Darwin on Trial

Author: Phillip E. Johnson  | Date: 1991


The legal citation to the opinion by Judge Overton is McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, 1529 F.Supp. 1255 (WD. Ark. 1982). The opinion is reprinted in the collection But Is It Science? (Ruse, ed., 1988). This collection also contains articles critical of the Ruse-Overton definition by the philosophers Larry Laudan and Philip Quinn, accompanied by replies from Ruse. For additional accounts of the trial by participants, see Langdon Gilkey’s Creationism on Trial: Evolution and God at Little Rock (1985), and Robert V Gentry’s Creation’s Tiny Mystery (2d ed. 1988). Gilkey is a liberal theologian who testified for the plaintiffs; Gentry is a physicist and a creation-scientist who testified in defense of the statute.

Stephen Jay Gould praised the opinion in the following terms: "Judge Overton’s brilliant and beautifully crafted decision is the finest legal document ever written about this question- far surpassing anything that the Scopes trial generated, or any opinions [in the two other cases that went to the Supreme Court]. Judge Overton’s definitions of science are so cogent and so clearly expressed that we can use his words as a model for our own proceedings. Science, the leading journal of American professional science, published Judge Overton’s decision verbatim as a major article." ("Postscript," Natural History, November 1987, p. 26.)

Media accounts and judicial opinions take for granted that the balanced treatment statutes were the work of a highly organized nationwide coalition of creation-scientists, but this has been denied. According to the creation-scientist attorney Wendell R. Bird, most of the national creation science organizations oppose legislation of this kind, "preferring instead to persuade teachers and administrators of the scientific merit of the theory of creation without legal compulsion." An individual named Paul Ellwanger appears to have taken the lead in proposing balanced treatment legislation, with the result that some reluctant creation-scientists were drawn into losing battles on ground not of their own choosing. See Wendell R. Bird, The Origin

of Species Revisited, vol. 2, pp. 357-359 (1989).

The quotations from Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (2d ed. 1970), are from pages 5, 24, 77-79, and 127-128. Interestingly, Kuhn’s model of the scientific enterprise is itself based upon Darwinist philosophy. Kuhn noted that the distinctive feature of Darwin’s theory, from a philosophical point of view, was that it abolished the notion that evolution is a goal-directed process. Natural selection has no goal, but it nonetheless produces progress in the form of marvelously adapted organs like the eye and hand. Similarly, science progresses by "the selection by conflict within the scientific community of the fittest way to practice future science. The net result of a sequence of such revolutionary selections, separated by periods of normal research, is the wonderfully adapted set of instruments we call modern scientific knowledge.... And the entire process may have occurred, as we now suppose biological evolution did, without benefit of a set goal, a permanent fixed scientific truth, of which each stage in the development of scientific knowledge is a better exemplar." (pp. 172-173.)

The passage from Heinz Pagels’ The Dreams of Reason (1988) is from pp. 156-58. The two quoted paragraphs are separated by three paragraphs in which Pagels discusses the logic of mathematics as an additional example of the cosmic building code of the Demiurge. The passages by George Gaylord Simpson are from The Meaning of Evolution (rev. ed. 1967), pp. 279, 344-45. Although Karl Popper’s falsifiability criterion is unsatisfactory as a definition of "science," Popper’s writing on this subject is extremely valuable for its insights into the difference between science and pseudoscience. This is the subject of Chapter Twelve.


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Chicago: Phillip E. Johnson, "Chapter Nine the Rules of Science," Darwin on Trial Original Sources, accessed July 17, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4WVL8W2NSH53Q7P.

MLA: Johnson, Phillip E. "Chapter Nine the Rules of Science." Darwin on Trial, Original Sources. 17 Jul. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4WVL8W2NSH53Q7P.

Harvard: Johnson, PE, 'Chapter Nine the Rules of Science' in Darwin on Trial. Original Sources, retrieved 17 July 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4WVL8W2NSH53Q7P.