More news from:  Science  |  Environment  |  Health

Doubting Rationalist

Intelligent-design theorist Phillip Johnson with wife Kathie. Johnson does not take the Bible's Creation chapter literally, but argues that evolution cannot account for biological complexity.
Intelligent-design theorist Phillip Johnson with wife Kathie. Johnson does not take the Bible's Creation chapter literally, but argues that evolution cannot account for biological complexity. (By Randi Lynn Beach For The Washington Post)

Network News

X Profile
View More Activity
By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 15, 2005

BERKELEY, Calif. "The Washington Post is not one of my biggest fans, you know that."

Hello?

The Washington Post reporter has just walked out of a spray of Pacific-borne rain into the living room of a modest bungalow west of downtown. There's a shag rug, an inspirational painting or two and Phillip Johnson, dressed in tan slacks and a sweater and sitting on a couch. He pulls a dog-eared copy of a Post editorial out of his shirt pocket and reads aloud:

"With their slick Web sites, pseudo-academic conferences and savvy public relations, the proponents of 'intelligent design' -- a 'theory' that challenges the validity of Darwinian evolution -- are far more sophisticated than the creationists of yore. . . . They succeed by casting doubt on evolution."

The 65-year-old Johnson swivels his formidable and balding head -- with that even more formidable brain inside -- and gazes over his reading glasses at the reporter (who doesn't labor for the people who write the editorials).

"I suppose you think creation is all about unguided material processes, don't you? Well, I don't have the slightest trouble accepting microevolution as the cause behind the adaptation of the peppered moth and the growth of finches' beaks. But I don't see that evolutionists have any cause for jubilation there.

"It doesn't tell you how the moths and birds and trees got there in the first place. The human body is packed with marvels, eyes and lungs and cells, and evolutionary gradualism can't account for that."

He's not big on small talk, this professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley's law school.

For centuries, scriptural literalists have insisted that God created Heaven and Earth in seven days, that the world is about 6,000 years old and fossils are figments of the paleontological imagination. Their grasp on popular opinion was strong, but they have suffered a half-century's worth of defeats in the courts and lampooning by the intelligentsia.

Now comes Johnson, a devout Presbyterian and accomplished legal theorist, and he doesn't dance on the head of biblical pins. He agrees the world is billions of years old and that dinosaurs walked the earth. Evolution is the bridge he won't cross. This man, whose life has touched every station of the rationalist cross from Harvard to the University of Chicago to clerk at the Supreme Court, is the founding father of the "intelligent design" movement.

Intelligent design holds that the machinery of life is so complex as to require the hand -- perhaps subtle, perhaps not -- of an intelligent creator.

"Evolution is the most plausible explanation for life if you're using naturalistic terms, I'll agree with that." Johnson folds his hands over his belly, a professorial Buddha, as his words fly rat-a-tat-tat.


CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company

Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity