Book Review: Defeating Darwinism, by Phillip E. Johnson

Phillip Johnson’s first book, Darwin on Trial, created a stir in the scientific community when it appeared in 1991. Evolutionists realized that they could not ignore this distinguished professor at a respectable law school (University of California at Berkeley). Reviewers soon found, however, that Darwin on Trial followed most of the arguments against evolution that creationists had been making for decades. For the most part, critics, such as Stephen Jay Gould, did not respond to these arguments. After all, everyone knows that the creationists cannot be right and, besides, what would a lawyer know about evolution?

This hostile reception did not dissuade Professor Johnson. In fact, Darwin on Trial was his opening salvo in a well-crafted campaign against naturalism (the philosophical underpinning of evolutionary theory which says that everything must have a natural explanation). Over the last few years, Johnson has accepted invitations by science and philosophy departments all over the world. His strategy, as he explained at a creation conference in 1994, is to go as an academic equal, not an evangelistic preacher. If at all possible, he stays away from questions about radiometric dating, or the carrying capacity of Noah’s ark. From Johnson’s perspective, these issues have marginalized theism from the “high culture” of Harvard professors and New York Times editors. Also, theists are divided on the details of creation and various doctrinal issues, and so he wants to provide a focal point around which all genuine theists can unite.

Personally, I am skeptical that creationists will want to embrace Johnson’s approach completely. To this point, at least, they have made a stand on the entire Bible, not just the first verse of Genesis. Readers, then, should be alert to Johnson’s agnosticism on the age of the Earth.

Having said all that, Defeating Darwinism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), 131 pages, paper) is an extremely practical application of this approach. For example, Johnson devotes a whole chapter to the 1960 movie, Inherit the Wind—a drama based loosely (very loosely) on the Scopes “monkey” trial of 1925. Ever since, he argues, the media have been quick to cast any critics of evolution into the movie’s role of ignorant, Bible-thumping hypocrites. That stereotyping will continue, Johnson predicts, for as long as the media support naturalism and “own the microphone.”

Johnson may have overstated the influence of this one movie. Perhaps it merely reflected the mounting opposition toward theism from academia, Hollywood, and the media. In any case, Johnson’s point is well taken: those elite groups act as gatekeepers to the naturalistic world view. His mission is to open those gates so that everyone—not just lay folk—can see the stronghold of atheism that lies within. Focusing on the topic of naturalism, both in public forums and the academic community, is his way of getting past the Inherit the Wind clichés. An evolutionist could argue, however, that naturalism really works and is, therefore, a perfectly reasonable assumption. So the next stage is to bring in the sort of work done by Michael Behe. His recent book, Darwin’s Black Box, presents a direct challenge to naturalistic explanations of the fundamental, “irreducibly complex” systems of living cells.

That, in essence, is Johnson’s approach: first, open minds by laying bare the hidden assumptions of evolution, and second, offer evidence for intelligent design in nature.

This book, however, is aimed directly at college freshmen who believe in God. So part of his approach includes a brief introduction to critical thinking and fallacies of reasoning, especially as they apply to discussions of naturalism and evolution. Also, some people wish to equivocate on the term “evolution,” so Johnson takes care to define this word.

Finally, one of the book’s strongest messages is directed at theistic evolution. Such a notion may offer a tempting refuge for young people as they recoil from the onslaught of naturalistic thinking. Alas, it is only a stopping-off point for virtual, or outright, disbelief. Johnson leaves the reader in no doubt that the theory of evolution, because of its very reliance on the naturalistic world view, is utterly inconsistent with the God of theism. College or college-bound students, and their parents, should read this book.

[For more on Phillip Johnson, see his home page at Access Research Network.]


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