Intelligent Design Creationism stalwart Philip Johnson has died

Johnson, who died last weekend at the age of 79, was a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley who later in his life and career became an ardent advocate and strategist for promoting intelligent design creationism. He was a key architect of the ‘Wedge Strategy‘ that was revealed in a leaked document, that sought a more ambitious goal than sneaking religion into the scientific curriculum with the goal of overthrowing evolutionary theory, but was a covert assault on the idea of materialism that they felt was dominant in science and the key obstacle to the introduction of religious ideas into science.

I have written about Johnson before, about how he came to be the father of the IDC movement with his 1991 book Darwin on Trial kicking it off. But he was also smart enough to realize that the reason they lost the big Dover case in 2005 was because the IDC movement had failed to deliver on the promised science.

“I also don’t think that there is really a theory of intelligent design at the present time to propose as a comparable alternative to the Darwinian theory, which is, whatever errors it might contain, a fully worked out scheme. There is no intelligent design theory that’s comparable. Working out a positive theory is the job of the scientific people that we have affiliated with the movement. Some of them are quite convinced that it’s doable, but that’s for them to prove…No product is ready for competition in the educational world.

I think the fat lady has sung for any efforts to change the approach in the public schools…the courts are just not going to allow it. They never have. The efforts to change things in the public schools generate more powerful opposition than accomplish anything.”

I met Johnson once. His book was my first introduction into the IDC idea and led me to read Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box and Jonathan Wells’s Icons of Evolution. In the early days of the IDC, I was interested in what they were saying and when Johnson was invited to Case Western Reserve University to give a talk, I attended it. But before his talk, there was a small group of about ten people who met with him for an informal discussion and someone in the organizing group invited me to join them and I did. I found Johnson to be a friendly, avuncular type and quite liked him. But during the discussion that he led, where he was careful not to mention the existence of god, he drew a comparison between how he inferred the existence of intelligent design from the evidence of nature to how we can infer the existence of design from the way that computer software functions.

At that point, I said that we knew that there was a programmer who wrote the software so why would Johnson not admit that intelligent design implied the existence of a designer who must necessarily be god-like. He replied with a twinkle in his eye that the question of a designer or who the designer might be was not allowed.

I realized then that that was the strategy, to keep explicit mentions of god out of the discussion, perhaps to be revealed at the very end once they had achieved their goals and the mask could be whipped off dramatically. That indeed was what was revealed later in the Wedge document, to keep explicit mentions of god out of the discussion and not associate IDC with it in any way. But the Dover school board completely exposed that covert strategy and the IDC movement never really recovered from that debacle.


  1. Matt G says

    Funny how evolution is done out in the open while IDC requires strategy documents, and nods and winks.

  2. John Morales says

    Interestingly (coincidentally?), this just appeared on mainstream news here in Oz:


    In the 21st century, one natural wonder that has attracted controversy is the tiny rotating wheel that powers the swimming movement of bacteria.

    Followers of a modern form of creationism known as “intelligent design” argue that this motor is too complex, too incredible, and too efficient to have possibly arisen naturally.

  3. Mano Singham says


    Thanks for that link. The bacterial flagellum was heavily touted by Michael Behe as proof that evolution could not work.

  4. Dunc says

    he drew a comparison between how he inferred the existence of intelligent design from the evidence of nature to how we can infer the existence of design from the way that computer software functions

    As someone with over 20 years professional experience in software development, I can only say “Ha!”

    There is rather less design and rather more evolution in software development than most people realise. And no, I’m not talking about evolutionary algorithms… I’m talking about all those code monkeys out there banging code snippets they’ve found on Stack Overflow together until they end up with something that more-or-less looks like it’s doing what it’s supposed to, without really understanding how any of it works. Or the way that any piece of software that remains in use for a significant length of time tends to get incrementally modified until it ends up doing something completely different to what it did originally, but in a way that you would never have designed if you were doing it from scratch, and still retains the vestigial imprints of every step along the way.

  5. says

    Dunc is correct.
    If you wish to consider software evolution in action, think about all the versions of Windows and ask whether there is change, selection pressure, and differential survival.

  6. mnb0 says

    “the strategy, to keep explicit mentions of god out of the discussion,”
    IDiocy is just creationism without Bible quotes.

    “perhaps to be revealed at the very end once they had achieved their goals and the mask could be whipped off dramatically.”
    The IDiots from Seattle didn’t have that much patience. Since a few years they (especially Klinghoffer) admit that the Intelligent Designer’s name is YHWH.

    @5 and @6: but those examples are not Darwinian evolution. Intelligent minds design the processes, so they are proof of IDiocy.
    It’s just Paley’s Watchmaker Analogy, ie a logical fallacy.

  7. Ray Hall says

    I met Philip Johnson & Kathy at the start of his sabbatical in London. they were on a preliminary week’s holiday in Northumberland, England where we had a holiday cottage. We walked out after the evening meal (we were staying same place because we had tenants until Saturday) . As a result of this I received, and commented on , the paper that became “Darwinism on trial” and they came to dinner at our home just before they left. Amongst other things I could not get Phil to understand the status of a scientific theory as compared with e the general chit chat version of “i have a theory that”. When the book was published he sent me a copy and it was discovering my response amongs some papers that got me searching today.
    We were both a bit vehement inour beliefs but apart from teh arrant nonsense of what he was trying to do, I found the pair of them quite civilised and interesting to talk to, so I am sorry to hear (well after the event, of his demise.


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