Phillip Johnson's Assault Upon Faith-Based Darwinism 

A modern monkey trial isn't what Phillip Johnson expected when he wrote a critique of evolution that launched intelligent design -- or was it?

When fevered creationists gather outside a Dover, Pennsylvania, courtroom this fall, Berkeley's Phillip E. Johnson will probably shake his head in disapproval. Like many East Bay residents, the emeritus Boalt Hall law professor will watch uneasily if people waving Bibles make an intemperate attack on evolution in support of the doctrine known as "intelligent design."

The September trial promises to be a historic moment for the intelligent-design movement -- conceivably as important as the infamous Scopes "Monkey Trial" of 1925 was to the teaching of evolution. Last October, in the first case of its kind, the Dover Area School Board required science teachers to read ninth graders a short statement about Darwin's theory of evolution. The statement included the following:

"Because Darwin's theory is a theory, it is still being tested as new evidence is discovered. The theory is not a fact. Gaps in the theory exist for which there is no evidence. ... Intelligent design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view. The reference book Of Pandas and People is available for students to see if they would like to explore this view in an effort to gain an understanding of what intelligent design actually involves. As is true with any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind."

Dover area biology teachers refused to read the words. Eleven parents sued the school board, claiming its action violated the Constitution's prohibition against laws "respecting an establishment of religion," which courts have ruled forbids the teaching of creationism.

Supporters of the school board claimed its action was not religiously motivated. But press coverage of the board's deliberations puts the lie to that claim. The York Daily Record quoted one board member as saying, "This country wasn't founded on Muslim beliefs or evolution. ... This country was founded on Christianity, and our students should be taught as much."

The board also betrayed its true intentions by entrusting its defense to the Thomas More Law Center, a public- interest law firm "dedicated to the defense and promotion of the religious freedom of Christians, time-honored family values, and the sanctity of human life." Attorney Richard Thompson says his client's message to ninth graders was merely designed to promote critical thinking. Yet he willingly imagines the sort of thinking it might promote: "After considering intelligent design, the student may ask, 'Who is the designer?' And the student may come to the conclusion the designer is God."

Back in Berkeley, all this talk of God and intelligent design disturbs Phillip Johnson. Yet his is not the discomfort of a creationism opponent. Instead, his unease stems from being the very father of the movement on trial in Dover.

In 1991, Johnson published Darwin on Trial, the book that served as catalyst for the intelligent-design movement. The volume was a rhetorically persuasive work of scientific criticism aimed at debunking what Johnson called "the scientific orthodoxy of today, which is that all living things evolved by a gradual, natural process -- from nonliving matter to simple microorganisms, leading eventually to man."

As one would imagine, Johnson was heavily critical of naturalistic evolution, a doctrine he prefers to call Darwinism. But he hardly wrote at all about God. "I am not a defender of creation-science," he wrote, "and in fact I am not concerned in this book with addressing any conflicts between the Biblical accounts and the scientific evidence." In fact, he pointedly disavowed creation-scientists in his book, calling them "biased by their precommitment to Biblical fundamentalism."

Consequently, Johnson is not at all involved in the first big legal challenge to the doctrine he helped launch, despite his role as the movement's popularizer and his status as its eminent legal theorist. In fact, he looks down his well-read nose at the spectacle in Dover. He insists that he would rather see the intelligent-design debate remain purely academic. "All of these local controversies are opened up by local people pursuing their own agendas," he says. "They may have in their mind they are furthering the intelligent-design movement, but that isn't necessarily the case and it isn't at our urging that they're doing it."

Getting a read on Johnson's true designs can be a challenge. While he insists he has no control over local skirmishes such as the Dover flap, in the past his fingerprints appeared on the movement's most clear-cut effort to shape classroom curriculum. The question now is whether Johnson truly disagrees with the Dover school board's goals, or if he merely believes there is a more effective way to make the case for creationism.


On the walls of Johnson's Berkeley living room, framed political cartoons make light of his famous fight with evolution. One of the caricatures shows the stout, bespectacled law professor arguing with a massive gorilla. Johnson, who is 65, gets the best of the primate -- not by strength, but through the power of rhetoric.

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