F O R U M O N P H Y S I C S & S O C I E T Y
of The American Physical Society 
January 2008
Vol. 37, No. 1



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Darwin’s Nemesis: Phillip Johnson and the Intelligent Design Movement

William A. Dembski, ed., InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 2006. ISBN 0-8308-2863-2

A longer version of this review appeared in Reports of the National Center for Science Education 26(6), Nov-Dec 2006, pp. 30-33.

In April 2004, the leading lights of “intelligent design” creationism (IDC) met at Biola University (formerly the Bible Institute of Los Angeles) to confer on their “godfather," law professor Phillip Johnson, the Phillip E. Johnson Award for Liberty and Truth. Thus began a two-day conference entitled “Intelligent Design and the Future of Science.” The talks formed the basis for the present volume.

This book gives a pretty good picture of what IDC really means to its advocates. The subject matter of the papers ranges widely; I'll try below to give the flavor of some of them. But first let’s survey the contradictory faces that IDC presents to the general public (it’s science!) and to its friends (our mission is to impose our God on every aspect of society).

In his preface, William Dembski writes of a 1992 meeting, “Here, for the first time, a radical non-materialist critique of Darwinism and naturalistic evolutionary theories was put on the table for a high-level, reasoned, academic discussion without anyone promoting a religious or sectarian agenda” (p. 14, emphasis added). But given that Darwin’s Nemesis is an insider work, that’s about all there is of the public face. Almost all of the rest of the book consists of one argument after another supporting the superiority of a theistic—and almost always a specifically “Christian”—worldview, with science reduced to the medieval role of handmaiden of theology. Examples:

Christianity is not burdened with the requirement that everything result from natural processes. …Either natural or supernatural explanations of nature are allowed. In the study of biology, …Christians have a broader palette of explanations to draw on than do materialists. (Timothy G. Standish, p. 119)

Years before, as a seminary student at Unification Theological Seminary in the late 1970s, I had become convinced that there is a fundamental conflict between theistic religions and Darwinian evolution. …Now I realized I couldn’t be a theist and a Darwinian. (Jonathan Wells, pp. 164–5)

If Darwinism is true, Christian metaphysics is a fantasy. (Nancy Pearcey, quoting a 2002 interview of Phillip Johnson, p. 228)

Complexity theory views the essence of life as independent of its particular physical medium, consistent with Christian belief. …We are thankful that the God of Christ’s love is also the God of purpose and order who superintends complexity and chaos.  (Wesley D. Allen and Henry F. Schaeffer III, p. 300)

If there were still reason to doubt that IDC is about religion, not science, a scrutiny of the speakers at this “scientific” conference yields further revelations. Using the biographical information at the back of the book itself, together with a quick internet search, I tallied the disciplines in which the twenty-one participants had degrees.  Here is how the disciplines stack up:  19 degrees in theology, religion, or philosophy; 9 in the physical sciences or engineering; 4 in the social sciences; 3 in biology, microbiology, or biochemistry; 3 in geology and earth sciences; 2 in law; 2 in mathematics; 1 in environmental biology and public policy. This is not quite the lineup one might find at a conference on evolutionary biology, but not surprising for an evangelical revival meeting.

Let me now turn to some of the more interesting chapters.

Michael Behe, the father of “irreducible complexity” and of nine children (whose names he enumerates in his essay), is a lot of fun. He presents a folksy account of his Catholic childhood in an enormous family, his early uncritical acceptance of evolution as he had been taught it in Catholic schools, and the doubts gradually instilled, first by an evangelical lab technician he dated, and later by a series of other events. In particular, he infers on the basis of a conversation with a fellow Catholic postdoc that deep down, biologists don’t really think that life could have originated through natural means. All this is cemented by his early contacts with law professor Johnson, who instructs him in the underlying realities of the biological sciences.

