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Correspondence: A Father, an Atheist Son, and Darwin Heretic Matti Leisola

Matti Leisola

After reading Heretic: One Scientist’s Journey from Darwin to Design, a father emailed the co-authors, retired professor/bioengineer Matti Leisola and me, asking for advice about his adult atheist son. The father had sent his son a copy of the book, urging him to read it so the two could discuss the evidence and arguments there. The son, a scientist, declined. Leisola and I exchanged a few emails with the father, and he later gave us permission to summarize some of the back and forth, provided we kept the identity of him and his son private.

Fuel for Skepticism?

According to the father, his son told him that part of what fueled his skepticism toward the book was that most of those endorsing Heretic were connected directly or indirectly to Discovery Institute and that among Leisola’s many scores of peer-reviewed papers, the tiny number of explicitly pro-design peer-reviewed papers were published by the journal BIO-Complexity, a journal the son dismissed for its connections with Discovery Institute. 

materialismBut some of the peer reviewers for those articles were evolutionists 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. Also discussed in the book, distinguished scientists such as paleo-entomologist Günter Bechly lost their positions 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. So it’s no surprise that relatively few scientists have rushed forward to present arguments for design, or that many who do present the evidence do so as discreetly as possible, or that few science journal editors are willing to consider explicitly pro-ID papers for peer-review and publication. 

The son also suggested that Leisola and I could be ignored because we’re paid guns for intelligent design, 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, he is comfortably retired on his savings as a successful university professor and biotech industry leader, and didn’t even ask for royalties from this book.

A Third Alternative

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 untold thousands of mainstream scientists consciously, 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 shows that there is a third and 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 avoid them 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. 

“Narrative Gloss

There’s also this to consider from NAS member Philip Skell, from 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 quite explicitly that they see powerful evidence for a designing intelligence from the evidence of nature, scientists that include some Nobel laureates. 

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.

“A Prior Commitment”

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, January 9, 1997)

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.


Image: “Man Writing a Letter,” by Gabriël Metsu [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.