Phillip E. Johnson, Evolution Denier

Phillip E. Johnson is a retired law professor at the University of California, Berkeley.  He calls himself “the father of the intelligent design (ID) movement.”  He was born in June 1940 and received his law degree from the University of Chicago.  Johnson became a born-again Christian after he went through a divorce.  He claims that after praying for inspiration regarding his purpose in life, he read a couple of books on evolution including Richard Dawkins’ 1986 text The Blind Watchmaker.

Fig. 1: Phillip E. Johnson, evolution denier.

Although Johnson had no training in biology or science (his undergraduate degree was in English Literature), Johnson claims that the Darwinists’ rhetorical style made me think they had something to hide.”   Evolution deniers frequently refer to mainstream biologists as “Darwinists,” in an attempt to portray them as a fringe group.  Having read a couple of books on evolution, Johnson became convinced that his life purpose was to replace evolution with a form of creationism.

Prof. Johnson was an influential figure in the history of the Discovery Institute (DI), the central clearing house for the American anti-evolution movement.  DI is headquartered in Seattle and was founded in 1990.  DI was initially a branch of the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank located in Indianapolis.  In 1996, Phillip Johnson was a co-founder of the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture at DI (it is now called the Center For Science and Culture or CSC).  The CSC is the leading proponent of a form of creationism called intelligent design or ID.  That group has been very active in pushing anti-evolutionary messages.

Fig. 2: Phillip Johnson’s 1991 book Darwin On Trial.

In 1991, Phillip Johnson wrote a book called Darwin on Trial.  This was an attack on the theory of evolution.  In his book, Johnson attempted to cast doubt on evolutionary theory by attacking it in the manner of a lawyer in a trial.  Although Johnson’s book was widely read and publicized, it received harsh criticism from scientists who reviewed it.  Stephen Jay Gould reviewed it for Scientific American (Stephen Jay Gould, “Impeaching a Self-Appointed Judge,Scientific American 267 (No. 1, July 1992), 118-121) and said:

Johnson’s current incarnation of this false strategy [the argument that an opponent of evolution must be ‘acquitted’ if the faintest shadow of doubt can be raised against Darwinism], Darwin on Trial, hardly deserves to be called a book at all. It is, at best, a long magazine article promoted to hard covers—a clumsy, repetitious abstract argument with 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. I see no evidence that Johnson has ever visited a scientist’s laboratory, has any concept of quotidian work in the field or has read widely beyond writing for nonspecialists and the most “newsworthy” of professional claims.

A few years earlier, in 1992 Johnson attended a conference at Southern Methodist University.  The conference featured leading anti-evolution scientists and philosophers.   At this meeting Johnson discussed strategies to discredit evolution.  A group of attendees at this conference  began to formulate what is now called the “Wedge Strategy.”  Over the next few years, the goals and procedures of this group were summarized in a paper called ‘The Wedge Document.’  This manifesto, and Philip Johnson’s role in promoting it, is such an important element of the anti-evolution movement that we will discuss it in detail.

  1. The ‘Wedge’ Document:

The Wedge Document was drafted in 1998 by staff of the Discovery Institute.  It was initially marked ‘Top Secret’ and ‘Not For Distribution.’   However, in 1999 Tim Rhodes was given a copy of this document and posted it on the World Wide Web.  Initially, CSC Vice President Stephen Meyer refused to acknowledge whether this document was real or a fake.  Subsequently, Meyer claimed that the Document had been stolen from the Discovery Institute.  Now, however, it is accepted that the Wedge Document is authentic and that it summarizes the aspirations and goals of the Center For Science and Culture.

The Wedge Document states that “Discovery Institute’s Center For the Renewal of Science and Culture seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies … the Center explores how new developments in biology, physics and cognitive science raise serious doubts about scientific materialism, and have re-opened the case for a broadly theistic understanding of nature.”  The document also states that “The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built.” 

 The overall aims of the Wedge Document are listed, and they are subsequently broken down into five-year and twenty-year goals:

  • To defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural and political legacies.
  • To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.

Five Year Goals:

  • To see intelligent design theory as an accepted alternative in the sciences and scientific research being done from the perspective of design theory.
  • To see the beginning of the influence of design theory in spheres other than natural science.
  • To see major new debates in education, life issues, legal and personal responsibility pushed to the front of the national agenda.

