The Art of Debating Darwin
|Doubts About Darwin: A History of Intelligent Design
By Thomas Woodward
304 pp., $19.99
In 1990, the anti-Darwin crusader Phillip E. Johnson sent me a manuscript of Darwin on Trial and asked for my advice about its publication.
I deferentially cautioned the chaired professor at the University of California's respected Boalt Hall School of Law that he could encounter problems finding a mainstream publisher and attracting a popular audience. I thought there were too many books that made essentially the same arguments against Darwinism for there to be much of a market for Darwin on Trial, even if it articulated those arguments far better than most.
I was decidedly wrong. After InterVarsity Press published the paperback edition, it became a standard in evangelical households and churches.
As Thomas Woodward's new Doubts About Darwin shows, Darwin on Trial not only became a bestseller within the evangelical Christian community but helped revive popular interest among conservative Protestants and Catholics in Intelligent Design (ID) as an explanation for innovation in biology.
ID is the hypothesis that highly complex organs (such as the eye) and functionally interdependent organisms (such as butterflies and flowers) reflect the handiwork of an intelligent designer (such as God).
This traditional biological concept of an intelligent designer fell from favor during the late 1800s with the ascent of Darwinism, which relied on random variation and natural selection to fine-tune organs for their uses and organisms for their environment. But some nonscientists clung to the notion of a designer behind nature, especially evangelicals who took seriously the words of Romans 1:20: "For since the creation of the world, God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made."
With the publication of Darwin on Trial in 1991, Johnson conferred a Berkeley pedigree on such thinking by marshalling evidence against the sufficiency of evolution to account for the origin of species. Doubts About Darwin concentrates on Johnson's argument and traces its impact on a core group of followers in academia. Woodward counts himself among this group.
Although (like many books based on dissertations) it's laced with technical terms, Doubts About Darwin demonstrates that Johnson is a master rhetorician. As Johnson himself explains in the book's forward, "Rhetoric is the art of framing an argument so that it can be appreciated by an audience." He calls it "a noble art."
Woodward analyzes the rhetoric associated with the modern ID movement that began in 1985 with the publication of Evolution: A Theory in Crisis by Australian physician and biochemist Michael Denton; that spread throughout the U.S. evangelical community through Johnson's writings and speaking during the 1990s; that peaked in 1996 with the publication of mathematician David Berlinski's article "The Deniable Darwin" and biochemist Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box; and continues with the subsequent publication of The Design Inference by William Dembski and Icons of Evolution by Jonathan Wells.
Woodward measures the rhetorical effectiveness of each of these major ID works. More than anyone else in the ID movement, Johnson highlighted the effect of scientific materialism (or methodological naturalism) in shaping the debate over origins. By their own definition of their field, modern scientists investigate only natural causes, not supernatural ones. In his various popular books and public statements, Johnson denounces such reasoning as circular.