Last week I embarked on an analysis of David Buckna’s page on the Truth.Origin Archive. That post lists some 31 issues he considers problematical for modern science, particularly biological evolution. There’s also a page on exercises that (I suppose) he thinks will challenge materialistic thinking. In the previous post, and before I could even get to his 31 issues, I had to deal with a cute cartoon relating to a “DARWIN REPORT.” Next up, still before I can get to the 31, there’s a quote by creationist Phillip Johnson.
1999 Phillip Johnson, author of Darwin on Trial, said on CNN: “I think we should teach a lot about evolution. In fact, I think we should teach more than the evolutionary science teachers want the students to know. The problem is what we’re getting is a philosophy that’s claimed to be scientific fact, a lot of distortion in the textbooks, and all the difficult problems left out, because they don’t want people to ask tough questions.”
But in the ensuing dozen years, how much has really changed in science classrooms?
I’ll take that on now. First a look at the embedded link. This is to a page on the ARN site. ARN is the Access Research Network:
Access Research Network (ARN), based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, originating from the creationist organization Students for Origins Research (SOR).
SOR was founded in 1977 by a group of students at the University of California at Santa Barbara as an “alternative view” to both the Young Earth creationist Institute for Creation Research and the scientific establishment. Its approach differed from the former (and similar creationist organizations) in that it did not require adherence to scriptural authority and a specific model as to the age of the Earth, potentially avoiding the chronic conflicts that this produced with the scientific community, and hoped to foster a relationship of dialogue rather than debate. In this it was an early advocate of neo-creationism.
It acts as a de facto auxiliary website to the Discovery Institute‘s Center for Science and Culture (CSC) in promoting intelligent design (ID), and has become a comprehensive clearinghouse for ID resources, including news releases, publications, multimedia products and an elementary school science curriculum. Its stated mission is “providing accessible information on science, technology and society issues from an intelligent design perspective.” Its directors are Dennis Wagner (Executive Director) and CSC Fellows Mark Hartwig, Stephen C. Meyer and Paul Nelson. Its ‘Friends of ARN’ is also dominated by CSC Fellows.
Phillip Johnson “was a co-founder of the Discovery Institute‘s Center for Science and Culture (CSC) and is credited with establishing the wedge strategy, which aims to change public opinion and scientific consensus, and seeks to convince the scientific community to allow a role for God in scientific theory.”
The ARN page is a transcript, apparently from a 1999 CNN interview:
Kansas Deletes Evolution from State Science Test
Aired August 16, 1999 – 3:00 p.m. ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
It starts with a video clip:
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARRY LYNN, SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE: This act by the Kansas State Board of Education took Kansas back 100 years in science teaching and education, and I hope the courts will be the ones who force them to correct the decision.
GARY DEMAR, AMERICAN VISION: You cannot apply the scientific method to evolution. It has never been observed. You cannot repeat the experiment, and so what is being sold as science, in terms of evolution, really isn’t science in terms of the way they define it.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The amendment passes.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BOBBIE BATTISTA, HOST: Is the Kansas state school board making a monkey out of evolution? The board says schools are no longer required to teach the theory of evolution, but it did not go so far as to ban it.
It’s a new tactic in a nearly 100-year battle between evolutionists and creationists. Where and when did life begin, and how did mankind enter into the picture?
Evolution gets the ax, but is a larger agenda at work here in the battle between science and religion?
Good afternoon, everybody, and welcome to TALKBACK LIVE.
Where did we come from? How did we get here, and how did it all begin? These are the fundamental questions both science and religion attempt to answer. It has been nearly 75 years since the so-called “Scopes Monkey Trial” brought the conflict between creationism and evolution into the national spotlight. Why is it still being fought today?
Readers will recall that in 1999 the Kansas State Department Board of Education (KSDE) acted in the interest of political pressure regarding certain aspects of modern science:
In 1999, the Board ruled that instruction about evolution, the age of the earth, and the origin of the universe was permitted, but not mandatory, and that those topics would not appear on state standardized tests. The board relied heavily on Creation Science Association of Mid America material in constructing science standards that minimized the tuition of evolution. However, the Board reversed this decision February 14, 2001, ruling that instruction of all those topics was mandatory and that they would appear on standardized tests.
