Cover Story

Courtly Combatant

Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson has been in the lion's den since 1991, when he horrified the "mandarins of science" by publicly challenging Darwinism. Now in his 60s and despite suffering the effects of a stroke, WORLD's Daniel of the Year continues to befriend the lions even as he declaws them intellectually

Issue: "Daniel of the Year 2003," Dec. 13, 2003

A TRIUMPHANT THEORY gathers lots of momentum in 144 years. Its gravitational field comes to include the most respected scientists, the most prestigious institutions, and the massive weight of popular opinion. Its true believers gain research grants and build their academic careers upon it. Its veracity goes unquestioned, its assumptions unchallenged.

But what if it's wrong? What if it's built not on a rock but on the shifting sands of conjecture, junk science, and political correctness?

In a perfect world, legitimate challenges to the theory would be welcomed. But in the public and professional world of Darwinian evolutionism, 144 years of received wisdom threaten the careers and reputations of all who oppose it. What quixotic and clueless renegade would dare to stand fast against Darwin's irresistible force?

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Enter a courtly, mild-mannered but confident law professor who makes no claims as a scientist but who knows a sloppy argument when he sees one. Enter Phillip Johnson, WORLD's Daniel of the Year for 2003.

Our previous five Daniels-John Ashcroft, Franklin Graham, Ken Starr, Sudan's Michael Yerko, and Christian teens who faced killers at Columbine High School and Wedgwood Baptist Church-did not go looking for trouble, but trouble came to them because they refused to bow to the idols of our time. So it has been with Phil Johnson, whose road to intellectual combat began innocently: Fifteen years ago, during a sabbatical from his endowed chair at the University of California, Berkeley, the law professor saw a book through the window of a London shop that caught his interest.

The Blind Watchmaker, by Richard Dawkins, was a vigorous defense of Darwinian evolution. The more he read, the more Mr. Johnson believed that the arguments in support of random creation and natural selection were hollow and indefensible. Here was a fundamental scientific theory-invincible on the surface-built on suppositions and surviving in secret through inertia and intimidation.

Mr. Johnson answered in 1991 with a book of his own, Darwin on Trial. He made no effort to replace the evolutionary theory of Darwin with something else: His expertise is in assessing evidence. His only point was that the logic and argument that evolutionists from Darwin forward depended upon was insufficient to make their case. "The question I want to investigate," he wrote in the first chapter, "is whether Darwinism is based upon a fair assessment of the scientific evidence, or whether it is another kind of fundamentalism."

Over the next 150 pages or so Mr. Johnson systematically annihilated the Darwinist claims that evolution was a fact beyond question. Like a black belt in judo, he used his opponents' own weight against them. Selective breeding as an explanation for evolving species? "The reason that dogs don't become as big as elephants, much less change into elephants, is not that we just haven't been breeding them long enough. Dogs do not have the genetic capacity for that degree of change." Fossils as proof of Darwin's theory? "If evolution means the gradual change of one kind of organism into another kind, the outstanding characteristic of the fossil record is the absence of evidence for evolution."

Darwinians were apoplectic. William Provine, an evolutionary biologist at Cornell, thought the book was "worse than most of the garden-variety creationist tracts." Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, writing in Scientific American, called Darwin on Trial "a very bad book ... full of errors, badly argued, based on false criteria, and abysmally written."

The personal and professional attacks against Mr. Johnson continue to the present day, in part because he's a Christian and therefore suspect. Like a lawyer, he relies on expert witnesses in preparing his case, but that doesn't keep Darwinians from jumping on him because he's not a scientist himself. Educators, science department chairs, and even some Christian professors and leaders condemn him. Mr. Johnson responds, "When you challenge one of those givens, of course you risk being identified as a loony and excluded from a respectable conversation. I've had to deal with some harsh words, but that's the lot of anyone who takes a controversial position ... it's a contact sport!"

Phil Johnson became used to contact at an early age: He entered Harvard at 17, was first in his law-school class at the University of Chicago, and clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren. Now his base of operations is a Berkeley neighborhood 10 minutes from San Francisco Bay that-except for the later model cars parked at the curb-could be straight out of the 1940s. The quiet streets are lined with clapboard or stucco bungalows built so close together that there's barely room for a driveway between them. Picture windows keep watch over a sidewalk broken here and there by the roots of old trees. Small porches are awash in potted flowers. Several chimneys still have old television aerials strapped to them with rusted metal bands.


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