A Finnish Bioengineer Touches the Third Rail
Randomness and chaos are much easier to market today than order, meaning, and purpose. The songs write themselves. Serious scientists, therefore, can find themselves in conflict with a view that is not so much an argument as an attitude to life, not so much a marshalling of evidence as a demand that posturing overrule evidence.
Case in point: Matti Leisola, a gifted Finnish bioengineer,1 started out as a good Darwinist. But he could not avoid the massive pushback from the evidence of design he found in nature. A specialist in enzymes and rare sugars, he noticed that high-school students in his own country were being taught hoary Darwinian legends rather than a more nuanced view of biology that sees each individual cell as a complex city of life.
Over a long career, which included serving as dean (now emeritus) of Chemistry and Material Sciences at Helsinki University of Technology and as research director for Cultor, a global biotech company, Leisola faced off against nonsense from both science and religion. For an example of scientific nonsense, there was this claim from a Finnish university professor: "There is no qualitative difference between life and non-life."
Tell that to your doorstop.
Leisola faced muddle-headedness on the religious front, too. As a Christian, he was troubled by the fact that the Finnish Lutheran Church sensed no problem with the materialism inherent in Darwinism (i.e., the belief that nature is all there is).2 God is a God of the Gaps, he was told, and those gaps are closing fast. But like many other observers across the planet, Leisola was witnessing something that demanded a different response from the bishop's easy surrender: gaps were leading to ever-widening gaps, and finally to massive breaches in a purely naturalistic view of life.3 Yet, as Leisola recounts in his book Heretic, co-authored by Jonathan Witt,4 when he pressed "the bishop to wrestle with the scientific evidence . . . [it] apparently was tantamount to asking him to go on an all-castor-oil diet" (p. 126). But "how could science progress," Leisola asks, "if we could never question or abandon the majority scientific opinion?"
Good question. Naturalism is destructive to science because it offers no basis for believing that we evolved to find correct answers. We did, however, evolve to obey under threat, so it is no surprise that the intellectual freedom to discover anything is now under threat on many campuses.5 Leisola has noticed the change: "The atmosphere in our universities is now completely different from that of the open discussions that were common in the 70s and 80s" (p. 72).
As a Canadian, I understand some of the pressures. Both Finland and Canada are what you might call minority cultures in the wide world of science. That means three things.
First, in a minority culture, expressing dissidence based on original thought is, in certain ways, much riskier than expressing dissidence in a majority culture like that of the United States, where alternative institutions may shelter it.
Second, in minority cultures, national institutions, whether in science, media, or religion, are commonly publicly funded. Approved people get key positions. That is not a formula for innovation but rather for promoting a sheltered local bureaucracy's views, although those views may be dressed up in edgy prose or dramatic claims about changing times.6
Third, because the minority culture avoids sponsoring vigorous dissent, political correctness offers achievers generous credit for merely adhering to the party line. Leisola and Witt recount, for example, that in 2007, the Finnish government broadcaster aired a documentary discussing intelligent design as a political movement "and scared people with warnings about fundamentalism and theocracy" (p. 112). No surprise there. How likely is it that a government institution would even think of sponsoring a serious investigation? And even if it did, what could it do with the resulting information except get itself in trouble for acting out of character?
Leisola, as a gifted bioengineer, was not an expendable pariah. Thus, he lasted long enough in the system to hear some of the stranger assertions: "One of the leaders of the academic socialist society started to shout and rage that [an ID-friendly discussion] was a NATO conspiracy."
A NATO conspiracy? The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is a mutual defense pact among Western North Atlantic nations. It was negotiated in 1949 and is hardly a conspiracy. But the mere idea that it could be conspiratorially associated with any form of receptiveness to intelligent design testifies to the cultural need to defend Darwinism against nameless enemies. Leisola adds that his supporters were also told that the Soviet Union "did not view our activities favorably" because opposition to Darwinism was considered anti-communist (p. 127). A nice Cold War touch.
Leisola and Witt leave us with two thoughts to ponder. First, after writing 140 reviewed papers with over 5,000 citations, Leisola found that "the more groundbreaking the science I did, the harder it became to get the work accepted" (p. 135). That's not about ID as such, but about a certain loss of adventurousness in science generally. Darwin isn't the only icon no one dare challenge; he is just the one best known to the average reader.
Second, Leisola concludes, "I came to understand through my many international connections that neo-Darwinism, while little valued among mainstream biologists who spent any time thinking about the theory, was treated by them as a third rail—too dangerous to touch" (p. 161). Well, we can't touch the third rail, so the question becomes, How can we safely get past it? If we can't, we won't know what lies on the other side of the tracks or what difference it might make.
Darwin's legacy roars on. But can science now be heard above the din?
—For a review of Heretic, see Where the Evidence Led MeDenyse O'Leary
is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger. She blogs at Blazing Cat Fur, Evolution News & Views, MercatorNet, Salvo, and Uncommon Descent.Get Salvo in your inbox! This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #45, Summer 2018 Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo45/minority-reporter