Note that “tuition” in the previous employs the second definition of the word.
Getting back to the Phillip Johnson quote that David introduced. The full transcript gives additional context. Here it is with David’s quote highlighted:
[Talkback Live host Bobbie] BATTISTA: Mr. Johnson, what is your objection to evolution being taught in the public schools?
PHILLIP JOHNSON, AUTHOR, “DARWIN ON TRIAL”: I think we should teach a lot about evolution. In fact, I think we should teach more than the evolutionary science teachers want the students to know. The problem is what we’re getting is a philosophy that’s claimed to be scientific fact, a lot of distortion in the textbooks, and all the difficult problems left out, because they don’t want people to ask tough questions.
This is indoctrination not genuine science education, which should teach people to raise those tough questions and to look at the philosophy and separate the philosophical claims from the real facts. That’s the kind of education we need, and there’s a public protest that is going on that wants to get that kind of education.
BATTISTA: You know what? Could you be a little bit more specific for us, because you’re speaking very generally?
JOHNSON: Sure, I’ll be very specific. There is a claim being made as fact that science has discovered a mechanism which has been tested and can be shown capable of creating the enormously complex things that we call living organisms. The evidence is, in fact, totally inadequate for that. It’s basically a philosophical claim, and if people think that that goes way beyond the available evidence, in my opinion they’re right to think so. And in any case, they ought to be able to challenge it. So this is really a growing public protest against dogmatism and the imposition of a naturalistic philosophy in the name of science education.
BATTISTA: So is your goal then not to have education taught in the public schools and to have creationism taught instead?
JOHNSON: No, as I said, my goal is to teach a lot more about the controversy and why the subject is controversial and why so many people having growing doubts. Instead, what we’re getting is this is the official line. Believe it. You’re just supposed to just accept it because we say it’s true. And that’s not the real science education.
What Dr. Johnson does not say is his organization promotes holding these discussions in high school and even in elementary school classes. Regardless of what Dr. Johnson may think, this level is not where profound philosophical and technical issues are winkled out. College level, particularly at the graduate level, is where practicing scientists teach advanced students and is where new concepts are opened up for discussion and further research.
It turns out that the treatment of Dr. Johnson’s ideas at the higher level is not satisfactory to him. When his topics have been given a view in advanced academia they have been found wanting. Students wishing to probe concepts of Intelligent Design at this level will quickly find there is no valid basis for them. Again, contrary to what Dr. Johnson may say or what he might think, natural processes seem capable of explaining the observed facts. Serious researchers, again serious researchers, never see the need to invoke supernatural causes.
Primary schools are the place for students to learn the the best science of the day. That would be science that conforms to the current scientific consensus. The idea of primary schools is to give students a foundation upon which to build higher learning. Students start with what is known or at least with what is best understood.
That given, what is the idea behind introducing fringe science (for that is the kindest description of Intelligent Design) in primary schools? Since the vast majority of students at this level will never go onto advanced studies in biology, what is taught in primary schools is what they will be left with. If what they are left with is that God is a possible answer, then what is gained by proponents of Intelligent Design is religious proselytizing at public expense. It is unfortunate there is no part of the United States Constitution that prohibits teaching nonsense in public schools, but it is fortunate there does exist a prohibition against using the power of the law to promote religion.
Regarding Johnson’s statement, “There is a claim being made as fact that science has discovered a mechanism which has been tested and can be shown capable of creating the enormously complex things that we call living organisms. The evidence is, in fact, totally inadequate for that. It’s basically a philosophical claim, and if people think that that goes way beyond the available evidence, in my opinion they’re right to think so,” I have this to note: Here Johnson is somewhat overreaching his area of expertise. He is a (retired) professor of law, and by all accounts ignorant of a vast body of scientific knowledge. While it may be well and good for Johnson to make statements such as this, it is at the same time well and good for the rest of us to doubt the validity of such statements.
