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.

Matti

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  • Ray

    Darwinism has little to do with intelligent design.

    • Jim

      That’s because intelligent design doesn’t exist.

      • pngmac

        If I see a sign, made from say plants, that says, “Welcome to …,” am I to marvel at what nature did, and marvel even more that nature did it in such proximity to the place that actually bears that name?

      • Oh so this explains your support of sodomy in other threads.

        No, poor boy, evolution is the false idea of self-creation excused by claiming it took a long time to do.

        • Paul

          I wonder how anyone could believe in evolution and also that homosexual behavior as being somehow good or normal, those engaged in the behavior can’t reproduce so they die off. They are unfit for survival. That’s why they focused on recruitment instead.

          • It is ultimately a desire of their gnosticism to claim that they don’t need God because they want to pretend they created themselves. Therefore it doesn’t have to make sense or be logical.

          • Jim

            Recruitment? So ridiculous on so many levels. Just another talking point passed around by bible believers

          • Paul

            As usual I don’t expect you to understand

          • Jim

            Good grief. It would seem that you’re the one who doesn’t understand. Just a parrot for your cause

          • JP

            Much of the recruitment is done by molestations.

          • Paul

            Reminds me of George Takei

          • JP

            and many others.

          • Jim

            Loved him as Sulu.

          • Jim

            Any proof?

          • JP

            Harvey Milk. Just read the many stories of homosexual men who were molested by older homosexual men.

          • Jim

            smh/

          • swordfish

            Homosexual behaviour has been observed in over 200 animal species, so it’s definitely “normal”, and there are hypothetical evolutionary explanations for said behaviour.

        • Jim

          Support for sodomy? I support the rights of gays.
          Self creation…. created from two sets of chromosomes from my parents. No supernatural beings needed, dear boy.

          • JP

            Why should any rights be based on a person’s sexual preferences?

          • Jim

            Why shouldn’t gays have the same rights as everyone else?

          • JP

            They do. No one should have rights based on their sexual preferences. Sexual preferences have nothing to do with race.

          • Jim

            It’s not a preference.

          • JP

            Of course it is.

          • Jim

            Prove it.

          • So you support sodomy, are a gnostics, and now deny God. Why are you here?

          • Jim

            Public forum

          • No, you seek to disrupt.

          • Jim

            Nope.

      • Tim Pan

        Really? Please explain the origins of life on earth.

        • Jim

          explain why they don’t teach intelligent design as a science in either high schools or colleges

          • Tim Pan

            Because the left will not allow it.

          • swordfish

            It was decided in a court of law.

          • Tim Pan

            what was?

          • swordfish

            That ID is religion, not science, and that it can’t be taught in public schools.

          • Tim Pan

            In can u7nder the rubric of world religions

          • Jim

            Because it’s not reality. It’s supernatural in nature.

          • Tim Pan

            Ideas are ideas . The idea of a Gods is being censored in the public school system.

  • SAMTHECAT

    I appreciate this article. Having read Dr. Leisola’s engaging book, I provided a copy to a student for consideration. During preparation of my Master’s thesis, I came across a similar phenomenon in the medical research field: that of suppression of evidence that did not agree with current medical practice in a variety of areas. Find medical doctors and and researchers were denied tenure, publication, conference presentation billing, in addition to public castigation by fellow practitioners or medical organizations. No scientist is without bias and each person brings to his research a set of lenses that guides not only his interpretation of the results but the design of the research. As Dr. Leisola illustrated so well, his view point changed as a result of recognizing what the evidence was revealing- and that after several years of research. It is a pity that so-called scientists cannot be open to even discussing the possibility of design but must react by shutting down or even avoiding the discussion.

    • swordfish

      “It is a pity that so-called scientists cannot be open to even discussing the possibility of design”

      They were. Design was the default explanation for living things for hundreds of years before Darwin published On the Origin of Species, but it never explained anything. Asking evolutionary scientists to be “open to design” is like asking rocket scientists to be open to the flat Earth theory.

  • Trilemma

    Question: How did all these different species come into existence?

    Christian answer: God did it.
    Atheist answer: Evolution did it.

    Both sides ignore the evidence for the other. ERV insertions are strong evidence that humans and chimps evolved from a common ancestor. The incredible complexity of a living cell is strong evidence that a creator being assembled the first living cell. The answer to the question is, therefore, somewhere between God did it and evolution did it.

    • swordfish

      “The incredible complexity of a living cell is strong evidence that a creator being assembled the first living cell.”

      No, it isn’t. What unit of complexity are you using to judge how complicated a cell is? In any case, it’s believed that the first living things weren’t ‘complex’ cells, but much simpler self-replicating molecules which underwent a process of evolution over hundreds of millions of years.

