Author Insight: Denyse O’Leary on Intelligent Design

Today announces the launch of a new room on the website: the Library, which provides access to some of my current reading and favorite books. See the Library in the menu above, and click on it for details. To celebrate, we’re starting a new feature about books, called “Author Insight.” Periodically, we’ll post in-depth interviews with authors of interesting and insightful books. The interview below is the first in a series. Check back here often for more.

Canadian journalist Denyse O’Leary has been writing about science issues for years (see her blog at Last year Augsburg Fortress published her book about the origin of life, By Design or by Chance? The Growing Controversy On the Origins of Life in the Universe. Stan Guthrie interviewed her.

There are lots of books attacking evolution or advocating for intelligent design (ID)—such as Darwin on Trial or The Case for a Creator. What’s different about your book?

By Design or by Chance? wasn’t written to attack evolution or to advocate intelligent design. It was written to explain what all the shouting is about. It is aimed at a general audience, not necessarily a Christian one.

In 1996, a political science prof based in Toronto urged me, as a journalist, to address the unseemly and unscholarly attacks on mathematician David Berlinski, for daring to question Darwinism.

I ended up writing a book. In the course of writing, I came to the conclusion that intelligent design is more plausible than Darwinism, as an explanation for the life we see around us.

By Design or by Chance? is not written to advocate Christianity. I am a traditional Christian, but I recognize that most faiths represented on this planet can account for intelligent design. Only atheistic secularism cannot. The question must be decided on evidence.

What biases did you bring to the reporting and writing of this book?

I am an evangelical Anglican, and the position that I have always been taught is Christian evolutionism. That is, Darwinian evolution accounts for the life we see around us, and somehow God planned it that way. It took me a long time to understand why Darwinian evolution might not be the whole answer to the diversity and complexity of life. I now see that God’s plans might be bigger than Darwin’s dangerous idea.

What are your credentials on the subject?

In 1997, an overworked editor asked me to start writing about science issues for the faith community, because no one else in Canada seemed to be doing it. My background was in arts, but my life was very much influenced by my Grade 12 science teacher, Irwin Talesnick, over 30 years earlier. He always encouraged us to be the best we could be, so I decided to just go for it.

After four years, a Canadian publisher collected all my faith and science writings and published them in the book Faith@Science: Why Science Needs Faith in the Twenty-First Century .

Then I totally stripped down my life and went on to write the very much more demanding By Design or by Chance?

What do you now believe about origins, and what convinced you?

I call myself a post-Darwinist. I do not think that the evidence supports the idea that Darwinian evolution is an adequate explanation of the development of of life. Intelligent design seems like a much more reasonable explanation. I was convinced by listening to the arguments on both sides. But I am a journalist, not a scientist. I don’t do scientific studies. I relate nonfiction stories. The ID stories sounded more plausible, in relation to life.

You say there is “growing controversy” on the origins of life in the universe? How so?

The number of news stories about ID-related controversies has grown so much that part of me wishes my publisher had delayed the publication of By Design or by Chance? Then I could have addressed some of them.

For example, I would love to have covered the furor that surrounded the publication of an ID-friendly paper in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. Or the decision of world-famous atheistic philosopher Antony Flew that there must a God, on account of intelligent design.

The ACLU lawyers can try to ban this stuff from the classroom, but they have absolutely no hold on the world of ideas.

Already, I could write a 25-page postscript, but a second edition in a couple of years would make more sense.

What are the two or three key theses of your book?

1. Twentieth-century society was dominated by Marx, Freud, and Darwin. Marx is totally discredited, Freud mostly so, and now Darwin is coming under fire. Why?

2. Traditionally, scientists assumed that there were three basic forces in the universe: law, chance, and design. Darwin proposed an explanation for the development of life forms that eliminated design, leaving only law and chance. But Darwin’s explanation may not be correct.

3. Eliminating design was a great boon for atheism because it meant eliminating God, among other things. Atheists and secularists have a major stake in maintaining such a system, whether or not it accords with the facts. By Design or by Chance? unpacks the controversy that results.

Does it really matter what people believe about origins? Can’t people believe in evolution and still be good Christians?

