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Nature’s Wonder — A Tale of Two Scientists

Photo source: Discovery Institute.

On the surface, Emily Reeves could not be more different from Charles Darwin. Dr. Reeves is a biochemist who is a signatory of the Scientific Dissent from Darwinism list. Her PhD is from Texas A&M — a far cry from Victorian England. And her work on systems biology and biochemistry provides strong evidence of real purpose and design in nature. (A sample of her work can be found here.) Yet both Darwin and Dr. Reeves are joined by a common experience: having lost, at a certain point in life, their wonder about nature. In her case the wonder was regained. The tales of these two scientists show something of interest about humans and about nature. 

In his Autobiography, Darwin described an atrophied sensitivity to “grandeur” that he noted in himself. He wrote: 

In my Journal I wrote that whilst standing in the midst of the grandeur of a Brazilian forest, ‘it is not possible to give an adequate idea of the higher feelings of wonder, admiration, and devotion which fill and elevate the mind.’ I well remember my conviction that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body. But now the grandest scenes would not cause any such convictions and feelings to rise in my mind. It may be truly said that I am like a man who has become colour-blind…1

Elsewhere, he observed that he had likewise lost his appreciation for poetry, plays, art, and music:

Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays. I have also said that formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry…. My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts…. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect.2

Darwin reported that his loss of appreciation for the fine arts was “a loss of happiness” and possibly a loss to his “intellect” as well. His mind no longer responded to beauty but instead had become a kind of “machine.” 

Perhaps this is none too surprising. By the time of his old age, Darwin had spent nearly fifty years formulating and defending a theory of nature red in tooth and claw. At the center of his theory of evolution is the “Struggle for Life” and the culling hand of “Natural Selection.”3 In this perspective, enmity and death are the creators of life. As he wrote in the Origin: “Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.”4 Little wonder that Darwin’s own sense of wonder faded and died. In his view, beauty is ultimately an epiphenomenon on a savage process of struggle, variation, and selection.

The Story of Dr. Emily Reeves

There are striking parallels between Reeves and Darwin. From an early age, Reeves was inspired by natural beauty. Like Darwin, she chose to study it at a deep level. Yet her graduate experience required immersion in a world of Darwinian reductionism. It was here that she began to experience some of the vertigo that Darwin himself reported. Everything from ecological systems to organisms to proteins was viewed through a naturalistic lens of matter, energy, and reproductive advantage. All functions were ultimately accidents or adaptations in a struggle for survival. “I became disenchanted,” Emily later reflected. “I lost my sense of wonder in studying living things, in exploring.” There was no deep sense of purposiveness to life.

Reeves also noticed that this “purposeless” view of life spilled over into the motivations of some of the scientists around her. When she would ask why it was important to study biochemistry, some of her colleagues provided only superficial reasons: they simply did so because they wanted to, or because that’s what was expected of them, or because that’s just what people in the field did. There didn’t seem to be a deeper reason. In a dark way, it all fit together: having given up the idea of purpose within biochemistry, her colleagues could no longer muster a purpose for biochemistry. After all, what purpose is there in studying a purposeless process? 

Intellectual Toll

Unlike for Darwin, what made matters even more difficult for Reeves was that she knew the biological world was full of beauty, purpose, and wonder. She knew there was design behind it all. It was clear that biological phenomena were intricate and complex to an astonishing degree — a degree that clearly indicated the work of a creative intelligence. 

“I remember a multi-week unit in my graduate biochemistry course,” Reeves recalls. “We spent the unit studying hemoglobin. Our professor detailed how it would bind oxygen more tightly in the lungs and then release oxygen into the muscles. The molecular cooperativity that enabled this system was amazing. Then the professor would breezily attribute it all to evolution.” This reductionistic approach was not just emotionally taxing, but intellectually enervating as well. “It was so difficult to understand the complexity and beauty of biology within the framework of reductionism. Nothing made sense. I actually knew reductionism was false. I knew design was real. But simply being around immersive reductionism took a toll.” 

Imagine for a moment that, over the course of four years, you have been tasked with studying the Rosetta Stone. Now imagine that you’re only allowed to explain the origin and function of this artifact by reference to wind, erosion, electromagnetism, and other natural phenomena. That would be utterly exhausting! That was similar to Reeves’s experience.