Twenty Year Goals:

  • To see intelligent design theory as the dominant perspective in science.
  • To see design theory application in specific fields, including molecular biology, biochemistry, paleontology, physics and cosmology in the natural sciences, psychology, ethics, politics, theology and philosophy in the humanities; to see its influence in the fine arts.
  • To see design theory permeate our religious, cultural, moral and political life.

The Wedge Document is quite remarkable.  First, it clearly outlines a religiously-motivated push to replace a ‘materialistic’ culture with “a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.”   Although staff at the CSC are careful not to talk about religious motivation, it is clear from this document that their long-term goal is to re-orient the United States along the lines of a Christian theocracy.

Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State has summarized the tactics of the Center for Science and Culture regarding evolution:  “The objective [of the wedge strategy] is to convince people that Darwinism is inherently atheistic, thus shifting the debate from creationism vs. evolution to the existence of God vs. the non-existence of God. From there people are introduced to ‘the truth’ of the Bible and then ‘the question of sin’ and finally ‘introduced to Jesus.’ “  We note that a number of religions based upon the Judeo-Christian Bible, such as Catholicism, are able to accept Darwinian evolution as a tool used by God, rather than as an atheistic concept.  The CSC view is based on a fundamentalist reading of the Bible.

The notion of the “Wedge” reflects a common fundamentalist Christian trope.  They believe that present-day society and culture can be perceived as a giant tree of materialism, with science (and particularly evolution) comprising the roots.  Thus the attacks on evolution are envisioned as a “wedge” with which to split the “trunk” of materialism at its weakest point.  This “materialism vs. Christianity” theme is shown in Fig. 3 in a cartoon from Christian Ministries International.

Fig. 3: Fundamentalist view, Materialism vs. “God’s Word”

It has now been 21 years since the publication of the Wedge Document, so we will review the successes and failures of this movement.  We will start with the successes.  One of the primary goals of this organization is publicity.  They have indeed succeeded in publishing a number of widely read works that attack the theory of evolution.

Phillip Johnson has authored a number of books, including Darwin On Trial, Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, Reason In The Balance, and The Wedge of Truth.  All of these represent attacks on the theory of evolution and also on conventional science that excludes theistic ‘explanations’ of events.   At every opportunity, Johnson claims that the theory of evolution “is falsified by all of the evidence” and whose “logic is terrible.”  In fact, the opposite is true: the theory of evolution is supported by all of the evidence (see our blog posts on evolution).  Influential books have also been published by Michael Behe and William Dembski; these will be reviewed in our capsule biographies of those two men.

A second goal expressed in the Wedge Document is to receive press coverage for their anti-evolution work.  We would consider them to be somewhat successful in this endeavor.  Certainly fundamentalist Christian churches rely heavily on “scientific” arguments from the Discovery Institute.

The U.S. is unusual in the Western world in that a large percentage of people either accept literal Biblical accounts of creation, or reject the idea of common descent as it applies to humans.  In this regard, the Discovery Institute is working to keep these numbers high, and this should be considered a success of DI.  In the past few decades, the Republican party has developed close ties with fundamentalist Christian churches.  As a result, many Republicans at both the state and federal level are anti-evolutionists.

Fig. 4: Views on evolution in developed countries.

Another goal of CSC is to foster debates on evolution.  This tactic has had an interesting history.  Initially, some anti-evolutionists had considerable success in public debates.  Trained creationist debaters were jousting with academics who seemed unprepared for a debate format, and who were not familiar with “evidence” cited by the creationists.  In addition, many of these “debates” were attended by busloads of fundamentalist Christians who would cheer on their advocates.

However, in recent years the tables have turned.  The anti-evolutionists have a limited number of arguments and examples, and the scientific community is now aware of these and has rebutted them in detail.  For example, the Web site summarizes and refutes all of the arguments against evolution.  As a result, in recent years anti-evolutionists have fared very poorly in public debates.

Another goal of anti-evolutionists is to bring creationism into the public schools.  Phillip Johnson played a leading role in pushing the Santorum Amendment.   This was a proposed amendment to what became the No Child Left Behind Act, and was intended to promote the teaching of intelligent design and to question the teaching of evolution in public schools.  Phillip Johnson claims to have written the text of the Santorum Amendment.  Scientists and educators succeeded in having the Santorum Amendment stripped from the eventual bill.  However, the wording of the Santorum Amendment still remains in the Conference Report for that bill.

