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Very intelligent design

It beats waiting around for something else to evolve

Issue: "Modern martyrs," Nov. 30, 1996

Somehow, Phillip Johnson, the law professor at the University of California at Berkeley who has gained a national reputation for his arguments against Darwinism, seems more suited to the sophisticated game of chess than to dominoes. But clearly, Mr. Johnson understands the domino theory.

You'll search far and wide to find someone who can do a better job of looking back over intellectual history for the last century and a half, and then explain how the rise of Darwinism led step by step, discipline by discipline, cultural corner by cultural corner, to the exclusion of God from public discussion. Darwin did it successfully in the field of science, Marx in economic theory, Freud in psychology and the social sciences, Dewey in education, and then almost everyone in politics. The dominoes fell.

Maybe now the big question is: Can Phillip Johnson make the dominoes stand up again?

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If anyone seems well suited to the task of challenging the century-old dominance of Darwinism in our culture, it's Phillip Johnson. In one respect, at least, he's a modest fellow. He recognizes that just as naturalist thinking didn't pervade our society and culture all at once, neither will it be removed all at once. Popular though he might be in the movement, he can't do it by himself. It's a long line of dominoes. Getting them to stand up again is at best, well, may we say chancy? Maybe it's time for some intelligent design.

That's why the gathering hosted (in a sense) by Phillip Johnson and briefly reported on p. 18 of this issue was so significant. The "Mere Creation" conference at Biola University was actually conceived, organized, and sponsored by Christian Leadership Ministries, a division of Campus Crusade for Christ. J. Stanley Oakes Jr., national director of CLM, had become excited not just about critiquing Darwinism but also about pulling together like-minded people to set a formal research agenda for an "intelligent design" model. Broad contacts and proven organizational skills made CLM a natural for pulling the meeting off.

But causes need champions. It still takes intellectual firepower--superheated by burning vision--to put rockets in orbit. The idea that Phillip Johnson is that champion for this cause is suggested by the increasingly large number of younger scholars who have gathered around him and looked to the 55-year-old prof for leadership.

Not that there are no other credible voices. Scientists like Hugh Ross of Reasons to Believe, Walter Bradley of the University of Texas, and Fritz Schaefer of the University of Georgia all speak out regularly on the issues. So does the venerable Institute for Creation Science, with its more conservative take on things. But nowhere has there been a "movement" of all creationists. The dominoes have been falling only one at a time.

It's still too early, to be sure, to say whether such a movement is now building steam. But if it happens, a big part of the reason might be found in Mr. Johnson's eagerness to share the platform with the likes of an awesome intellectual trio who began gathering around him several years ago. The trio includes Stephen Meyer, a specialist in the philosophy of science who serves both with Whitworth College in Spokane, Wash., and the Discovery Institute of Seattle; William Dempski, whose work at Notre Dame University is in probability theory but who also holds a theology degree from Princeton Seminary; and Paul Nelson, now completing a Ph.D. in the philosophy of biology at the University of Chicago, and described by Mr. Johnson as a "walking encyclopedia on any subject."

There are others, of course; the three mentioned here are only examples. What's noteworthy about the Johnson cadre is their unusual determination to be agenda setters rather than mere accommodationists. They are not simply trying to make what they believe fit into someone else's grand framework, but taking the philosophical and scientific initiative to describe that framework themselves. "We are not in any way triumphalists," says philosopher Meyer; "we are very profoundly aware how far along we are in our culture and what the stakes are." But then he enthusiastically suggests the vision of a simple wedge--starting in academia where ideas are often born and defined, moving next into the subdisciplines, and finally popularizing the message in the broader culture.

Precisely because of the impressive breadth of their own academic experience and backgrounds, these young scholars appreciate how profoundly Darwin's work affected not just the field of science, but all of culture as well. They understand it's not just a matter of picking up one domino that has fallen; the whole line needs to be set up again.


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