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.

But Johnson argues that forcing intelligent design theory into public schools is not his goal. "We definitely aren't looking for some legislation to support our views, or anything like that," he says. "I want to be very cautious about anything I say about the public interest, because obviously what our adversaries would like to say is, "These people want to impose their views through the law.' No. That's what they do. We're against that in principle, and we don't need that."

For the most part, however, Johnson says he has focused on academia; if the ivory tower can be convinced, he argues, what he believes to be the truth can trickle down from there. "I'm ambivalent toward even the best legislative efforts right now," he says. "Most of them are just bills that don't pass."

Johnson is under no delusion that winning over the minds of evolutionary scientists will be quick or easy -- after all, they're what he calls "prisoners of a mental strongbox" -- but he is seeing steady progress toward a time when God will exist side by side with Darwin. "My semifacetious prediction is that in 2059 there will be the bicentennial [of Darwin's Origin of Species], and the theme will be "How did we ever let this happen?'" With that he lets out a hearty, confident laugh.

Criticizing Johnson's ideas has been easy for the scientific establishment. Sure there's debate over how evolution occurs, which Johnson points out. But his conclusion -- that these debates open the question as to whether it occurs -- is both presumptuous and ill-researched in the minds of scientists. But it allows Johnson to argue that evolutionary scientists are in a panic to prop up Darwin to support their authority over nature. That's foolishness, says Brown University's Kenneth Miller. Scientists like Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge found flaws with Darwin but were in no way ostracized for it -- they simply backed up their claims with research. The intelligent design community, he says, could do the same thing, except for a simple problem: No intelligent design researcher has come up with a scientific way to test for the existence of God.

"A lot of people were upset by [Gould's and Eldridge's claims], but nonetheless [the two researchers] made their reputations on criticizing Darwin," says Miller. "Can you criticize Darwin and live? Of course. The question is, why should one expect that the scientific community would not be critical of ideas that have no scientific support?" Miller and the overwhelming majority of scientists maintain that evolution provides the only legitimate explanation for biological change; theories like intelligent design look for supernatural explanations, and there's no test for such a thing. Only suppositions. Faith.

Intelligent design believers certainly have faith, not only in their theory but in their eventual vindication. "It happens to be a belief of mine that [intelligent design] is a sure winner once it's on the table," says Phillip Johnson. "The metaphor I use is that the train has left the station and it's on the logical tracks. It's going to the terminus, even if it may take a long time to get there."

Which means Eugenie Scott won't be changing jobs anytime soon. "I joke that every nonprofit director has a goal of eliminating the problem the nonprofit was created to address -- your goal is to put yourself out of business," Scott says. "But damn ... I have a feeling that I'm going to be stuck in this business for a while."

« Previous Page
My Voice Nation Help
Sort: Newest | Oldest
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.