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"That's only," he continues, "because science puts forward evolution and says any other logical explanation is outside of reality."
Johnson and his followers, microbiologists and geologists and philosophers, debate in the language of science rather than Scripture. They point to the complexity of the human cell, with its natural motors and miles of coding. They document the scant physical evidence for the large-scale mutations needed to make the long journey from primitive prokaryote to modern man.
They've inspired a political movement -- at least 19 states are considering challenges to the teaching of Darwin's theory of evolution.
None of which amuses evolutionary biologists, for whom intelligent-design theory inhabits the remotest exurb of polite scientific discourse. Darwin's theory is a durable handiwork. It explains the proliferation of species and the interaction of DNA and RNA, not to mention the evolution of humankind.
The evidence, they insist, is all around:
Fruit flies branch into new species; bacteria mutate and develop resistance to antibiotics; studies of the mouse genome reveal that 99 percent of its 30,000 genes have counterparts in humans. There are fossilized remains of a dinosaur "bird," and DNA tests suggest that whales descended from ancient hippos and antelopes.
Does it make any more sense to challenge Darwin than to contest Newton's theory of gravity? You haven't seen Phillip Johnson floating into the stratosphere recently, have you?
William Provine, a prominent evolutionary biology professor at Cornell University, enjoys the law professor's company and has invited Johnson to his classroom. The men love the rhetorical thrust and parry and often share beers afterward. Provine, an atheist, also dismisses his friend as a Christian creationist and intelligent design as discredited science.
As for the aspects of evolution that baffle scientists?
"Phillip is absolutely right that the evidence for the big transformations in evolution are not there in the fossil record -- it's always good to point this out," Provine says. "It's difficult to explore a billion-year-old fossil record. Be patient!"
Provine's faith, if one may call it that, rests on Darwinism, which he describes as the greatest engine of atheism devised by man. The English scientist's insights registered as a powerful blow -- perhaps the decisive one -- in the long run of battles, from Copernicus to Descartes, that removed God from the center of the Western world.
At which point a cautionary flag should be waved.