Darwin on Trial

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Darwin on Trial
Darwin on Trial.jpg
Author Phillip E. Johnson
Published 1991 (InterVarsity Press)
Media type Print (hardcover and paperback)
ISBN 0-8308-1324-1
OCLC 28889094
575 20
LC Class QH367.3 .J65 1993

Darwin on Trial is a 1991 book about the theory of evolution and the creation-evolution debate by Harvard graduate and University of California, Berkeley law professor emeritus Phillip E. Johnson. Because of the number of legal arguments based on science or scientific evidence, Johnson became interested in the presuppositions of scientific investigation and wrote the book with the thesis that evolution could be "tried" like a defendant in court. Darwin on Trial became a central text of the intelligent design movement principally fathered by Johnson.[1]

Eugenie Scott wrote that the book "teaches little that is accurate about either the nature of science, or the topic of evolution. It is recommended neither by scientists nor educators."[2] Scott pointed out in a second review that "the criticisms of evolution [Johnson] offers are immediately recognizable as originating with the "scientific" creationists".[3] Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould's review of the book stated that it contained "no weighing of evidence, no careful reading of literature on all sides, no full citation of sources (the book does not even contain a bibliography) and occasional use of scientific literature only to score rhetorical points". Gould also pointed out that the use of legal criteria, in which a "shadow of a doubt" can suffice to destroy a theory, was inappropriate in science, since "science is not a discipline that claims to establish certainty".[4]


Johnson, a professor emeritus of law at University of California, Berkeley and a Christian, describes his specialty as "analyzing the logic of arguments and identifying the assumptions that lie behind those arguments". After reading Michael Dentons' Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (1985) and Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker (1986), he came to believe that the scientific theory of evolution was based on materialistic assumptions and empty rhetoric, and decided to analyze the evidence for the theory. He states that he has no interest in discussing the Biblical account of creation in Genesis. Rather, Darwin on Trial focuses on examining whether evolutionary biologists have proven their case using evidence evaluated with an "open mind and impartially", and whether there is convincing evidence that the variety of life on earth came about through the purely material processes of natural selection.


1. The Legal Setting

The book begins by recounting Edwards v. Aguillard, a US Supreme Court case regarding a Louisiana law requiring that if "evolution-science" is taught in the public schools, the schools must also provide balanced treatment for something called creation-science; the court deemed the law an "establishment of religion". Johnson states that an associated amicus curiae brief by the National Academy of Sciences improperly "defined 'science' in such a way that [it was impossible to] dispute the claims of the scientific establishment" and a rule it proposed against "negative argumentation [eliminated] the possibility that science has not discovered how complex organisms could have developed". Johnson believes that one cannot begin an argument with the assumption that this kind of definition of science is inherently true. Therefore, these are the kind of definitions and postulates he purports to examine, asking, "When the National Academy of Sciences tells us that reliance upon naturalistic expectations is the most basic characteristic of science, is it implying that scientists somehow know that a Creator played no part in the creation of the world and its forms of life? Can something be nonscience but true?"[5]

He reported that the "friend of the court" argument submitted by the influential National Academy of Sciences said, Creation-science is not science because it fails to display the most basic characteristic of science: reliance upon naturalistic explanations. Instead, proponents of creation-science hold that the creation of the universe, the earth, living things, and man was accomplished through supernatural means inaccessible to human understanding. Because creationists cannot perform scientific research to establish the reality of supernatural creation - that being by definition impossible - the Academy described their efforts as aimed primarily at discrediting evolutionary theory.

Creation-science is thus manifestly a device designed to dilute the persuasiveness of the theory of evolution. The dualistic mode of analysis and the negative argumentation employed to accomplish this dilution is, moreover, antithetical to the scientific method. The Academy thus defined science in such a way that advocates of supernatural creation may neither argue for their own position nor dispute the claims of the scientific establishment.[6]

Johnson states, "I am interested in what unbiased science has to tell us about the history of life, and in particular how the enormously complex organs of plants and animals came into existence. ... What is important is not whether we call this process 'evolution,' but how much we really know about it. The argument of Darwin on Trial is that we know a great deal less than has been claimed."[7] Johnson evaluates the evidence for evolution by natural selection using legal principles for assessing its probative value, and examines what he sees as the philosophical presuppositions of the scientific community.[8]

Johnson states that he has no interest in discussing the Biblical account of creation in Genesis. Rather, the book focuses on examining whether evolutionary biologists have proven their case using evidence evaluated with an "open mind and impartially", and whether there is convincing evidence that the variety of life on earth came about through the purely material processes of natural selection. Johnson claims that biologists have not made their case, that there are serious evidentiary holes in the theory of evolution, and that their conclusions are driven mainly by their prior assumptions and "faith" that there must be a naturalistic explanation for everything. Darwin on Trial includes Johnson's examination of evidence and arguments about natural selection, genetic mutation, the fossil record, prebiological evolution and molecular biology.


