New Mexicans for Science and Reason present


The C-Files: Phillip E. Johnson


Science is the wrong tool for measuring God

[Originally published in the Los Alamos Monitor on March 4th, 2001]

by Dave Thomas : (Help fight SPAM!  Please replace the AT with an @ )

I found Roger Snodgrass's article on Phillip Johnson's "Intelligent Design" lecture at Los Alamos to be very interesting. Johnson also spoke in Albuquerque and Socorro. At the invitations of the University New Mexico and New Mexico Tech, I spoke at those schools after Johnson's appearances there, defending modern science and critiquing Johnson's "Intelligent Design" theory.

Phillip Johnson makes it all sound so reasonable: "Don't exclude God as a possible hypothesis." But it's simply not the job of science to explain the ultimate questions, such as the Purpose of Life. Science is restricted to study of only the natural world,and of the natural laws that govern its behaviors. Miracles aren't allowed in algebra or chemistry; the chemist who claims an increase in yield of 55% because of "a miracle" is not going to win any new grants. Why should biology be singled out as the only science that permits the supernatural? Science is limited to natural explanations, period. This doesn't mean there is no God - only that Science is not the right tool for that investigation. As biologist Robert Dorit of Yale University says, "The hand of God may well be all around us, but it is not, nor can it be, the task of science to dust for fingerprints."

The Greeks thought Zeus was the explanation for lightning bolts; the Norse thought it was Thor's doing. What if we had let it go at that? We would never have learned about lightning rods, or Faraday cages, or surge protectors, and many unnecessary deaths would have been the result. If we accept puzzles in biology as simply the work of a mysterious "Intelligent Designer," why bother studying biology at all? Scientific acceptance of "Intelligent Design" would bring with it the End of Inquiry - the End of Science.

Johnson is very selective when choosing data for his attacks upon "Darwinism." (Johnson always refers to evolutionary biology as "Darwinism" to give it the flavor of a cult; one might as well call General Relativity "Einsteinism," or electromagnetics "Maxwellism.") He labels the scientific method as "atheist materialism," but then glosses over the fact that huge numbers of Christians have no problem with God using evolution as his method of creation. In fact, Johnson refers to Christians who accept evolution (such as Pope John Paul II or Archbishop Sheehan) as "incoherent." In other words, Phillip Johnson doesn't just want to redefine science as it is practiced - he also wants to redefine what it means to be a "Christian." I find this Aspect of "Intelligent Design" to be most troubling.

"Intelligent Design" doesn't explain anything about life, other than it should appear "designed." It doesn't explain why there are no kangaroos in New Mexico, while evolution does - species evolve differently on isolated continents. Evolution explains the order of the fossil record, while "Intelligent Design" doesn't explain this at all. In fact, one popular version of the "Intelligent Design" hypothesis holds that there shouldn't even be a fossil "record," as all creatures were created in a six-day period some 6000 years ago. What part of "Intelligent Design" tells us whether fossils should all appear in the same stratum (six-day creation) or spread out over billions of years (continuous creations)? There is no "Theory" in "Intelligent Design Theory." The Emperor has no clothes. With no theory of its own, the main job of "Intelligent Design" is to bashevolutionary biology and paleontology, implying that it is the only logical alternative. But even these attacks are unfounded, and ultimately ineffective. Phillip Johnson says that natural selection and mutation cannot create new information, period. It doesn't matter if you have billions of years, he said, because billions of years of nothing new results in nothing new.

Johnson ignores the wealth of examples showing his assertions are flat wrong. The one I presented at UNM and Tech involves a bacterium in Japan that has evolved the ability to ingest nylon. The ability was the result of a drastic mutation that would have normally been lethal, robbing the organism of metabolic enzymes; but since the new protein coded by the mutated DNA strand was active on nylon, the new creatures survived, and thrived. This new enzyme - a complex, twisty-turny protein that reacts chemically with nylon oligomers - is very clearly an example of new information (the protein's recipe) resulting from mutation and selection. What Phillip Johnson says is impossible, IS possible; this example, and many others, prove it.

In my talks, I also showed a genetic algorithm I developed that solves math problems without the use of a "target" (desired answer). In particular, I showed how Steiner's Shortest-Network Problem could be solved using only reproduction, mutation, and selection (for shortest overall lengths), and how the solutions that evolved displayed both "Irreducible Complexity" (change any part and the whole function collapses, like taking the spring from a mousetrap) and "Specified Complexity," both buzzwords adopted by "Intelligent Design" advocates to indicate designs supposedly prohibited to natural evolution.

Some of the points mentioned in the Monitor article clearly show the selective nature of Phillip Johnson's citations. Johnson mentioned the Human Genome scientist from Celera Genomics who gushed about the genome looking "like it was designed," but he overlooked comments from people like Arthur Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia), who wrote recently that the big news from the Human Genome project was that "The genome reveals, indisputably and beyond any serious doubt, that Darwin was right - mankind evolved over a long period of time from primitive animal ancestors. Our genes show that Scientific creationism cannot be true."

Johnson also trotted out the old creationist yarn about Stephen Jay Gould's supposed admission "that the absence of transitional fossils was the trade secret of paleobiologists."

What Gould really said, in Natural History 86(5), May 1977 was that "The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of paleontology." It goes without saying that "extreme rarity" is not the same as "absence." Johnson did not quote Gould correctly in Albuquerque, and repeated his error in Los Alamos. Gould had this to say about earlier, similar disinformation campaigns in the May 1981 Discover magazine: "Since we proposed punctuated equilibria to explain trends, it is infuriating to be quoted again and again by creationists -whether through design or stupidity, I do not know - as admitting that the fossil record contains no transitional forms. Transitional forms are generally lacking at the species level, but are abundant between larger groups. The evolution from reptiles to well documented."

Phillip Johnson has seized and reworded Gould's 24-year old quote, while ignoring Gould's 20-year-old explanation - selective advocacy at its most obvious. It's no wonder the "Intelligent Design" movement's leader is a lawyer and not a scientist.

"Intelligent Design" doesn't explain any details of life on Earth. It attempts to drive a false wedge between science and religion. Its attacks on evolutionary science are flawed and ineffective. It is not science, but instead belongs to the discipline known as religious apologetics.


Read the Albuquerque Tribune's article on Johnson's and Thomas's talks...


Phillip Johnson's Home Page:


Phillip Johnson: "Intellectual Father #1" of intelligent design theory.


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