interpretation of Evolution.

[24]Numbers, R.L. 1992. The creationists. University of California Press, Berkeley, p.281.

Also posted at TalkDesign.org