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This item appeared in the "Editor's File"
in The Textbook Letter, May-June 1996.

Cranking Away in Alabama

William J. Bennetta

My collection of crank literature includes an assortment of creationist tracts that attack natural science, the concept of organic evolution, and our scientific understanding of the history of life on Earth. One of my favorite items in this class is the book Darwin on Trial, written by a lawyer named Phillip E. Johnson. It was published in 1991.

In some ways Darwin on Trial is just a conventional piece of "creation-science" -- replete with misrepresentation, misdirection, distortion and fiction -- but it has been composed with some rhetorical skill. Johnson enlists many quotations from other works, provides a pretentious addendum of "Research Notes," and does a generally superior job of trying to convert creationist claptrap into serious diseducation. Moreover, he shows considerable boldness: At one point he actually tries to float his own, self-serving definition of creationist, even though the meaning of that word is well established and well known. Darwin on Trial is rubbish delivered with flair, and I have come to regard it with special favor.

Apparently I am not alone in this. It seems that Fob James likes Johnson's book too. James, who is the governor of Alabama, has been leading a campaign to promote creationism in Alabama's public schools, and his efforts have included a public performance in which he imitated an ape for the edification of the State Board of Education. (See TTL, January-February, page 12.) Now he has come up with something almost as gross: According to a press release that his office issued on 19 March, James has used $2,967.30 of state funds to buy 900 copies of Darwin on Trial, and he has sent a copy to "every public school science teacher in the state."

The press release included a statement from James himself:

"If Alabama's students are going to understand how science really works, they must learn to evaluate and analyze theories," Gov. James said.

"It should be clearly understood that an attempt to improve science education by encouraging healthy and constructive criticism of evolutionary theory is not equivalent to teaching `creation science' or to bringing religion into the classroom," the governor added.

Evidently, though, the governor forgot to add that Johnson's book does not provide "criticism of evolutionary theory," because Johnson has not bothered to learn what evolutionary theory is or what evolutionary theory tells us. Indeed, Johnson repeatedly shows that he hasn't even bothered to learn basic biology. (Here, for example, is one of his notions about animals: "Amphibians lay their eggs in water and the larvae undergo a complex metamorphosis before reaching the adult stage." That is simple-minded stuff from the 5th grade. Anyone who has studied the amphibians knows that they are wonderfully diverse in their modes of reproduction, that many of them do not lay eggs in water, and that many of them do not have larval stages and do not undergo metamorphosis. Creationists may find comfort in clinging to 5th-grade typology, but biologists know that the multiform modes of reproduction and development shown by amphibians are unmistakable products of descent with modification.)

The governor also neglected to add that Johnson's book has been discredited, repeatedly and well, in reviews written by scientists. The reviews include "The Persistent Conflict," by Thomas H. Jukes, in Journal of Molecular Evolution for September 1991; and "Impeaching a Self-Appointed Judge," by Stephen Jay Gould, in Scientific American for July 1992. I recommend both of these to science teachers, in Alabama and elsewhere, who may encounter Darwin on Trial. Both help to expose the follies and fantasies in Johnson's claims about nature, about history, and about science.


William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes often about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.

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