You Must Believe!

Adding to the difficulty was the dogmatism in her graduate department and the entire field. Reeves once asked some colleagues about a particular molecular system, “How can you possibly say something so intricate and so clearly designed arose by chance and selection?” Their abrupt replies and tone made the answer clear: such questions were unwelcome. 

Reeves remembers that “the subtext was: ‘How dare you question! We all know this is true. We believe it. And you must, too.’” One of her fellow graduate students and close friend joked that Reeves was a “cre-a-tard” and wondered aloud why he bothered discussing things with her in the first place. Over and over, Reeves found that her questions were not met with evidence so much as with stigma.

Naturally enough, she found the situation confusing and puzzling. Many of her colleagues were reasonable, intelligent, and interesting people — and they were her friends, too! But they would consistently avoid giving evidence for their evolutionary views, and would react strongly to any hint of dissent. Reeves remembered a fellow graduate student asking her one day, “Do you actually enjoy studying biochemistry?” Reeves’s reply was immediate, “No, I don’t.” 

After completing her PhD, she left science for a while and looked for a job as a waitress. Reeves had the smarts and training to describe the biochemistry of how the human body digests French fries. But she was so burned out that the only thing she wanted to do was serve them to customers by the plateful. 

The Road to Recovery

But the scientific concept of intelligent design played a vital role in Reeves’s perseverance through graduate school and her re-entry into the field. In particular, she attended Discovery Institute’s Summer Seminars on Intelligent Design, twice — once as a participant and another time as a presenter. 

Two elements of her experience at these seminars stood out. The first was the community. She found a like-minded group of people who thought deeply and carefully about the natural world. Questions were welcome and evidence was freely offered. Reeves came to trust the ID community more and more. They didn’t have the sense of intellectual insecurity that she detected behind the dogmatism of her colleagues in graduate school. Real questions could be asked and real dialogue would follow.

The second element that lifted Reeves’s spirits was how the concept of ID illuminated biochemistry. Intelligent design provided a better framework for understanding and making sense of what she saw as a biochemist. Once she understood the core principles of ID theory, physicist Brian Miller introduced her to the field of systems biology and encouraged her to read Uri Alon’s textbook An Introduction to Systems Biology. This textbook took a design-based approach to describing biochemical phenomena, deftly incorporating many principles from human engineering, including network motifs, robustness, and optimality. In six years of graduate school, Emily hadn’t seen anything like it. “I was so encouraged to see a predictive framework that helped generate better hypotheses to test. The reductionistic way made everything so difficult to understand. But now I was able to talk about it in a way that made sense.” 

Recall our thought experiment about studying the Rosetta Stone. After four years of trying to decipher its origin and function by reference only to mindless causes, you are finally allowed to refer to intelligent causes as well. At last the artifact makes sense! Imagine the intellectual relief. That, too, was Reeves’s experience.

Her application of the theory of intelligent design helped her regain a love for biochemistry. The data now made sense — and that was the crucial catalyst that inspired her to recapture her deep sense of wonder about the natural world. Understanding and intelligibility gave rise to a deepening sense of wholeness and satisfaction. The twin threads of intellectual fulfillment and emotional contentment were at last joined together. 

Full Circle

Ultimately, Darwin’s experience was very different from Emily’s. He began with a sense of wonder and beauty, but then found these sensibilities atrophied beyond restoration. By contrast, Reeves began with wonder, felt the monochrome vortex of reductionism, but then was able to regain her love for the biological world.

Of the many, many differences between the two, one is clear: Darwin leaned into reductionism. Beauty and wonder are ephemeral phenomena in the “war of nature.” By contrast, Reeves leaned into purpose, intelligibility, and design. Beauty is a real and enduring feature of nature. It was intended. Likewise, the human response to beauty — in the form of wonder — was intended. And seeing nature this way helped make sense of it all. When beauty and wonder were no longer treated as mere means, then they became the gateway for something else: a deepening understanding of the natural world and its grandeur. 


  1. Barlow, Nora ed. 1958. The autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882. With the original omissions restored. Edited and with appendix and notes by his grand-daughter Nora Barlow (London: Collins), 91.
  2. Ibid., 138-39.
  3. Darwin, C. R. 1859. On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life (London: John Murray), 490.
  4. Ibid.