Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Current Counter-Reformation

Those who have been following the intelligent design/ Darwinian evolution debate for a long time will appreciate Tom Bethell's retrospective on the early years. Those who have come to the controversy more recently will benefit from reading about its origins.

Bethell writes:
I first heard about Phillip Johnson from a retired lawyer named Norman Macbeth. Two decades earlier Norman had written a marvelous book called Darwin Retried and it made a big impression on me. We became friends. He lived in Spring Valley, north of New York City and I stayed with him several times.

More than once we went to see a friend of his, Ron Brady, who taught philosophy at Ramapo College. He too was a Darwin doubter. Macbeth would take me along to meetings at the American Museum of Natural History, where he introduced me to curators at meetings of the Systematics Study Group. Some were amazingly critical of Darwinism.

One day, in the fall of 1990, Norman told me that he had recently heard from a lawyer at UC Berkeley's law school -- "Boalt Hall," but I hadn't heard of that. The lawyer's name was Phillip Johnson. He had just written a book critical of Darwin, and had sent it along so that Macbeth could render a verdict. He didn't show it to me, but he told me it was excellent.

We were both delighted to know that another lawyer would be entering the lists and helping to make the case against Darwinism. Macbeth died about a year later. It was as though he knew that he had passed on the baton.

It wasn't until the following summer that I met Phil Johnson at his house near Berkeley. By then I had read Darwin on Trial, now celebrating its 20th anniversary. Curiously, the concept of "intelligent design" wasn't explicitly invoked in the book, and ID certainly didn't exist as a movement. An odd parallel is that the word "evolution" doesn't appear in Darwin's Origin of Species. (The word "evolved does occur, once, and it is the last word in the book.)

I was familiar with some of the arguments in Darwin on Trial, but I now realize that the key to the book's influence was that religious objections to Darwinism were replaced by scientific and philosophical ones. Macbeth's book had done the same, but it never achieved the resonance of Phil's book.
Bethell's column brought back memories. As a grad student Norman Macbeth's book was one of several that inspired me to challenge the dogma that Darwinism (or more precisely materialistic "molecules to man evolution") is a scientific theory in my Master's thesis. My belief then, and still today 30 plus years later, is that it's a metaphysical hypothesis, based on untestable assumptions and a faith commitment to materialism.

If Darwin's Origin of Species triggered a "Reformation" in intellectual history then today we're experiencing a counter-reformation in which Norman Macbeth and Phillip Johnson have been pioneers and leading players.

The rest of Bethell's article is interesting and instructive. Give it a read.