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Remembering Our Friend Jon Buell, Intelligent Design’s “Matchmaker”

It is with great sadness that we report the passing of our friend Jon Buell on March 14, 2020. Discovery Institute honors his memory and wishes for much comfort for his family, especially his wife Linda Buell.

If others have been hailed as the “father of intelligent design” (Michael Behe) or the “godfather” (Phillip Johnson), then Jon Buell was the “matchmaker.” Without Jon, would the modern ID movement have got off the ground as it did with the 1984 publication of The Mystery of Life’s Origin? It’s hard to see how.

He brought together the trio of scientists who wrote the book — Walter Bradley, Charles Thaxton, and Roger Olsen. They in turn profoundly influenced Stephen Meyer, Michael Denton, William Dembski, Michael Behe, Paul Nelson, and others who would become leading figures in advancing the theory of intelligent design. Discovery Institute was proud to publish a newly expanded edition for the book’s 35th anniversary, The Mystery of Life’s Origin: The Continuing Controversy, with new contributions by Dr. Meyer, James Tour, Brian Miller, Guillermo Gonzalez, and Jonathan Wells. David Klinghoffer contributed a historical introduction recognizing Buell’s pivotal role.

The Story Begins

The story began in 1975 when, as leader of Probe Ministries, Jon recruited Walter Bradley, a materials scientist at the Colorado School of Mines, to a project investigating the origin of life and the mystery surrounding it. Buell presented a draft manuscript, by Dr. Bradley and then-geochemistry PhD student Roger Olsen, to chemist Charles Thaxton who joined the writing team. Buell was a key to obtaining the endorsement of San Francisco State University biologist Dean Kenyon, and then to seeking an appropriate, secular, high-end publisher, the Philosophical Library.

This was not the end of the story. In 1980, Jon launched the Foundation for Thought and Ethics (FTE), with its mission of giving students choices in controversial world-view issues including biology, U.S. history, and intelligent design. 

A “Groundbreaker”

An international conference hosted by Jon in Dallas in 1985 would prove to be particularly consequential. As David Klinghoffer writes in the new introduction to Mystery:

It was the sort of event where a young geophysicist in the oil business, with no plans for the weekend, could wander in almost by chance. In his 2009 book Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design, Stephen Meyer records the date, February 10, 1985, a Saturday, because what he heard “changed the course of my professional life. By the end of the year, I was preparing to move to the University of Cambridge in England, in part to investigate questions I first encountered on that day.” 

Meyer in his three books, Signature, Darwin’s Doubt, and the forthcoming The Return of the God Hypothesis, pays tribute to the influence of The Mystery of Life’s Origin.

In the late 1990s, Buell hired a young mathematician and philosopher, William Dembski, as the Foundation’s academic editor. Dembski calls Mystery of the Origin of Life a “groundbreaker” both for the scientific case it makes and for “breaking into the secular academic market.”

Over the years, Jon was a great fan of and friend to Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture. We are grateful for his tireless efforts on behalf of the intelligent design movement. His career at FTE included other important highlights: serving for two decades on the Dallas Independent School District’s Religious Community Task Force and participating in the 1988 White House Conference on Education. He authored, produced, or edited more than 11 books in all.

In 2015, Jon began conversations with Dr. Meyer about merging the Foundation for Thought and Ethics with Discovery Institute. In 2016, Discovery opened its Dallas office and FTE Books became an arm of Discovery Institute Press.

Many a marriage simply would never have happened were it not for the hard work and insightful pairing of a matchmaker. Everyone who values the contributions of the intelligent design community must recognize the place of Jon Buell’s original vision in the history of ID. If you would like to join us in honoring Jon Buell, please make a memorial gift to support the work of Discovery Institute Dallas.