Review of Heretic: One Scientist’s Journey from Darwin to Design

I just spent a week on the beach (North Topsail, NC) with my wife’s side of the family. Twenty-one people, one large house on the beach, and it was really terrific. My pleasure reading for the week was a new book by Matti Leisola and Jonathan Witt titled, Heretic: One Scientist’s Journey from Darwin to Design. I had a hard time putting it down, and I felt that should offer a short review.

Broad strokes:

There’s nothing really that new here. Leisola is a well-credentialed scientist (more than 100 publications, more than 30 patents, and he has held several notable positions). He has also been a skeptic of the Darwinian mechanism since the early 1980s. As a biochemist working on enzyme function for most of his career, his skepticism should at least warrant attention. Leisola and Witt detail several major features of the landscape in modern biology: 1) Behind closed doors, many biologists question the efficacy and plausibility of the Neo-Darwinian synthesis 2) very few risk questioning it in public 3) the basic tactic of Darwin supporters in the industry is to dismiss skeptics, and, whenever possible, to blacklist them, mock them, and hopefully destroy their careers.

At this point, the Darwin defender will usually say something like the following,

“Yes, we do dismiss, blacklist and mock skeptics of Darwin, because these people aren’t real scientists and, as such, pose a threat to the entire enterprise. They pilfer religiously-motivated creation fables into the laboratory and classroom. Moreover, they’re simply wrong about their scientific claims.”

As I’ve already mentioned, nothing new to see here. However, I found Heretic refreshing because it wasn’t some novel contribution. Rather, it was a digestible (229 pages), evidence-driven account of Leisola’s forty year experience in the industry. If one dismisses Leisola’s views, they do so without having read them (which is all-too common). If you read the book, it’s hard to avoid the case he builds. Essentially, the book functions something like a cross between Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed and Darwin’s Doubt. As such, it is wildly successful.

Some specifics:

First off, I found myself dog-earing every page, so I’ll have to just pick and choose some representative examples in this review. Leisola starts by describing his own early years as a Darwin-defender, and how a lecture from Francis Schaeffer shook him. Namely, Leisola recognized his own emotion-driven rejection of Schaeffer’s words. As he puts it, “If I was the confident and rational one, why was I so touchy?” It was at this moment that Leisola recognized more than a conflict in inquiry and research, but rather a conflict of worldview.

Leisola started looking into the actual evidence for some of the central tenets of Darwinian Evolution (DE). He began with the origin of life. I won’t detail it all here, but suffice it to say that fanciful tales have been conjured from the beginning on this one. In the 18th and 19th centuries, life was considered rather simple. Cells, once discovered, were consistently referred to as “globules of plasm.” As such, their spontaneous emergence seemed easy. Many argue that Louis Pasteur killed religion when he showed that life did not spontaneously arise. Leisola reminds us it was quite the opposite. Pasteur showed that life doesn’t just pop into existence so easily. In fact, the new rule of thumb became that life simply did not spontaneously emerge. That should have sent shockwaves through the scientific community. Leisola then proceeds to discuss a century-and-a-half’s worth of failed attempts and honestly-stated frustrations in origins of life research. The examples are copious, as are his breakdowns of each proposed model. Worse for the Darwinists are the admissions that none of these models are working, made by Darwinists. We now talk of cells as complex molecular cities, comprised of layers of integrated networks that are so byzantine that they make our most advanced technologies look like cave drawings. That is, during those failed attempts, the true complexity of the cell was revealed to us. The problem keeps getting harder. A final note here; the attempts at “ratcheting” up to life (a single cell) hasn’t worked either. To anyone in the industry (and I’ve read a lot in this field), this is admitted…again, behind closed doors (and in the literature itself).

Just to quote one scientist from the book, consider the words of James Tour, and origins of life researcher with more than 650 publications, over 120 patents, and listed as one of “The World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds,” speaking in 2016:

“We have no idea how the molecules that compose living systems could have been devised such that they would work in concert to fulfill biology’s function. We have no idea how the basic set of molecules…transformed into the ordered assemblies until there was the construction of a complex biological system, and eventually to that first cell…Those who say, ‘Oh this is well worked out,’ they know nothing—nothing—about chemical synthesis—nothing…That’s how clueless we are. I have asked all of my colleagues—National Academy members, Nobel Prize winners—I sit with them in offices. Nobody understands this. So if your professors say it’s all worked out, if your teachers say it’s all worked out, they don’t know what they’re talking about.”

