Heretic: Review of the Newest Book on Intelligent Design

By Sean McDowell Published on March 22, 2018

Heretic: One Scientist’s Journey from Darwin to Design is the most recent book published by the Discovery Institute, the world’s foremost organization promoting Intelligent Design. ID is the theory that nature is better explained as the work of an intelligent designer than as the result of mindless physical forces. Of course there’s much debate about ID. For a good, introductory text to help understand the issues, Heretic is an excellent place to start.

Unlike other recent books on ID (such as Darwin’s Doubt by Stephen Meyer or Undeniable by Doug Axe) this book offers no new arguments. That is hardly a criticism, because the book does not aim to do that. Rather, it tells the story of Matti Leisola — an accomplished scientist and professor from Finland — and how he became disillusioned with the Darwinian view of life and came to embrace design.

The story-fillied nature of this book is one of its greatest strengths. For the most part, Heretic (co-written with Jonathan Witt) takes readers on Leisola’s personal journey of wrestling with the fossil record and the origin of life. Leisola discusses relevant scientific issues, but maintains full awareness of his primarily lay audience.

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I am thrilled to see the Discovery Institute publishing books that take a narrative approach to origin questions. In our book Understanding Intelligent Design, William Dembski and I include a many such stories and examples. But Heretic is told entirely as a story. The book’s narrative approach is both interesting and also much “softer” to read than other works focused on scientific details.

Rather than directly trying to persuade readers, Leisola simply shares his personal conclusions regarding origins. For example, as a Darwinist, Leisola had embraced the “God-of-the-gaps” criticism of religious followers. That is, he believed religious folks inserted God into the “gaps” in current scientific knowledge. He believed that naturalistic explanations would eventually emerge to replace any need for God in those “gaps.” And yet he eventually changed his mind:

So are these physicists ‘giving up on science,’ as some would claim? Not at all. Being open to the possibility of a designing intelligence isn’t giving up on science or rationality or the experimental method. Rather, it’s giving up on the myth of the ever-shrinking god of the gaps. It’s letting the book of nature tell its own story, and following the story — the evidence — where it leads.

Two Memorable Insights

Leisola shared two experiences that particularly stood out to me. First, in conversations with dozens of colleagues throughout the world, he has found that very few are well acquainted with the basics of evolutionary theory. “Most,” he says, “just accept it on faith.” This has, sadly, been my experience with many religious believers. It’s interesting to hear that it may be true for many scientists too.

Second, he notes that the scientific literature is filled with claims that Neo-Darwinism is an established fact. Yet many scientists have privately relayed their doubts to him. Many stay quiet, though, according to Leisola, even if they don’t buy the Darwinian story, because the professional costs for openly doubting Darwin are simply too high.

Final Thoughts

Heretic is now one of the top books I will recommend of its kind. If you have followed the debate over Darwin and design, then you will enjoy the story that frames the book. You may also take away a few new scientific insights. If you are newer to these discussions, Heretic is a great place to start. My suspicion is that it may lead new readers to consider ID.


Sean McDowell, Ph.D., is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, best-selling author, popular speaker, part-time high school teacher and the Resident Scholar for Summit Ministries, California. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog:

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