There have been attempts in several states to change the standards for science instruction as a means of introducing creationist books into the biology curriculum.  The most recent of these led to a trial in York County, Pennsylvania in 2005 (Kitzmiller et al. vs. Dover Area School District et al.).  That school board mandated that ninth-grade science classes had to be presented with “an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view.”   The creationist book Of Pandas and People was mentioned as a suitable textbook, and the president of the Dover Board of Education donated 60 copies of this book to the middle school.

We will review the details of that trial in our sketch of Michael Behe, since he and Scott Minnich of the University of Idaho were the only scientists who testified on behalf of the (anti-evolution) defense in this trial.  It should be noted that DI Fellows William Dembski, Stephen Meyer and John Angus Campbell, who were scheduled to testify for the defense, withdrew at the last minute.

The outcome of the trial was a major setback for ID proponents, as Judge John Jones ruled that “The overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory.”  Jones concluded that “the secular purposes claimed by the Board amount to a pretext for the Board’s real purpose, which was to promote religion in the public school classroom, in violation of the Establishment Clause.”

The anti-evolutionists also attempt to promote their agenda in the public schools on the grounds of fairness.  They claim that evolution is a controversial topic and that it is necessary for instructors to “Teach The Controversy” when evolution is introduced into biology classes.  The mainstream science community rejects the claim that evolution is a controversial subject.  For example, the National Center for Science Education is devoted to defending the teaching of evolution in public schools. They state that “This mission is vital because of evolution’s central importance to the conceptual foundations of the modern biomedical, life, and earth sciences.  There is no scientific debate about the fundamentals of evolution. Life evolves; species descend with modifications from other species.”

One of the twenty-year goals of the CSC is that intelligent design theory should emerge as the dominant perspective in science.  In this regard the “Wedge strategy” should be seen as a major failure.  Note that one of the objectives in the Wedge Document was to sponsor “front line research.”  It is important to note that there is essentially no research being conducted by anti-evolutionists.  There are almost no publications by ID proponents in major refereed journals.

The mission of the John Templeton Foundation is “to support progress in religious and spiritual knowledge, especially at the intersection of religion and science.”  The Templeton Foundation would be eager to support scientific research that connected science with religion.  However, to the best of our knowledge the Templeton Foundation has not supported any scientific research projects by Fellows of the Discovery Institute, because there is none.

So, the CSC push to make intelligent design the dominant scientific perspective (over evolution) has to be seen as a major failure.  The scientific community has rejected intelligent design and has mounted effective critiques of works by DI Fellows.  See our reviews of Michael Behe and William Dembski for more details.

Phillip Johnson was a major force in the development of the “intelligent design” movement.  He was particularly active in developing tactics used by CSC Fellows.  First, he urged the creationists to hide the religious motives behind “intelligent design.”  Thus, anti-evolutionists such as Michael Behe claim that their only interest is in scientific arguments.  Furthermore, many ID proponents argue that the “architect of design” could be any higher power and not necessarily the Christian God.  This is another reason why the “Wedge Document” is so enlightening, since it clearly states that the goal of the CSC is to “produce a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.”

Another area where Johnson played an important role was in the field of cosmology.  There are two major factions in the creationist community.  The first, or “Young Earth Creationists (YEC),” believe that the age of the Earth and the Universe can be deduced from statements in the Bible, which they consider as factually true in all respects.  YEC proponents argue that the Universe and the Earth are roughly 6,000 years old (see our blog posts on Young Earth Creationism).  A second group of creationists accepts the scientific consensus that the Universe is 13.7 billion years old, and that the Solar System is a few billion years old.

Johnson strongly advised the YEC community to profess “neutrality” on the age of the Universe, even though conceding that the universe may be billions of years old would seem to question the literal truth of the Bible.  He argued that the most urgent priority was to overthrow the theory of evolution.   Once evolution had been replaced with intelligent design theory, then the fundamentalists could re-open questions regarding cosmology.

Although Johnson has been slowed in recent years by a series of strokes, he is still listed as a Scientific Advisor in the Web site for the Center for Science and Culture.

Source Material:

Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, B. Forrest and P. Gross, Oxford University Press 2004.
Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism, R.T. Pennock, MIT Press 1999,
Darwin on Trial: Phillip E. Johnson, InterVarsity Press, 1991.
Wikipedia, Phillip E. Johnson
Wikipedia, The Wedge Strategy
Stephen Jay Gould reviews Johnson’s Darwin On Trial.
Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District,
National Center for Science Education
John Templeton Foundation
Young-Earth Creationism