As Leisola points out, this is not entirely true. Tour’s colleagues may not have any clue as to how life emerged, but they do know one thing: Intelligence was not involved. This is the commitment Leisola keeps hitting on. There is a worldview problem here. The materialist/physicalist/naturalistic worldview demands a reductionist approach to all systems (biological or otherwise). You must be able to explain the origins of things by their parts (and the parts around them). To argue that “apparent design” in nature might be authentic design is simply not allowed. Not because there isn’t good reason to infer it, but because it breaks the worldview in which science is permitted to operate. As the evolutionist Lepeltier argues,

“Evolution is promoted by its practitioners as more than mere science. Evolution is promulgated as an ideology, a secular religion—a full-fledged alternative to Christianity…Evolution is a religion. This was true of evolution in the beginning, and it is true of evolution still today.”

True to ID form, Leisola then brings up the fossil evidence for evolution, and demonstrates that the fossil record doesn’t conform to expectations based on a Darwinian account. Again, the evolutionists believed that the fossil record would eventually reveal a massive, smooth set of gradual transitions in which life slowly diversifies through time. The more fossils we’ve found, the more evident the opposite pattern. The fossil record is full of explosions of diversity, and the transitional fossils are exceptionally rare (and usually, they turn out not to be transitional fossils). Note that Leisola (and IDers in general) don’t deny modest change in forms over time. But these seem to act within very hard and narrow constraints, and time is no panacea to the problem. This too is well-documented and admitted in the literature by specialists in the field. Leisola then summarizes some of the alternative models (ones that avoid the need for gradual change over time). The very fact that so many have attempted to produce alternative models tells us that the original model (the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis) has failed. The central portion of the book details Leisola’s public statements against DE, and the fallout that followed. Even for one who has felt the heat myself, my jaw hit the floor reading some of the overt bias and clearly dastardly behavior of those who tried to silence Leisola. The book is worth reading, just to see how unprofessional the profession of science can be. The public needs to know how the industry has been operating, and it needs to be subject to much greater scrutiny in the media.

The fact is, so long as you assume the metaphysics of naturalism, you are free to criticize theory. But, if you question metaphysical naturalism, you are dismissed out of hand, and gagged. As I have pointed out on several occasions, the proof of this claim is that scientists have not out-of-hand dismissed the possibility of life being seeded on earth by aliens (a clear form of intelligent design), nor the idea that the entire universe is a “simulation” being run by some hyper-intelligent alien (again, clearly a form of intelligent design). These are acceptable hypotheses because the intelligence being inserted will itself reduce to metaphysical naturalism.

From here, Leisola and Witt move into a couple of other discussions related to the efficacy of DE as a model. Namely, they point out that the evidence Darwin offered for the power of natural selection was largely absent. Instead, the theory was built upon the supposition that natural selection could behave much like artificial selection. Darwin looked at the power of strong purifying selection that was instituted by intelligent beings (us) in the domestication of various plants and animals, and argued that natural selection could behave similarly (though over longer periods of time). Leisola and Witt point out that we have come a long way from simple selective breeding, and now know much better the limits of artificial selection at the genetic or molecular level. In both cases (selective breeding and genetic alteration) the story remains the same: there is a hard and fast limit to what even intelligence can achieve as a selective force. Worse, nature looks nothing like our artificial selection. The authors do an excellent job summarizing the most recent work in several related areas. That is, once again, the science itself demonstrates the failure of DE and the requirement of intelligence to achieve the kinds of changes DE was supposed to provide.

This has not stopped both the scientific community and the media at large from continually assuring us that evolution is a fully substantiated fact, as well-understood as gravity. Leisola and Witt again provide plenty of examples of such blanket statements, and demonstrate that this is largely just blowing smoke to a naïve audience.

The final few chapters are a mix of other examples in which the science has turned up mechanisms or findings that run counter to expectations given DE. As a quick example, they discuss the drama surrounding the first discovery of soft tissues in dinosaur fossils (back in 2005). There is no existing model that could explain how soft tissue could remain in fossils that are more than 65 million years old. As Discover Magazine put it, “all hell broke loose.” In fact, according to Mary Schweitzer (author of that groundbreaking paper) recounts, “I had one reviewer tell me that he didn’t care what the data said, he knew that what I was finding was impossible.” She asked what evidence would convince him, and he replied, “none.” Folks, I’ve seen enough of this in my own career to affirm that such interactions do happen in the industry. The very scientists who wrap themselves in words like “evidence,” “fact,” and “objectivity,” routinely reject evidence and facts that run counter to theory. Again, the book offers many such teachable moments.

The final push in this book is to dive into the real molecular underpinnings of biological change, and demonstrate that the main framework—common ancestry and the diversification of life via a mechanisms based on chance—is simply not up to the task.


*as always, I do not speak for the views of my employer nor any affiliates.


3 thoughts on “Review of Heretic: One Scientist’s Journey from Darwin to Design”

  1. Hi Wayne,
    about half way through the book – along with your above mentions, it strikes me that he was stirring the dirt concerning evolution back in the 70’s, when there was little support out there. pretty gutsy guy!


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