      • NellieIrene

        “it’s believed that the first living things…” were …”much simpler self-replicating molecules”

        And where did those molecules come from?

        • swordfish

          They would consist of amino acids which are common in nature. they’ve even been found on comets.

          • NellieIrene

            I’m alluding to the first cause.

          • swordfish

            What makes you think there was a first cause?

          • NellieIrene

            Because I don’t believe it is possible for something to come out of nothing.

            Edit:
            What are the statistical odds for something to come out of nothing? Are they higher then for something, outside of our current knowledge, to have brought everything into existence.

            It is unknowable. Therefore the entire argument that Intelligent Design is not valid is moot.

          • swordfish

            What makes you think there was ever a ‘nothing’ state, or that such a thing would even make sense?

          • I think it takes a whole lot more faith, and a lot of prevarication, to be an Athiestist than to be a Christian.

          • swordfish

            It doesn’t require any faith at all to be an atheist. What do you imagine I believe on faith?

          • Oh come on you are obviously not a very deep thinker but the average kid in high school understands that one has to believe in something. You quite obviously choose science as your religion because that is what you base your believing on, that takes a LOT of faith!

          • swordfish

            Just because someone doesn’t believe in God doesn’t mean they have to believe in something else. Science is a method for understanding how the world works by examining evidence; it isn’t a religion and doesn’t require any faith.

            The fact that you reject evidence-based reasoning in favour of a book of confused bronze age myths says something about the depth of your thinking.

      • Trilemma

        A molecule is not a living thing. I have yet to see information about a molecule that can self replicate from monomers. Please post a link with spaces in place of dots to such information. A living cell requires a couple of hundred proteins with a strand of DNA that codes for all those proteins. That level of complexity does not happen randomly.

        • swordfish

          “A molecule is not a living thing.”

          It depends how you define living. Is a virus alive? It’s nothing more than a shell of protein molecules surrounding a bundle of DNA or RNA.

          “I have yet to see information about a molecule that can self replicate from monomers. Please post a link with spaces in place of dots to such information.”

          https://www researchgate net/publication/14502542_A_Self-Replicating_Peptide

          “A living cell requires a couple of hundred proteins with a strand of DNA that codes for all those proteins. That level of complexity does not happen randomly.”

          My point was that the first living thing would have been a self-replicating molecule, not a more complex cell.

          • Trilemma

            Some biologists say a virus is alive and some say it isn’t. I doubt any would say a single molecule is alive.

            The 32 amino acid peptide in the article replicates by combining a specific peptide of 15 amino acids with a specific amino acid of 17 amino acids. It can’t self-replicate from monomers. If this peptide bumped into a peptide of 15 amino acids, the odds of it being the correct one is 1 in 1.64 x 10^19. The odds of a 17 amino acid peptide being the correct one is 1 in 6.55 x 10^21. Odds are this peptide would never replicate in a primordial soup.

            Even if there was a molecule that could self-replicate from monomers, you still have to get to a cell with hundreds of proteins and a strand of DNA that codes for those proteins.

          • swordfish

            What is your source for these ridiculous numbers?

          • Trilemma

            I calculated the numbers. A peptide is a strand of amino acids. There are 20 standard amino acids that make up peptides. To calculate the number of possible arrangements of these 20 amino acids in a peptide of 15 amino acids, you take the number of possible amino acids that could be in the first position on the strand and multiply that by the number of possible amino acids that could be in the second position and multiply that by the number of possible amino acids that could be in the third position and so on until the fifteenth position. That’s 20 x 20 x 20 x 20 x 20 x 20 x 20 x 20 x 20 x 20 x 20 x 20 x 20 x 20 x 20 which equals 3.28 x 10^19. Because reversing the order of amino acids in a peptide is still the same peptide, this number needs to be divided by 2 to get the number of unique arrangements which is 1.64 x 10^19. Therefore, the odds of a peptide being the exact one you need is 1 in 1.64 x 10^19. Use the same method for a strand of 17 amino acids.

          • swordfish

            I understand powers, but I wasn’t clear whether you had found these numbers on a creationist site and copied them, or not. As it stands, your objection here is one of unlikeliness. You may well be right in this particular case, but I don’t think anyone is proposing that this molecule was *the* molecule which started life on Earth. IMHO a natural chemical process, however unlikely, is much more likeley than a supernatural intervention.

  • swordfish

    “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.”

    What arguments for design?

  • TRUTH no longer matters! ONLY the agenda matters and the truth can be bent to fit the agenda. This is totally by design, and fulfillment of Prophecy. Men will be lovers of selves and haters of God, and ALL things that even lean toward God.

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