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Darwin's Battleship: Status Report on the Leaks This Ship Has Sprung

By Phillip E. Johnson

In the epilogue to the second edition of Darwin on Trial (1993), I wrote this:

Darwinian evolution with its blind watchmaker thesis makes me think of a great battleship on the ocean of reality. Its sides are heavily armored with philosophical barriers to criticism, and its decks are stacked with big rhetorical guns ready to intimidate any would-be attackers. In appearance, it is as impregnable as the Soviet Union seemed to be only a few years ago. But the ship has sprung a leak, and the more perceptive of the ship's officers have begun to sense that all the ship's firepower cannot save it if the leak is not plugged. There will be heroic efforts to save the ship, of course, and some plausible rescuers will invite the officers to take refuge in electronic lifeboats equipped with high-tech gear like autocatalytic sets and computer models of self-organizing systems. The spectacle will be fascinating, and the battle will go on for a long time. But in the end reality will win.

There is always a risk in making a prediction like this. Now, twelve years later, it may be worthwhile to take a look back and see how things have progressed. There are several trends that will give us an idea of how things are going.

One thing that clearly has happened is that the Intelligent Design Movement, which resulted from the publishing of Darwin on Trial, has become a key player in attacking Darwinism. In 2004 and 2005, it has been a rare day that does not have a major news story about intelligent design. As I predicted, the "big rhetorical guns" have been bought out in full force. Science organizations regularly mischaracterize ID, calling it "creationism in a cheap tuxedo." They dream up conspiracies and make false accusations. They try to make sure that no one who is friendly to ID is allowed to publish articles in the peer-reviewed literature and then use the lack of such articles to prove that ID is not science. They try to prevent ID-friendly scientists from attaining research or teaching positions. They enter into local school district decision-making processes to make sure that Darwinism is not allowed to be questioned in any way, bringing in the ACLU if there is any attempt to offer an even-handed approach to the teaching of evolution.

University presidents apparently feel so threatened by students questioning their biology teachers that they make strong statements denouncing ID as "not science." This can sometimes backfire, as students wonder why it is that people in power need to protect evolution from any challenges. IDEA clubs are spreading through the university world, offering forums for students to think through the scientific issues surrounding evolution. The situation has been transformed by the phenomenal growth of home schooling. Home schoolers are becoming more and more educated on this subject and, when they have gone on to college, are able to resist indoctrination and properly evaluate dogmatic statements.

And what about the leak that I recognized back in1993? Has that been repaired with new scientific evidence? The "leak," as I saw it was that the Darwinian mechanism of evolution could not explain how the complex living world came about. Many times a year, there is some new headline claiming that a new discovery will prove that Darwin was altogether right. Often it is a new finding that brings into question some earlier assumptions about evolution. Sometimes there are stories about new findings that point to an intelligent designer, although such a direction is never admittted. One such event was the discovery of a plant that repaired detrimental genetic changes, guided by a "template" that was not present in the plant itself or its parents.

In a recent issue of Harvard Magazine, Harvard University's dean of evolutionary science, Edward O. Wilson, described how natural selection does its work not with concrete case studies but with a purely hypothetical example. Accordingly, he wrote about birds with different eye colors and how one color may come to predominate in the population, thus gradually bringing about an evolutionary change. There isn't a hint in this example, however, that the Darwinian or other material mechanisms can explain how life came into being from chemicals or how information-packed complex body plans and organs developed. Wilson provides only general statements about the "beauty" and the "explanatory power" of evolution.

Recently, Harvard opened a new major research project, especially to study the origin of life. This may be in response to the criticisms of the Intelligent Design movement. Other recent articles suggest that scientists in the biological establishment are doing research specifically to answer the challenges raised by ID. If this is the case, it should be seen as a good thing by everyone. We in the ID movement are proponents of good science. If our criticisms and questions lead to better research, we are unafraid of the results. In the meantime, our current concern is to keep evolutionary scientists honest about the current state of the evidence and to allow young people to understand why there is a controversy about the subject of evolution.

 

BIOSKETCH: Phillip E. Johnson is the Jefferson Peyser Emeritus Professor of Law at the University of California at Berkeley. Prof. Johnson is a well-known speaker and writer on the philosophical significance of Darwinism. His books on this topic include Darwin on Trial, Reason in the Balance, Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, The Wedge of Truth, and Asking the Right Questions (all InterVarsity).  He taught law for over thirty years at the University of California at Berkeley. He entered the evolution controversy because he found the books defending Darwinism dogmatic and unconvincing. Prof. Johnson is an advisor to Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture

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