Darwin on Trial has sold over 250,000 copies. Causing "an uproar in some scientific and literary circles,"[9] Darwin on Trial alerted national media to the creationist movement and their fight against the theory of evolution. In the year after Darwin on Trial was released, many articles about the controversy were published in popular newspapers and magazines across the country.[10] Johnson said in an interview in California Monthly that he fully expected to be labeled a "kook" by the academy, but he was "pleasantly surprised by the support he's received from people familiar with his book on the Berkeley campus."[11]

The book initially received more attention from popular media than from the scientific community, although soon after the book was released Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education responded to it, saying "scientific creationists" like Johnson "confuse the general public, by mixing up the controversy among scientists about how evolution took place, with a more general question of whether it took place at all".[12] Stephen Jay Gould gave a harsh review in Scientific American,[4] and the controversy caught the attention of Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg. Johnson has since added an epilogue to the book titled "The Book and Its Critics", in the latest edition of Darwin On Trial.


Johnson's claim to impartiality has been contradicted by reviewers who state that "the driving force behind Johnson's book was neither fairness nor accuracy",[13] and that the claim of impartiality is contradicted by Johnson's stated aim "to legitimate the assertion of a theistic worldview in the secular universities".[14] Stephen Jay Gould reviewed the book for Scientific American, concluding that the book contains "...no weighing of evidence, no careful reading of literature on all sides, no full citation of sources (the book does not even contain a bibliography) and occasional use of scientific literature only to score rhetorical points."[4] Gould's writings are quoted frequently in the book, but Gould complained that it does not fully cite sources.

He also held up Theodosius Dobzhansky as a counterexample to Johnson's assertion that naturalism undergirds Darwinism and criticized Johnson's decision to include recombination as a form of mutation and his assessment of sexual selection as a relatively minor component of Darwinian theory in the late twentieth century. Gould also specifically pointed out an error in the use of the term "polyploidy"; stated that Johnson incorrectly refers to Otto Schindewolf as a saltationist, "attacks" outdated statements of Simpson and Mayr; fails to point out that Henry Fairfield Osborn corrected his own mistake regarding Nebraska Man; and stated that Johnson overlooks "self-organizing properties of molecules and other physical systems" that, in Gould's opinion, makes the self-assembly of RNA or DNA plausible. Gould states that Darwinism's bringing together of "widely disparate information under a uniquely consistent explanation" implies that it is a successful theory, that amphibians have features that imply a "fishy past", and that the genealogical tree of Therapsida is a convincing example of macroevolution.[4]

In "research notes" in the second edition, Johnson provides answers to most of Gould's criticisms, but acknowledges that his use of "polyploidy" was indeed incorrect, the error having been missed by his "diligent scientific consultants;" it is corrected in the text. Johnson also replied in an online posting, essentially repeating the assertions he made in the book.[15] Robert T. Pennock rebutted Johnson's belief that science was improperly defined within Edwards v. Aguillard, stating that the dual model of science established by Johnson (either creationism, or evolution is correct and true, and by disproving any part of evolution, creationism 'wins' by default) is a false dilemma, a type of informal fallacy.[16]

Eugenie Scott has pointed out that the book repeats many arguments by creationists that were previously discredited:

Scott further criticizes Johnson's approach, which assumes science and evolution can be treated the same way as a criminal trial. Scott points out that the uses of three critical terms in both science and law are completely divergent. Within science, a law is a descriptive generalization, while a theory is the explanation of the law, and the term "fact" is rarely used (in favour of "observation"). In comparison, the legal term law refers to a rigid set of behavioral proscriptions, a theory is presented by a lawyer in an effort to convince a judge or jury, and facts are assertions that lawyers make and attempt to prove to the court. Scott points out that in science, facts and theories are changeable as knowledge accumulates, and laws are less important than theories, while in court cases laws are immutable, theories are secondary to the laws. Also demonstrated is how the adversarial process works in each profession; during trials lawyers will actively conceal weaknesses in their cases and relevant information from the jury, while science is strongest when it actively attempts to disprove its own theories; a scientist concealing information will ultimately be exposed and disproven. Scott also points out that Johnson criticizes the theory of evolution for changing to accommodate new data, indicating a profound misunderstanding of this strength of science which must adjust theories in order to explain contradictory or new information, and the false dilemma used by Johnson as well as his use of straw men.[2]

