Heretic: Review of the Newest Book on Intelligent Design

Heretic: One Scientist’s Journey from Darwin to Design is the most recent book published by the Discovery Institute, the foremost Intelligent Design (ID) organization. If you are looking for a good, introductory text to help understand the current debate, this is an excellent place to start.

Unlike other recent book on intelligent design (such as Darwin’s Doubt by Stephen Meyer or Undeniable by Doug Axe) this book does not offer a fresh argument for intelligent design. But this is hardly a criticism, because the book does not aim to. Rather, it tells the story of Matti Leisola—an accomplished scientist, professor, and researcher from Finland—and how he became disillusioned with the Darwinian paradigm and came to embrace design.

The storied nature of this book is one of its greatest strengths. Rather than weeding into difficult scientific details (that can distract the non-specialist reader), Heretic takes readers on Leisola’s personal journey of wrestling with important issues like the fossil record and the origin of life (It is also co-written with Jonathan Witt). Leisola does discuss relevant scientific issues, but with full awareness of his primarily lay audience. 

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 plethora of stories and examples. But Heretic is told entirely as a story, and my suspicion is that it may incite new readers to consider the arguments for intelligent design.

Heretic would be an excellent book to give to someone who is new to discussions over Darwin and design. Along with being interesting, the narrative approach is also much “softer” to read. Rather than directly trying to persuade readers, Leisola simply shares his personal conclusions regarding origins. And yet it is impossible for the thoughtful reader to miss the force of many of his arguments, even if he or she ultimately disagrees with Leisola’s conclusions.

For example, as a Darwinist, Leisola embraced the god-of-the-gaps criticism of religious followers. He believed religious folks inserted God into the “gaps” in current scientific knowledge, but that naturalistic explanations would eventually emerge.

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 in the book that particularly stood out to me as memorable. First, in his 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 is my experience with many religious believers, but it is interesting to hear that it may be true (according to Leisola) for many scientists too.

Second, he notes that the scientific literature is replete with claims that Neo-Darwinism is an established fact. Yet many scientists have privately relayed their doubts to him. The professional cost for doubting Darwin is simply too high, according to Leisola, and so many scientists simply stay quiet—even if they don’t buy the Darwinian story.

Final Thoughts

If you have followed the debate over Darwin and design, then you will enjoy the story that frames Heretic and likely take away a few new scientific insights. If you are newer to these discussions, Heretic is a wonderful place to start. It is now one of the top books I will recommend of its kind.

Sean McDowell is a gifted communicator with a passion for equipping the church, and in particular young people, to make the case for the Christian faith. He connects with audiences in a tangible way through humor and stories while imparting hard evidence and logical support for viewing all areas of life through a biblical worldview. Sean is an associate professor in the Christian Apologetics program at Biola University. He is the Resident Scholar for Summit California. Sean still teaches one high school Bible class, which helps him have exceptional insight into the prevailing culture so he can impart his observations poignantly to fellow educators, pastors and parents alike. In 2008, he received the Educator of the Year award for San Juan Capistrano, Calif. The Association of Christian Schools International awarded Exemplary Status to his apologetics training. Sean is listed among the top 100 apologists. He graduated summa cum laude from Talbot School of Theology with a master’s degree in theology and another in philosophy. He earned a Ph.D. in Apologetics and Worldview Studies in 2014 from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Traveling throughout the U.S. and abroad, Sean speaks at camps, churches, schools, universities and conferences. He has spoken for organizations including Focus on the Family, the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Backyard Skeptics, Cru, Youth Specialties, Hume Lake Christian Camps, Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Association of Christian Schools International. Sean has also appeared as a guest on radio shows such as Family Life Today, Point of View, Stand to Reason, Common Sense Atheism and the Hugh Hewitt Show. Sean has been quoted in many publications, including the New York Times. Sean is the author, co-author or editor of over 18 books including The Fate of the Apostles (Routledge, 2015); A New Kind of Apologist (Harvest House, 2016); The Beauty of Intolerance (Barbour, 2016); Same-Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God’s Design for Marriage, with John Stonestreet (Baker, 2014); Is God Just a Human Invention? with Jonathan Morrow; and Understanding Intelligent Design, with William A. Dembski. Sean has also written multiple books with his father, Josh McDowell, including The Unshakable Truth, More Than A Carpenter and an update for Evidence that Demands a Verdict (2017). Sean is the general editor for The Apologetics Study Bible for Students. He has also written for YouthWorker Journal, Decision Magazine and the Christian Research Journal. Follow the dialogue with Sean as he blogs regularly at seanmcdowell.org. In April 2000, Sean married his high school sweetheart, Stephanie. They have three children and live in San Juan Capistrano. Sean played college basketball at Biola and was captain his senior year on a team that went 30-7.

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