of the review of Johnson's Darwin on Trial
by Gert Korthof
updated: Jan 2003
Comparison with Denton | Postscripts
Initially I wrote a rather favourable review of Darwin On Trial, partly because I was impressed by Johnson's knowledge and understanding of Darwinism, considering the fact he is a professor of law. I was impressed by statements as: "Johnson is the most respectable academic critic of evolution", which raise high expectations. That was naive. After reading Denton(1986) Evolution: A Theory In Crisis, I discovered that Johnson was not original in his criticism.
I think Johnson owes more to Denton than the four entries in the index of Johnson's book do suggest. Not only facts, but also many ideas, conclusions and the main theme in Johnson's book are already present in Denton. A few quotes will demonstrate this.
Denton (1985,1986) 'Evolution: a theory in crisis' Johnson (1991,1993) 'Darwin on Trial'
Denton's closing chapter 15, The Priority of the Paradigm, contains Kuhn's idea that a paradigm is not rejected when scientists are faced with many anomalies.
Denton writes: "Whether the Kuhnian view [...] is right, it certainly provides a satisfying explanation of why even in the face of what are 'disproofs', Darwinian concepts continue to dominate so much of biological thought today." (page 356). Johnson(1993, page 120) writes: "But whatever its limitations as a description of science generally, it provides an illuminating picture of the methodology of Darwinism."
So Johnson expresses exactly the same opinion, even the disclaimer that Kuhn's description may be wrong.
Denton mentioned Popper's falsifiability criterion (p75). Johnson devotes chapter 12 to Popper.
Denton writes about the origin of new species: "Evolution by natural selection has been directly observed in nature, and it is beyond any reasonable doubt that new reproductively isolated populations -species- do in fact arise from pre-existing species"(page 344). Johnson writes: "The question is not whether natural selection occurs. Of course it does".(page 16). "Whether selection has ever accomplished speciation (i.e. the production of a new species) is not the point. [...] Success in dividing a fruitfly population into two or more separate populations that cannot interbreed would not constitute evidence that a similar process could in time produce a fruitfly from a bacterium."(Johnson,page 19).
I find it remarkable for a creationist to accept Darwin's main claim that natural selection causes speciation. Denton does. Johnson does. Denton calls this microevolution. Johnson does. Denton rejects the extrapolation from micro- to macroevolution. Johnson does. Furthermore not only there is a remarkable agreement on the distinction micro/macro but also on the consequences of the distinction:
Denton concludes: "If the Origin had dealt only with the evolution of new species it would never have had its revolutionary impact."(page 46). Johnson writes: "If empiricism were the primary value at stake, Darwinism would long ago have been limited to microevolution, where it would have no important theological or philosophical implications." (117,118).
On the fossil record Denton writes about the 'trade secret of paleontology' (p194). Johnson writes about the 'trade secret of paleontology' on page 59.
Denton cites Carl Sagan on the probability of life; Johnson does the same, but acknowledges in the Research Notes that he did find Sagan's citation in Denton. Denton quotes Sir Gavin de Beer(1971) in chapter 7 on homology, Johnson quotes the same passage on p189 (he mentions Denton as the source).
On the origin of life Denton writes: "Nothing illustrates more clearly just how intractable a problem the origin of life has become, than the fact that world authorities can seriously toy with the idea of panspermia." (p271). (Denton quoted Crick and Hoyle). Johnson writes: "When a scientist of Crick's caliber feels he has to invoke undetectable spaceman, it is time to consider whether the field of prebiological evolution has come to a dead end." (p111).
Denton writes about "the metaphysical nature of evolutionary claims" (page 353). Johnson writes: " "Evolution" in Darwinist usage implies a completely naturalistic metaphysical system " (page 153).
Even the most famous concept in DARWIN ON TRIAL, naturalism, is already present in Denton in the same context and meaning ! Denton uses naturalism as opposed to supernatural (355). Johnson however elaborates much more on naturalism. The central theme of Johnson's book is that an important part of Darwinism is metaphysics. Even words like "inconceivable" and "unthinkable" which Denton uses to describe the exclusive force of the Darwinian paradigm, are used by Johnson in the same context.
Denton describes Darwinism as a retreat from pure empiricism, a retreat from the facts: "If anyone was chasing a phantom or retreating from empiricism it was surely Darwin." (page 117 and 353). Johnson concludes: the Darwinian mechanism for creating complex things is therefore not really part of empirical science at all (page 158).
Denton discusses the 1981-exhibition of the British Museum of Natural History and the subsequent discussion in Nature (chapter 6, page 138). The chapter 'Darwinist Education' in Johnson's book discusses the same case.
Denton rejects supernatural alternatives for Darwinism. Johnson rejects supernatural alternatives for Darwinism.
Denton: "Ultimately the Darwinian theory of evolution is no more nor less than the great cosmogenic myth of the twentieth century (p358). Johnson wrote: "Darwinist evolution is a creation myth " (p133).
If there is a main theme in Johnson's book, then it surely is the conflict between Darwinism and theism.
Denton writes about that conflict: "the fact is that no biblically derived religion can really be compromised with the fundamental assertion of Darwinian theory."(p66). Johnson writes: "the naturalistic metaphysics upon with Darwinism is based is incompatible with any meaningful theism" (p162).
These comparisons can easily be extended, but the ones above will suffice to make my point: Johnson is not such an original writer as the publisher and many admirers are implying. Johnson did not invent criticism of Darwinism. He did not start from scratch. Johnson could not have written his book, if not all the hard scientific work, including the criticism, has been done by people like Denton. Johnson merely retold well-known stories. Johnson starts his Epilogue with a quote of Steven Weinberg (a physicist!): "Johnson is the most respectable academic critic of evolution" (p157). Did Weinberg read Denton or does he have knowledge of the extensive anti-Darwin literature? In fact there are about 400 works about the Creation/Evolution controversy listed in Hayward's Annotated Bibliography of the Creation/Evolution controversy published before Darwin on Trial.
What is new in Johnson's book ? Johnson is easy reading, but his story is not free of religious bias. The full scientific story with all the illustrations can only be found in Denton(1986). Johnson does not use the argument from design, which Denton discusses at length. Probably he discovered the materialist nature of Denton's reincarnation of Paley's argument from design, and decided it was better to be silent about it. (See: Criticism nr 4 in my review of Denton). The second difference is that Johnson is not interested in Denton's Typological Model at all.
What is 'new' in Johnson's book is that Johnson added war. He claimed that Darwinists are involved in a war against theism. War is obvious from a more recent book of Johnson: "Defeating Darwinism by opening minds". He is interested in defeating. War is even more obvious from the title of a talk: "How to Sink a Battleship". No Trial without War. Johnson is not interested in improving science, understanding or knowledge. Johnson does not only describe a war but participates in the war against atheists. The ultimate goal is: 'to control the creation story in public life'.
Comparison with Denton | Postscripts
Johnson wrote about the puzzle of the peacock's tail:
"what I find intriguing is that Darwinists are not troubled by the unfitness of the peahen's sexual taste. Why would natural selection, which supposedly formed all birds from lowly predessors, produce a species whose females lust for males with life-threatening decorations?" (p.30).
Biologists now have good explanations for the peacock's tail. It is called the handicap principle. It is beautifully and accessibly described in a book by A. and A Zahavi(1997,1999) 'The Handicap Principle - A Missing Piece of Darwin's Puzzle'. In short: the long tails of male birds reliably demonstrate to females that those males are healthy and can afford such handicap. It can only be a reliable signal when it is a handicap. Females prefer strong males because they produce healthy children.
„h Review of DARWIN ON TRIAL on this site.