In a second review, Scott again points out that Johnson's arguments are recycled from scientific creationism, and

Scott further states that Johnson lacks familiarity with the specifics and nuances of the field necessary to match the critiques of Darwinism offered by evolutionary biologists, and instead parrots the criticisms made by suspect sources (scientific creationists). Scott lists a series of examples demonstrating that "[Johnson] clearly does not understand the meanings scientists give to many of their terms [and] deliberately conflates pairs of ideas that properly are separate", then concludes "Darwin on Trial deserves to be read by scientists, not for its scientific value which is negligible, but for its potential social and political impact."[3] Henry Bauer, Professor of Chemistry and Science Studies at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, reviewed the book saying Johnson "misleads about science and about what science says about evolution." Bauer explained, "Johnson lumps evolutionists together as Darwinists...but Johnson doesn't understand that even Darwin's original 'theory' contains at least five separate concepts that can be held independently." In his case studies, for example, "with the Velikovsky affair, there is much more rhetoric than substance." Bauer noted that when "archaeopteryx cannot be explained away...Johnson calls it 'a point for the Darwinists, but how important ...?' - as though science were suggesting something else."[17]



  1. ^ Stewart, Robert (2007). Intelligent design: William A. Dembski Michael Ruse in dialogue. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press. p. 2. ISBN 0-8006-6218-0. Most observers, both within and without the ID community, recognize University of California Berkeley law professor Phillip E, Johnson as the father of ID, and his 1991 book, Darwin on Trial [...] as a landmark moment in the history of the movement. 
  2. ^ a b c Scott, EC; Sager TC (1992). "Review of Johnson's Darwin on Trial". Creation Evolution Journal (National Center for Science Education) 12 (2): 47–56. Retrieved 2009-04-01. 
  3. ^ a b c Scott, EC (1993). "Darwin Prosecuted: Review of Johnson's Darwin on Trial". Creation Evolution Journal 13 (2): 36–47. 
  4. ^ a b c d Gould SJ (1992). "Impeaching a Self-Appointed Judge". Scientific American 267 (1). Retrieved 2009-04-01. 
  5. ^ Johnson, Phillip E. (2010). Darwin on Trial, 3rd ed. (3rd ed.). Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press. p. 33. ISBN 978-0-8308-3831-8. 
  6. ^ Johnson, Phillip E. (1993). Darwin on trial. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press. p. 5. ISBN 0-8308-1324-1. 
  7. ^ Johnson, Phillip E. (2010). Darwin on Trial, 3rd ed. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press. pp. 190–91. ISBN 978-0-8308-3831-8. 
  8. ^ Johnson, Phillip E. (1993). Darwin on trial. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press. ISBN 0-8308-1324-1. 
  9. ^ "Raising Doubts about Darwin: An Interview with Phillip Johnson". Radix 21 (1). 1992. 
  10. ^ An Associated Press article out of Pittsburgh appeared in the Washington, PA, Observer-Reporter ("Fighting the world: Creationists use science to defend their beliefs," March 21, 1992), State College, PA, Centre Daily Times ("Divine creationists put science to work to back their beliefs," March 24, 1992), Stuebenville, OH ("Science is used to back divine creation beliefs," April 11, 1992), and others. See also "The Mistrial of Evolution," The Banner, Grand Rapids, MI, April 13, 1992; "The Man Who Dares To Doubt Darwin," San Francisco Chronicle, June 14, 1991.
  11. ^ Schooch, Russell (1991). "The Evolution of a Creationist". California Monthly. November. 
  12. ^ "Professor criticizes Darwin". The Daily Californian. 1991-06-05. 
  13. ^ Spitzer B. "The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth?". TalkReason. 
  14. ^ Elsberry, WR. "An extended review of Phillip E. Johnson's "Darwin On Trial"". Retrieved 2009-04-01. 
  15. ^ Johnson, PE (1997-06-23). "Response to Gould". Retrieved 2009-04-01. 
  16. ^ Pennock RT. "Supernaturalist Explanations and the Prospects for a Theistic Science or "How do you know it was the lettuce?"". 
  17. ^ Weinberg, SL; Hughes LR (1992). Reviews of creationist books. Berkeley, CA: National Center for Science Education. pp. 72–6. ISBN 0-939873-52-4. 

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