Darwin on Trial is a 1991 book about the theory of evolution and the creation-evolution debate by Harvard graduate and University of California, Berkeley law professor emeritus Phillip E. Johnson. Because of the number of legal arguments based on science or scientific evidence, Johnson became interested in the presuppositions of scientific investigation and wrote the book with the thesis that evolution could be "tried" like a defendant in court. Darwin on Trial became a central text of the intelligent design movement principally fathered by Johnson.
Eugenie Scott wrote that, in her opinion, the book "teaches little that is accurate about either the nature of science, or the topic of evolution. It is recommended neither by scientists nor educators." But others disagree. Scott pointed out in a second review that "the criticisms of evolution [Johnson] offers are immediately recognizable as originating with the "scientific" creationists".
Johnson, a professor emeritus of law at University of California, Berkeley and a Christian, describes his specialty as "analyzing the logic of arguments and identifying the assumptions that lie behind those arguments". After reading Michael Dentons' Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (1985) and Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker (1986), he came to believe that the scientific theory of evolution was based on materialistic assumptions and empty rhetoric, and decided to analyze the evidence for the theory. He states that he has no interest in discussing the Biblical account of creation in Genesis. Rather, Darwin on Trial focuses on examining whether evolutionary biologists have proven their case using evidence evaluated with an "open mind and impartially", and whether there is convincing evidence that the variety of life on earth came about through the purely material processes of natural selection.
Darwin on Trial has sold over 250,000 copies. Causing "an uproar in some scientific and literary circles," Darwin on Trial alerted national media to the creationist movement and their fight against the theory of evolution. In the year after Darwin on Trial was released, many articles about the controversy were published in popular newspapers and magazines across the country. Johnson said in an interview in California Monthly that he fully expected to be labeled a "kook" by the academy, but he was "pleasantly surprised" by its reception at Berkeley.
The book initially received more attention from popular media than from the scientific community, although soon after the book was released Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education responded to it, saying "scientific creationists" like Johnson "confuse the general public, by mixing up the controversy among scientists about how evolution took place, with a more general question of whether it took place at all". Stephen Jay Gould gave a harsh review in Scientific American, and the controversy caught the attention of Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg. Johnson has since added an epilogue to the book titled "The Book and Its Critics", in the latest edition of Darwin On Trial.
Johnson's claim to impartiality has been contradicted by reviewers who state that "the driving force behind Johnson's book was neither fairness nor accuracy", and that the claim of impartiality is contradicted by Johnson's stated aim "to legitimate the assertion of a theistic worldview in the secular universities". Stephen Jay Gould reviewed the book for Scientific American, concluding that the book contains "...no weighing of evidence, no careful reading of literature on all sides, no full citation of sources (the book does not even contain a bibliography) and occasional use of scientific literature only to score rhetorical points." Gould's writings are quoted frequently in the book, but Gould complained that it does not fully cite sources.
He also held up Theodosius Dobzhansky as a counterexample to Johnson's assertion that naturalism undergirds Darwinism and criticized Johnson's decision to include recombination as a form of mutation and his assessment of sexual selection as a relatively minor component of Darwinian theory in the late twentieth century. Gould also specifically pointed out an error in the use of the term "polyploidy"; stated that Johnson incorrectly refers to Otto Schindewolf as a saltationist, "attacks" outdated statements of Simpson and Mayr; fails to point out that Henry Fairfield Osborn corrected his own mistake regarding Nebraska Man; and stated that Johnson overlooks "self-organizing properties of molecules and other physical systems" that, in Gould's opinion, makes the self-assembly of RNA or DNA plausible. Gould states that Darwinism's bringing together of "widely disparate information under a uniquely consistent explanation" implies that it is a successful theory, that amphibians have features that imply a "fishy past", and that the genealogical tree of Therapsida is a convincing example of macroevolution.
In "research notes" in the second edition, Johnson provides answers to most of Gould's criticisms, but acknowledges that his use of "polyploidy" was indeed incorrect, the error having been missed by his "diligent scientific consultants;" it is corrected in the text. Johnson also replied in an online posting, essentially repeating the assertions he made in the book. Robert T. Pennock rebutted Johnson's belief that science was improperly defined within Edwards v. Aguillard, stating that the dual model of science established by Johnson (either creationism, or evolution is correct and true, and by disproving any part of evolution, creationism 'wins' by default) is a false dilemma, a type of informal fallacy.
Eugenie Scott has pointed out that the book repeats many arguments by creationists that were previously discredited. Scott further criticizes Johnson's approach, which assumes science and evolution can be treated the same way as a criminal trial. Scott points out that the uses of three critical terms in both science and law are completely divergent. Within science, a law is a descriptive generalization, while a theory is the explanation of the law, and the term "fact" is rarely used (in favour of "observation"). In comparison, the legal term law refers to a rigid set of behavioral proscriptions, a theory is presented by a lawyer in an effort to convince a judge or jury, and facts are assertions that lawyers make and attempt to prove to the court. Scott points out that in science, facts and theories are changeable as knowledge accumulates, and laws are less important than theories, while in court cases laws are immutable, theories are secondary to the laws. Also demonstrated is how the adversarial process works in each profession; during trials lawyers will actively conceal weaknesses in their cases and relevant information from the jury, while science is strongest when it actively attempts to disprove its own theories; a scientist concealing information will ultimately be exposed and disproven. Scott also points out that Johnson criticizes the theory of evolution for changing to accommodate new data, indicating a profound misunderstanding of this strength of science which must adjust theories in order to explain contradictory or new information, and the false dilemma used by Johnson as well as his use of straw men.
In a second review, Scott again points out that Johnson's arguments are recycled from scientific creationism. Scott further states that Johnson lacks familiarity with the specifics and nuances of the field necessary to match the critiques of Darwinism offered by evolutionary biologists, and instead parrots the criticisms made by suspect sources (scientific creationists).
Henry Bauer, Professor of Chemistry and Science Studies at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, reviewed the book saying Johnson "misleads about science and about what science says about evolution." Bauer explained, "Johnson lumps evolutionists together as Darwinists...but Johnson doesn't understand that even Darwin's original 'theory' contains at least five separate concepts that can be held independently." In his case studies, for example, "with the Velikovsky affair, there is much more rhetoric than substance." Bauer noted that when "archaeopteryx cannot be explained away...Johnson calls it 'a point for the Darwinists, but how important ...?' - as though science were suggesting something else."Review by Raymond Bohlin
Review by Cathy Duffy
Review by Wesley Elsberry
Review by Stephen Jay Gould
Johnson’s Reply to Gould at ARN
Review by William Hasker
Review by Stephen Meyer
Review by Nancey Murphy
Johnson replies to Murphy
Review by Doug Peck
Review by Eugenie C Scott and Thomas C Sager
Review by Thomas Woodward