Darwin on Trial (Book Review)

The book that launched the Intelligent Design movement

So I finally got around to reading a book that has been on my shelf for years.  Darwin on Trial by Phillip E. Johnson (not to be confused with the Phil Johnson of Pyromaniacs fame) was a book that created an immediate storm of controversy in the scientific establishment.  When it was first published in 1991 by Christian publisher InterVarsity Press, evolutionary scientists (read: most of the academic and professional scientific world) felt a compelling need to demonize, discredit, and silence its message.  Why was this the case, when many Christian creationists had voiced dissent since Charles Darwin first proposed this now-famous theory of biological evolution through the mechanisms of mutations and natural selection?  Because no one until Phillip Johnson, a law professor at the University of California, Berkley, had crystallized so clearly the fundamental questions people have been asking about the theory of evolution.  Johnson wrote a book that read like a gripping court-trial argument, prosecuting Darwinism by putting it on the defense in such a way that Darwinists took the bait by feeling the need to defend their precious theory and worldview.

Twenty years later and now on its third edition, Darwin on Trial is proving to be a timely and timeless argument against Darwinism.  Johnson’s thesis is that the theory of Darwinian evolution is “based not on fact but on faith–faith in philosophical naturalism…that there simply is no vast body of empirical data supporting the theory” [back cover].

Darwin on Trial is organized into the following chapters:

  1. Preface by biologist Michael Behe, author of Darwin’s Black Box
  2. The Legal Setting
  3. Natural Selection
  4. Mutations Great and Small
  5. The Fossil Problem
  6. The Fact of Evolution
  7. The Vertebrate Sequence
  8. The Molecular Evidence
  9. Prebiological Evolution
  10. The Rules of Science
  11.  Darwinist Religion
  12. Darwinist Education
  13. Science and Pseudoscience
  14. Epilogue. The Book and Its Critics

Throughout Johnson’s sustained argument, he dialogues with leading and popular Darwinists Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, Douglas Futuyma, and others.  The strength of Johnson’s case against Darwinian evolution derives from a fresh strategy in the religion-science debate.  Johnson’s method is to deal only with the evidence (or lack thereof) of evolution, and not to engage in “creation science.”  He views creation science as a distraction from his strategy of calling attention to the undeniable fact that the Darwinian emperor has no clothes!  His argument does not rely on the Bible account of origins at all.  Instead Johnson pioneers a new movement that he calls Intelligent Design (which is indeed difference and separate from biblical creation science despite what the critics and skeptics assert).  Intelligent Design (ID) is a scientific movement that attempts to look at the empirical sciences from a worldview that is allowed to question philosophical-methodological naturalism.  Since Johnson’s launching of the ID movement, many scientists have joined the cause, most risking their professional reputations and credentials merely by their willingness to question the only game allowed according to the prevailing “rules of science.”

I am amused that a book that has proved to be so important in starting a new conversation in the realm of science is either loved or hated.  It seems that those who are for or against the book have a vested interest in the worldview that either ID or Darwinist supports.  That is why Darwin on Trial is still a seminal book today.  Because it clears away all extraneous argumentation and obfuscation to allow the thinking person to get at the heart of the issues: is Darwinism true, and what kind of evidence would bolster or falsify the theory?

Now that the book is about 21 years old, many people who have never read it have formed an opinion about the legitimacy of the ID movement–a group of people who question the veracity of Darwinism.  Committed evolutionists bemoan the book’s endurance.  Committed Christians celebrate its continuing relevance.  But most have not actually read it!  So I urge you to get it and read it.  When was the last time you read an important book?  Regardless of where you stand on the issue of creation or evolution, you owe it to yourself to know the best and most respected case against Darwinism.

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