But what do Christians mean when they say they believe in “evolution”? If they mean that they believe in Darwinism, they need to know that Darwinism is the creation story of atheism.

I don’t have a problem with evolution in principle, but we need to be clear that Darwinism’s purpose is to eliminate intelligent design. I do not find the evidence persuasive.

The question, for me, is not whether evolution occurs, but what drives it? Blind material forces? Self-organization of life? Divine oversight? Platonic forms?

Isn’t it true that Christian opinions on the subject run the gamut, from young earth creationism (YEC) to evolution?

Absolutely! The young earth creationists have simply decided to assume that evolution has never occurred, and that the evidence for Earth’s traumas can be blamed on Noah’s flood. I don’t agree, but in the book I give examples of YECs who are doing serious science. I address Christian evolutionism as well, noting that the big problem is to avoid acting as cheerleaders for atheistic Darwinism.

Unfortunately, here in Canada, I have seen an example of a Christian evolutionist who is prepared to unite with atheists to attack his ID-friendly Christian brothers. So I must ask, what is going on here?

What do you think of the work of astronomer Hugh Ross? He rejects both young earth creationism and classical evolution, in favor of an old earth system of progressive creation.

I find Hugh Ross’s ideas very interesting. I cover him in By Design or by Chance? He refuses to identify with the intelligent design community, yet he has taken on the big young earth creationist organization, Answers in Genesis. As a result, AiG has attacked him quite strongly, but by comparison has merely damned the ID types with faint praise. The difficulty is that, as one Christian historian told me, most old earth/progressive creationists are moving over into the ID camp. So Ross is in a very isolated position.

Here is what he told me in an interview: “The intelligent design theorists are doing good work, and in a sense I consider myself as a partner with them. But they are hampered by their ‘big tent’ approach (an unwillingness to offend YEC or reject their model). They are also hampered by the lack of a testable alternative to naturalism. They are doing some excellent work in communications, also in developing methods to test for design.”

Do you think ID should be taught alongside evolution in public schools?

I write materials for the Ontario education system, including materials on sensitive issues. My view is that teachers must always be prepared to address topics that students know and care about. So, yes, teachers should be prepared to talk about intelligent design if it comes up, and should be given resources to do so. However, so many students struggle with basic literacy that I think the teacher is quite lucky if it does come up.

You suggest in the book that Darwinism is on the way out. Why?

As far as I am concerned, evolution happened. After all, there were trilobites in the Cambrian era but not now. There are horses now but not trilobites. For me, the question is, How did it happen? Darwinian evolution does not give a very good picture of how it happened, for a number of reasons. The Cambrian era itself is an example. All the phyla of life forms appeared at that time, and none since. A few have gone extinct. The rest simply diversified. (By contrast, Darwin had thought that diversification would lead to new phyla.) More important, the enormous complexity of life forms (unknown to Darwin) creates many problems for the simple mechanisms that Darwinian evolution proposes.

Darwinian evolution works well as the creation story of atheism, but not otherwise.

What’s ahead for ID?

A lot of trouble, I expect. Many public institutions are heavily invested in atheism, expressed as secularism. Any science, no matter how soundly based, that challenges that consensus in any way is sure to raise the ire of Top People. Top People don’t care what superstitions the horrid, vulgar mob believe, but they certainly do care if some new discovery or question disturbs their continued control. Truth or falsehood is irrelevant at that point. They just have to get rid of it.

About Stan Guthrie

Stan Guthrie is an editor at large for Christianity Today magazine and for the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. His latest book is God's Story in 66 Verses. He also is author of All that Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us, Missions in the Third Millennium: 21 Key Trends for the 21st Century, and A Concise Guide to Bible Prophecy. He is co-author of The Sacrament of Evangelism. Besides authoring, writing, and editing books, Stan is a literary agent, bringing together good authors, good books, and good publishers. Stan writes the monthly Priorities colum for He has appeared on National Public Radio's €œTell Me More,€ WGN's Milt Rosenberg program, and many Christian shows, including The Eric Metaxas Show and Moody Radio'€™s €œNew Day Florida.€ A licensed minister and an inspirational speaker, he served as moderator for the Christian Book Expo panel discussion, Does the God of Christianity Exist, and What Difference Does It Make?
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