A review of Johnson’s past pronouncements gives us cause to question his judgment on these matters. A few years ago I took some time to analyze Johnson’s remarks in a video he made while at UC Berkeley. The previous post has the title Deconstructing Phillip Johnson, and I’m going to go over some of the points here. Quotes transcribed from the video are in bold:
Johnson talks about things people take for granted and never question.
One of those things is the creative power of natural selection. If you ask these people, “How do you know that mutation and selection in the Darwinian mechanisms have the power to create complex organs?” The answer they give will be some variation on, “Well, everybody knows that. That’s common knowledge. We settled that long ago.”
We wonder who Johnson has been talking to. His implication is that nobody has given this any thought, and nobody in mainstream science is concerned with this issue. While Johnson may be correct in saying, by implication, that scientists have not demonstrated the production of complex organs by natural selection, the thrust of his statement is pure propaganda.
Contrary to what Johnson may think, scientists have demonstrated principle aspects of evolution and natural selection…
The interviewer questions the factual nature of biological evolution:
Doesn’t the natural history of life through time demonstrate the fact of evolution?
Typical of Johnson’s explanations, his response to this is far from matter-of-fact. He hedges a bit but he seems to say, “No.” Here is a short quote from his response:
One can’t even talk about the fact of evolution, because it’s such an ill-defined thing. What is it?
This comment is completely disingenuous. The fact of evolution, that is the core of the theory, is well-established. Either Johnson is unaware of this, or else he wants you to believe something that is not true. He continues:
But any event, some creatures become extinct, some species become extinct, and others come into existence somehow, no one knows how. They are more or less related to what went before, in that they have common features with the things that went before, and so it’s reasonable to speculate that there was some possibility of development that produced them, but everything said beyond that is just rank speculation and really fiction.
In a rambling, oblique way Johnson seems to be saying he does not believe the basic fact of evolution-that current life forms share a common ancestry.
What is so puzzling about this is that just a few months prior to the interview Johnson was saying something else.
At the SMU symposium in March 1992 I had the opportunity to find Johnson in conversation with Jon Buell. Jon Buell heads up the Foundation for Thought and Ethics, the organization that produced thePandas and People creationist text that was central to the Kitzmiller v. Board of Education trial in 2005. The FTE was also a co-sponsor of the symposium.
I put to Johnson my two burning questions: Do you believe the Earth is billions of years old and that current life forms share a common ancestry? Johnson blinked a couple of times and stated flatly yes to both parts. Amazingly, Buell answered affirmatively, as well.
I discussed this topic again with Johnson in subsequent correspondence, and he never used the occasion to repudiate that position. Watching his response in the interview you will not get the idea that Johnson believes in common ancestry.
This was nearly 23 years ago. Whether Johnson has had a change of mind regarding the fact of evolution is unknown to me. What is interesting to observe is that a young Earth creationist, David Buckna, who completely rejects biological evolution is using quotes from Phillip Johnson to make his case.
Johnson’s absence of scientific acumen becomes apparent later in the video. The interviewer asks a question:
It is evident from the fossil record that fundamental body plans do not undergo major evolutionary change. Are there natural processes which prevent evolutionary change?
This is a queer sort of “question.” The first part is not a question at all. It’s a purported statement of fact that Johnson is expected to assume when answering the second part.
The first objection to this is that the statement is false. It is not evident from the fossil record that fundamental body plans do not undergo major evolutionary change. Contrarily, the fossil record does record changes in major body plans. The previously-mentioned record of the development of the mammalian ear from the reptilian ear is an easy example that comes to mind. The development of the mammalian ear is considered to be a driving force for the development of the mammalian jaw from the reptilian jaw.