Thomas Woodward devotes most of his essay to a contrast between Johnson’s rhetoric and that of mainline evolutionary scientists. I am not sure what essential contribution rhetoric can make in forwarding the sciences, but Woodward’s most interesting point is this: “… I was amazed once to hear a brilliant rhetorician ...describe the issue of God’s existence as a nonrhetorical issue, implying that it is a purely subjective (that is, non-rational) issue, one that cannot really be argued at all.” In a long footnote, he expands on his objections to this position. They boil down to a dilemma: We can be sure that his intercourse with a very personal God is extensive; otherwise he could hardly continue as a professor of Bible and Theology at the small bible college where he teaches. But he wants objective, external evidence of God that will have more weight with others. If only science would pursue evidence of the supernatural, as Johnson insists it should! In this light, Woodward’s support of IDC is entirely understandable. Receiving the Holy Spirit oneself is the sine qua non for evangelicals; disseminating it to others is the Great Commission. Even as a non-scientist, he could hope one day to see a newspaper headline something like, “Scientist Finds DNA Sequence That Decodes As ‘I Am Who Am.’ ”

But to get to the heart of the matter, is IDC really science? If it were, IDC-based papers would be making floods of new, groundbreaking contributions to the sciences and would be vigorously debated in scientific journals. The one paper that actually made it into a journal is reprinted here. Stephen C. Meyer’s paper “The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories”was published in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington 117(2), 2004, pp. 213-39. As Meyer’s brief biography notes (p. 352), it “created an international sensation.” It turned out that the editor of the journal, who had no expertise on the subject matter, had creationist leanings of his own. He therefore published the paper, though it had nothing to do with the specialized field of the journal. The result was indeed a sensation – or rather a scandal. The upshot was that the Biological Society of Washington officially deemed the paper “inappropriate”.   For an analysis, see http://www.pandasthumb.org/archives/2004/08/meyers_hopeless_1.html>.

The last section of Darwin’s Nemesis moves beyond scientific issues into the realm that really concerns most creationists, namely, what they see as the baleful influence of evolution in the areas of theology, philosophy, and the extrascientific world in general. Nancy Pearcey expounds on the connections between “Darwinism” and abortion, sexual promiscuity, and postmodernism. She concludes, “The Darwinian creation story leads to an upper story of postmodern relativism, and ultimately undercuts itself. But Christianity offers a rationally coherent, logically consistent worldview… It lays claim to be truth about every aspect of reality… In that sense it is total Truth” (p. 243, emphasis in original).

The chapter “Complexity, Chaos, and God” is the most intelligent and interesting part of the whole book. In it, chemists Wesley D. Allen and Henry F. Schaeffer III use a clear if brief exposition of the essence of chaos theory—extreme sensitivity to initial conditions—to explicate the ancient theological dilemma of human free will versus the determinism implied by divine omnipotence/omniscience. Many real-world systems are chaotic in this sense. Hence, for humans the course of the universe is unpredictable and free will operates; for God, who can perfectly control the initial conditions, the universe is deterministic.

A pretty application of physics to theology; so far, so good. But Allen and Schaeffer lose me, I fear, when they make parallels between chaos theory and the Christian’s ultimate fate as revealed in 1 and 2 Corinthians, from which they infer that “[t]he concept of a human soul can be retained in complexity theory as an emergent, nonreducible collection of properties or essences.”

Astoundingly, they then take Dembski’s “fourth law of thermodynamics” seriously. As physical chemists, they should know better; the mathematics and physics of Dembski’s arguments have been thoroughly and definitively demolished by numerous experts [see Mark Perakh’s Unintelligent Design (Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, 2004, ch. 1), or his “A Free Lunch in a Mousetrap”, <http://www.talkreason.org/articles/dem_nfl.cfm>].

The decision in Kitzmiller v Dover came down as editor Dembski was preparing the preface. He tries to make the best of Judge Jones’s devastating critique of IDC, which bears heavily on its essentially and ineluctably religious nature—a point that this book can only reinforce. But Dembski is absolutely correct when he writes, “Ultimately, the significance of a court case like Kitzmiller v Dover depends not on a judge’s decision but on the cultural forces that serve as the backdrop against which the decision is made.” It remains to be seen how American society will react in the broader sense—onward and upward with science or into a new Dark Age with concern for the soul’s fate in the afterlife trumping interaction with the material world in which we pass our lives.

For those who want to take the trouble (and it is a good deal of trouble) to delve into the inner motivations of “intelligent design” creationists, Darwin’s Nemesis is a good source. Needless to say, I do not recommend it to the casual reader!

Lawrence S. Lerner, Professor Emeritus
College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics
California State University, Long Beach



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