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Witnesses for the prosecution

National | Darwin on Trial author brings together anti-Darwin coalition to bring down evolution

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

from Los Angeles

For a generation, evangelical Christians zealous to oppose Darwinian evolution have had a habit of looking to southern California for expertise in their crusade. The battle's headquarters for thousands of anti-evolutionists has for many years been in San Diego, home of the Institute for Creation Research.

But during three days of meetings two weeks ago, thoughtful folks might well have looked a bit farther up the coast for options on how to bring down the biggest bogeyman biblical Christianity may ever have faced. A conference on "Mere Creation" at Biola University in suburban Los Angeles brought together an unprecedented cross-disciplinary gathering of 200 men and women--mostly academics and mostly Christians--interested in building a credible origins model based on "theistic design."

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"This isn't really, and never has been, a debate about science," says the conference's prime mover, law professor Phillip Johnson of the University of California at Berkeley. "It's about religion and philosophy." Mr. Johnson also insists the real issue in the century-old debate isn't even about the early chapters of Genesis. "I turn instead to John 1," says the astute Presbyterian layman, "where we're told that 'In the beginning was the word.'"

It was hardly the first nuanced distinction Mr. Johnson has proposed--nor will it be the last if he is to hold together the improbable coalition he attracted to the Biola meeting. Included were biologists, chemists, physicists, quantum theorists, paleontologists, statisticians, linguists, philosophers, theologians, journalists, educational administrators, and philanthropists. Representing 58 state colleges and universities, 28 Christian academic institutions, and 18 other organizations, the gathering was unwieldy for good reason: The differences among these 200 experts were almost certainly as big as most of their common interests.

Try these two participants, for example: Meteorologist Larry Vardiman serves on the faculty of the Institute for Creation Research, which holds staunchly to the view that the universe is no more than 10,000-15,000 years old and that God did his work of creation in six 24-hour days. But philosopher Del Ratzsch from Calvin College argued in one of 18 lectures the conference heard that evolutionary processes--"natural selection by random chance"--might well have been the method God used to bring about his creation. To be sure, most of the 200 participants would have felt much more comfortable somewhere between the two poles.

Phillip Johnson's strategy stretches like a would-be eclipse over most of the differences. "We can't afford to be shooting incessantly at each other over old-earth and young-earth disagreements," he says wherever he goes among evangelical Christians. "The real enemy is naturalistic, impersonal Darwinism that deliberately and consciously seeks to set God on the sideline of our culture." Mr. Johnson suggests there will be time enough for settling the details of creation once Darwinism has been denied its century-old dominance.

One significant catalyst contributing to the success of the Biola gathering had to be the newest book on the subject, Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box--and the zesty media response that book has earned. Mr. Behe, a Roman Catholic biochemist at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., is a Christian who flatly rejects naturalistic Darwinism, believes in a personal Creator, but also holds to the likelihood of "common descent," the idea that all living things derive from the same ancestors.

Where attorney Johnson, with his seminal work Darwin on Trial, has for a decade brought rhetoric and logical precision to the debate, scientist Behe brings technical credentials. But he wears those credentials with disarming simplicity. Along with his lucid explanations of what he calls "irreducibly complex" processes and cells, Mr. Behe provides an unforgettable analogy: the lowly mousetrap. The mousetrap's five or six basic parts, he shows, are all essential for catching mice--leave out even one, and you'll not just catch fewer mice, but none at all. Complex entities don't evolve piece by piece, Mr. Behe argues; they have to be designed from the start.

A few participants at the Biola meeting didn't like that approach, claiming it's too close to what they call the "God of the gaps" fallacy--if there's something science can't explain, then God must be the answer. But most seemed comfortable with the Johnson-Behe priority of energizing a unified challenge to the Darwinian hegemony. Then, maybe when Goliath has been tumbled, there will be time to work out more details of how creation really did occur.

In seeking such a unified front, the question may be whether an alliance reaching all the way from six-day creationists to theistic evolution is possible. And if one of those poles is left out or leaves itself out, will it be the ICR folks--decidedly underrepresented at Biola? Or might the theistic evolutionists, whom Mr. Johnson describes as occupying "just a few backwater positions" in the origins debate, be the ones to take a walk?

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