A Father, an Atheist Son, and a Darwin Heretic

By Jonathan Witt Published on August 12, 2018

After reading Heretic: One Scientist’s Journey from Darwin to Design, a father emailed the co-authors, bioengineer Matti Leisola and me. He wrote to ask for advice about his adult atheist son. The father had sent his son a copy of the book and urged him to read it so they could discuss it. The son, a scientist, declined. Leisola and I exchanged a few emails with the father. Later he gave us permission to publish a summary of our correspondence, provided we kept the identity of him and his son private.

According to the father, his son said part of what fueled his skepticism of the book was that most of those endorsing Heretic had connections with Discovery Institute. Another red flag for the son: Among Leisola’s 140 peer-reviewed papers, the tiny few that are explicitly pro-design were published by the journal BIO-Complexity. The son dismissed the journal for its connections with Discovery Institute.

But some of the peer reviewers for those articles were Darwinists with no association with DI beyond their agreeing to peer-review one or more papers for BIO-Complexity. Also, as Chapter 7 of Heretic notes, there are scores of peer-reviewed science articles supporting intelligent design.

Powerful Scientific Paradigms

Also discussed in the book, distinguished paleo-entomologist Günter Bechly lost his position at a prestigious museum after voicing support for intelligent design. And science journal editor Richard Sternberg got run out of the Smithsonian Institution after accepting a pro-ID paper for peer review and eventual publication. The film Expelled relates several other such stories.

So it’s no surprise that few scientists rush forward to present arguments for design. It’s also no surprise that many who do present the evidence do so as discreetly as possible. Is it any wonder that few journal editors are willing to consider explicitly pro-ID papers?

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The son had other objections. He suggested that Leisola and I could be ignored because we’re paid guns for intelligent design. He is apparently unaware that Leisola came to reject modern evolutionary theory before Discovery Institute even existed (made clear in the book) and has only been in communication with some of our scientists for a few years now. Also, Leisola is comfortably retired on his savings as a successful university professor and biotech industry leader. Finally, he didn’t even ask for royalties from this book.

The son also seemed to suggest that on the other side from ID are all those mainstream scientists pursuing their research untainted by bias or ulterior motives. This might seem plausible if the only alternative were legions of mainstream scientists willfully denying the evidence of design in nature and cackling into their sleeves as they fudge data and work to suppress evidence. But scholarly work in the history and philosophy of science suggests a more plausible alternative.

Scientific paradigms can work powerfully precisely because they encourage scientists like this man’s son to avoid engaging certain arguments and evidence, and to do so as naturally and easily as they breathe air. Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is only the best known of many works in the field detailing this pattern. We offer a few examples in Heretic.

Does Science Depend on Darwinism?

There’s also this to consider from NAS member Philip Skell, in an essay of his in The Scientist:

Certainly, my own research with antibiotics during World War II received no guidance from insights provided by Darwinian evolution. Nor did Alexander Fleming’s discovery of bacterial inhibition by penicillin. I recently asked more than 70 eminent researchers if they would have done their work differently if they had thought Darwin’s theory was wrong. The responses were all the same: No.

I also examined the outstanding biodiscoveries of the past century: the discovery of the double helix; the characterization of the ribosome; the mapping of genomes; research on medications and drug reactions; improvements in food production and sanitation; the development of new surgeries; and others. I even queried biologists working in areas where one would expect the Darwinian paradigm to have most benefited research, such as the emergence of resistance to antibiotics and pesticides. Here, as elsewhere, I found that Darwin’s theory had provided no discernible guidance, but was brought in, after the breakthroughs, as an interesting narrative gloss.

If the son had spent a bit of time with Heretic, he also would know that there are eminent scientists unconnected to Discovery Institute who have stated that they see powerful evidence for a designing intelligence from the evidence of nature. This group includes Nobel laureates.

The Correspondence

After the father described some of the back and forth to us, Leisola emailed back:

The response of your son is revealing. He is not really engaging himself with any of the arguments for design or against evolution but only attacks Discovery Institute and questions the motives of the critics of Darwinism. I have had hundreds of these discussions with colleagues, friends and foes over decades. It is never about facts and arguments (which are clearly on the side of design) but always about world views. I think man naturally fears the truth about nature, himself, and finally about God.

As a Christian I can only pray that God in his mercy opens the eyes for these realities.

Best wishes,

Matti Leisola

P.S. I have many friends who agree with me but would never dare to admit that in public.

Later the father emailed again, and Leisola responded a second time:

Your son is of course completely right that most of the thousands of scientists are doing exactly that: experiments and publishing them in peer-reviewed scientific journals. I have done that for 45 years and been on the editorial board of some journals and peer-reviewed many articles. But that is not the topic of my book.

The big question is: Is nature all there is? What is the paradigm behind modern science? For most scientists it is absolute materialism.

Richard Lewontin of Harvard: “We have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door” (“Billions and Billions of Demons,” The New York Review of Books).

Most scientists I know, never think about their basic assumptions or formulate them clearly in their minds. If you challenge the materialistic assumption, the reactions are sometimes strong. That is the theme of my book.

All the best to you and your discussions with your son. Do not give up — one day he will face a situation where materialism is not enough. Having four children (and seven grandchildren), I know and understand your position.


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