Book Review: Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds

Review of Phillip E. Johnson, Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, InterVarsity Press, 1997.

Jeffrey Shallit
Department of Computer Science
University of Waterloo
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, N2L 3G1.

Imagine this: a law professor with no scientific training, after a mid-life crisis in which he became a fundamentalist Christian, announces that Newton's laws are wrong. Scientists only believe Newton's laws, he claims, because they have a prior commitment to "naturalism". The scientific evidence for Newton's laws is weak, he claims, and depends mostly on clever word games, where scientists first talk about motion of objects on the earth ("micromotion") and then extrapolate to the movements of the heavenly bodies ("macromotion"). We do not see objects on the earth moving about by themselves; any moving object is always the result of an intelligence that set that object in motion. The law professor writes books decrying Newtonism and discussing the social decay it leads to. He organizes conferences and develops a strategy for getting supernatural explanations for motion taught in science classes.

Sound farfetched? Perhaps. But just change "Newtonism" to "Darwinism" and you've got the strange crusade of Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson, exemplified in this silly and dishonest book.

Looking for scientific evidence against evolution? You won't find it here (or anywhere else, for that matter). What you will find is the kind of rhetoric lawyers are skilled at: if the facts and law are against you, pound the table.

You'll also find deep misunderstandings of the nature of science (which doesn't "prove" its theories, as suggested on p. 42) and information (which, contrary to Johnson's claims on p. 73, can indeed be generated by physical processes).

This book could be the basis for an easy and fun game called "liar or fool". Nearly every page offers a choice. When Johnson claims (p. 94) that "We know that the Darwinian mechanism doesn't work and that complex biological systems never were put together by the accumulation of random mutations through natural selection", is it a lie or just stupidity? And who is the "we", anyway? It certainly doesn't refer to people who actually study biology for a living, since 99% of them accept that evolution is the best explanation for the diversity of life as we see it today.

When Johnson defines macroevolution as "the vaguely described process that supposedly creates innovations such as new complex organs or body parts" (p. 57), is it a lie or just ignorance of the definition actually used by biologists?

This book, distributed by a fundamentalist Christian publisher, will only interest fundamentalists who deny evolution because of their adherence to a narrow, sectarian point of view. Johnson is not interested in "opening minds", but rather in appealing to the kind of person who has a bumper sticker on their car reading "Jesus said it, I believe it, and that settles it". No doubt they'll buy this book in droves, writing "How true" in crayon in the margins.