[Some stuff left out]
If Johnson wants to dispute that fundamental body plans undergo major evolutionary change, he needs to directly address specific points like this rather than make vague and unsubstantiated assertions. What Johnson does say is this, answering the question part:
Yes, one of them is called natural selection. You see in fact, natural selection is what prevents gradual step by step change from occurring. It’s a conservative force that promotes the stasis that you actually see in the fossil record and in the evidence. And the reason for that is that if you try to change one kind of thing into something basically different by tiny step by tiny step you are going through intermediate space where the thing isn’t viable.
You can imagine this in the sense that — suppose that you got a set of mutations which in themselves might be capable of turning a mouse into a whale. That’s essentially what is deemed to have happened according to the Darwinian theory. Not literally because it’s not literally a mouse, but something like that, a tiny four-legged creature must have changed step by tiny step into a whale. But if you imagine that starting to happen it’s counterfactual because you have to imagine the mutations coming and there’s no evidence that they exist. You can see that somewhere there the mouse started to develop flippers and a big tail and gear for breathing underwater it would become awfully unsatisfactory as a mouse and helpless and it would get eaten or would be unable to survive. But natural selection would weed it out.
This quote is interesting in so many ways.
First, Johnson began the entire dialog indicating he did not pretend to be a scientist but was qualified to analyze the state of modern science from a lawyer’s perspective. He would demonstrate bald assumptions and would show where the claims do not follow from the evidence.
In order to demonstrate this latter part he discovers the need to pass judgment on the scientific evidence, and to do this he has to step into the role of a scientist. Here is where Johnson has historically gotten into trouble and why he has caught so much grief from scientists. He often demonstrates he has gotten his scientific facts wrong, he has not deeply studied the subject matter he is willing to discuss, and he completely misunderstands much of the material he has studied.
Johnson has made an unfortunate choice in picking the evolution of the “mouse” to a whale, because that is one area of evolutionary development that has yielded significantly to scientific study and analysis in recent years. Johnson can be forgiven for not knowing of this fairly recent work, because, as he has assured us, he is not a scientist. I will also forgive him for not knowing that whales cannot breathe under water.
What Johnson missed in his quest for fault in modern biological science is something that has been spelled out in Carl Zimmer’s book At the Water’s Edge. Zimmer relates the research into the progression of life from its place of origin in water to dry land and the subsequent return of mammalian life to the water in the form of whales and porpoises. He explains what Johnson failed to understand, how “the mouse started to develop flippers and a big tail.” What Zimmer does not explain is how mammals learned to breathe under water. This may forever remain unexplained.
Johnson’s puzzlement regarding how the “mouse” managed to survive without becoming eaten while morphing into a water animal is itself puzzlement. I am not a biologist, but in my naive analysis I think first of a bear. A close relative of the bear is the badger, which more closely resembles an otter than an otter resembles a bear. The otter spends a lot of time in the water and has feet and a tail that assist in swimming in the water. The sea otter spends almost all of its existence in the water and in that way is much like a sea lion, which is much like a seal, only the seal spends very little time out of water. Another ocean-going mammal is the whale, which never comes ashore except by accident.
So there is a rough progression of mammalian life from the bear to the whale, and all of these intermediate forms seem to be doing all right without being eaten to extinction. Keep in mind I have not just described a line of descent from bears to whales. The whale lineage has long gone extinct, and we have only fossil evidence of the whale’s ancestors.
Of course, Johnson can still assert that morphing an otter-like animal into a sea lion-like animal will involve some intermediate forms that are not viable. This is a common practice of creationists, and I invite him to give it a shot.
There’s more, but this has gone on long enough. Feel free to dig into the referenced material and get back to me with comments, complaints, contradictions.
End of the day, David Buckna did not make a wise choice in quoting Phillip Johnson. David’s experience was in teaching at the primary school level where not a lot of deep study goes on, and there is not so much to challenge his world view. He should consider wandering into the halls of higher education and getting a look at the real world.
Now I’m done with the cartoon, and I’m done with the Phillip Johnson quote, and I can get on to David’s issue number 1. That’s going to have to wait for the next post.
Keep reading. And may Jesus have mercy on your soul.