Looking for God at Berkeley

A provocative theory called "intelligent design" claims evolution is hogwash. But it's not the usual religious zealots leading the latest attack on Darwin. It's scientists and professors at Cal.

"This exposes the bias and lack of professionalism of the Darwinian side," he huffs. "This is what they have to rely on: claims of power, ad hominems, and personal attacks. That's not a really confident intellectual position. It's like a criminal saying, "This prosecutor is a member of the Unification Church! I should be acquitted!'"

Johnson is the rhetorical godhead of the intelligent design movement; he's been pushing its concepts since before they even had a name. Recently, after more than a decade of writing and speaking on the subject, it has become his full-time job. Earlier this year, Johnson retired from Berkeley after 33 years of teaching criminal law, a concession to the fact that he is now spending a third of his time on the road speaking against evolution. On the road, a lot of people in the audience find it odd that such a vocally right-wing speaker is a Berkeley product, though Johnson himself doesn't see it as so unusual. Just look at Jonathan Wells. "It's a tribute that somebody like Jonathan Wells would want to get his second Ph.D. here, even though his views were not those of the department," he says. "He felt like this was a place to learn the things he had to know to even challenge the things that they believe in. That's a very high compliment. I think I'm something of a goodwill ambassador for the university. Berkeley's a very vibrant place with a lot of different things. I'm just one of the different things."

Johnson made his name by taking a chisel to what he calls "the Inherit the Wind stereotype" -- the image of evolution critics as blinkered and ignorant fundamentalists. In 1991, Johnson published Darwin on Trial, which attacked evolution not with the hammer of God but with the calm rationality of a legal scholar studying the philosophies upon which scientists construct their theories. His own view, quickly embraced by intelligent design boosters, was that Darwinism was only one philosophy -- materialism -- among many that could be used to look at the universe.

Johnson wasn't dissuaded by the small detail that he was a legal scholar, not a scientist; after all, lawyers and scientists are both supposed to study evidence and make claims. So Darwin on Trial confidently charged into the evolution debate. "Darwin could not point to impressive examples of natural selection," Johnson wrote, and neither have thousands of scientists hence; oft-cited examples of natural selection like fruit flies and Galápagos finches, Johnson said, are just "convincing circumstantial evidence." Johnson was looking for direct evidence that natural selection had produced a new species or a new organ, and he found citations of slight changes in color, beak size, or species population unsatisfactory.

Genetic mutation? Don't make him laugh. Pure speculation, he said -- he wanted proof of an eye or a wing evolving, and couldn't find it. Why? Because scientists don't have it. Fossil records? A messy business -- scientists fight over the meaning and place of each fossil they find, and the gaps in this so-called record are so wide that it's hard to make a "story" out of it without entering into pure speculation. The origin of life in the primordial soup? Unprovable, and even the experiments that claimed to do so were debunked long ago. As a lawyer, Johnson knew it was hard to build a case around circumstantial evidence, and yet he saw the scientific community as working with nothing but.

Johnson's arguments were presented so soberly that he almost single-handedly reopened the evolution debate in academic circles. Scientific American and Nature felt compelled to review the book seriously, after ignoring decades' worth of standard creation science literature. To date his book has sold about 180,000 copies. "It's hard to overestimate the importance of Darwin on Trial," says Eugenie Scott. "Here was an anti-evolution book by a professor of law at UC Berkeley. This was man-bites-dog. When [young-earth creationist] Henry Morris writes, nobody cares ... but a lot of people flocked to [Johnson's] banner."

Johnson has formed his ideas into what he calls the "Wedge strategy." The Wedge strives to place intelligent design on the public policy table in two ways. First, it forces out the radical fundamentalist young-earthers who threaten to discredit the movement. Second and more important, it strives to promote the design thesis to the communities, scholars, and legislators who might be receptive to hearing it.

It's working. The Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture has over $1 million available to finance writing, research, and lectures by the likes of Johnson and Wells. As a result, intelligent design has played a strong supporting role in challenges to school boards in West Virginia, Louisiana, Michigan, Kansas, and elsewhere; last month a student in Pennsylvania challenged his local school board's curriculum by citing Jonathan Wells' Icons of Evolution. In May, a group including Johnson, Michael Behe, and others affiliated with the Discovery Institute held a lecture on Capitol Hill attended by a handful of congresspeople. And last week, the Senate passed its education bill, which included a resolution stating that "Where biological evolution is taught, the curriculum should help students to understand why this subject generates so much continuing controversy, and prepare them to be informed participants in public discussions." It's not binding law, but for Johnson, who preaches "teach the controversy," it's a victory.

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