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HTS Theological Studies

On-line version ISSN 2072-8050

Herv. teol. stud. vol.64 n.3 Cape Town Jul./Sep. 2008





Dembski, W A 2006 - Darwin's nemesis: Phillip Johnson and the intelligent design movement
Publisher: IVP Academic. 357 Pages. Price: Unknown
Reviewer: Prof Dr Cornel W du Toit (University of South Africa)

The book is an extensive piece of propaganda for ID (Intelligent Design Theory). The book is dedicated to the "founder" Phillip Johnson and most of the contributors can be considered disciples of the movement. Johnson himself wrote the last chapter (p 19) and among the best-known ID authors whose contributions are included are John Reynolds (Introduction), Stephen C Meyer (ch 1, 12), Michael J Behe, known for his work Darwin's black box (see p 46) (ch 2), William A Dembski (ch 5) and Walter L Bradley (ch 18). Part III, entitled Two Friendly Critics, contains contributions by David Belinski and Michael Ruse. These two contributions do not really match the tone of the rest of the book.

Johnson, who takes on Darwinism, was a professor of law at Berkeley, not a scientist. The ID initiative can be traced back to the publication of Johnson's book, Darwin on trial, in 1991. In 1992 a symposium was held at Southern Methodist University at which Phil Johnson and Michael Ruse (a sympathetic opponent of ID) were the main speakers. "Within a year following that symposium, Phil had gathered a band of ... converts and volunteers, mainly scientists and philosophers. The next step was to organize that band. This Phil did in 1993" (p 14). Johnson is literally seen as a prophet (p 18) and the movement has taken on religious overtones: "This particular battle for the soul of the twenty-first century is his [Johnson's - CWdT] battle. Due to his efforts, Darwinism and its concomitant ills are on the way out. To be sure, other evils will vie to take their place" (p 30). This is the conviction of those who believe they are right and the rest of the scientific world is wrong.

Part I (ch 1-4), entitled Portraits of the man and his work, is an exaltation of Johnson's qualities and the influence he has had on the various contributors. Part II (ch 5-7) - The wedge and its despisers - endorses the tone of the book. The "wedge" is obviously Johnson, who would oust Darwinism from its established position and the "despisers" include everyone who does not agree with Johnson and co. Part III is referred to above. Part IV or Johnson's revolution in biology (ch 10-13) deals with the issues of "common ancestry" (ch 11), the issue of "taxonomic categories" (ch 12) and ID's favourite case study, "coordinate flagellar in pathogenic bacteria" (ch 13).

Part V (ch 14-17), entitled Ever-increasing spheres of influence, continues in the same vein with references to the movement's gains in popularity. The book is polemic in nature and while the movement's proponents are glorified, its detractors are annihilated throughout.

Mention is made of Judge Jones' verdict against ID - "Judge Jones not only struck down the Dover school board policy advocating intelligent design but also identified intelligent design as nonscientific and fundamentally religious" (p 19) - but instead of exploring it, the author elaborates on what would have happened had the judge's verdict been positive and concludes: "It is therefore naive to think that this case threatens to derail intelligent design" (p 20). The verdict, however, is significant because one of the movement's main goals is to introduce ID as an alternative to Darwinism as a school subject.

The authoritative Stephen J Gould's article in Scientific American, which radically criticizes Johnson's book, is also dismissed (Thomas Woodward, pp 66-67). The findings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Society of Neuroscience rejecting ID (p 83), are also mentioned. These too are not taken seriously. Dembski's shocking pronouncement (p 81) confirms the general attitude to the broad scientific community: "It is a measure of the success of our movement that no biology journal would give our books such respectful treatment any longer." Dembski devotes the greater part of his contribution to techniques for disposing of opponents (pp 88-104).

Woodword concedes to Dawkins that "... stars or planets, being relatively simpler objects, do not logically suggest an intelligent-type explanation for their existence", but immediately adds: "... on the other hand, biological entities do suggest such explanation due to their watchlike complexity" (p 69). This makes their position even more vulnerable because this train of thought leaves everything to chance or the laws of nature, and only in some cases does biological complexity suggest an intelligent designer.

Although not directly admitted, strong sentiments about the young earth model emerge in the book: "In Johnsons's prototype of ID strategy, the timing of creation is not so much unknown as it is deliberately not discussed" (p 75). These sentiments are also obvious from the suspicion cast on carbon dating, the fossil record (p 68) and Richards's own statement: "I quickly learned that there were better arguments for young-earth creationism than those off-putting stories about Paluxy footprints and moon dust."

Chapter 16 examines the differences between creationist groupings (see diagram p 269). The points of difference with the young earth creationists are described as follows: "ID is based on science, whereas young-earth creationism is based on sacred texts" and "[t]he religious implications of ID are unconnected to ID self" (p 266). Although there is some affinity between the groups, the ID group accepts that the chances of creationists being taken seriously are remote and believe that their own approach stands a better chance. They attempt to justify a literal reading of the Bible on the basis of a highly doubtful hermeuntics. The flat earth problem, for instance, can be solved by regarding references to it as poetry (pp 270-271)! That it formed part of the broad world view at the time is completely ignored.

ID's strongest argument is the claim to irreducible complexity. Behe describes it as follows: "An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly ... by slight, successive modifications of a precursory system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional ... . Since natural selection can only choose systems that are already working, then if a biological system cannot be produced gradually it would have to arise as an integrated unit, in one fell swoop, for natural selection to have anything to act on" (quoted in Ajala 2006:78).

The following references to irreducible complexity are found in the work: the structure of the vertebrate eye (p 43; refuted by Ajala 2006:79-80), the structure of the protein haemoglobin (p 43; refuted by Ajala 2006:82-83), and flagellum (p 104, refuted by Ajala 2006:80-1). Also see pages 57-59.

In this connection Ajala (2006:78) writes: "But evolutionists have pointed out, again and again, with supporting evidence, that organs and other components of living beings are not irreducibly complex - they do not come about suddenly, or in one fell swoop." The examples given of irreducible complexity are not irreducible at all.

To summarize: ID is an ideology which assumes religious-sectarian traits. It is veiled creationism. It relies on a few examples, most of which have been refuted by authoritative scientists. They try to turn ID into proof of the existence of god - an attempt which like other "god of the gaps models" will eventually result in embarrassment. There is no doubt that ID has its followers, but the same can be said of many of the other pseudo-scientific movements. Ajala (2006: 90) points out "that the theory of evolution is not incompatable with belief in the existence of God and God's presence in the workings of the universe."

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