This column appears in the February 2008 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.
It’s not often that I attend private screenings, so when I was invited to see the director’s cut of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, starring our own Ben Stein, I jumped at the chance. It was shown in downtown Washington, D.C. at the Goethe Institute. I didn’t even know that such a place existed, but then downtown Washington has been rebuilt in recent years, with whole neighborhoods reconstructed. It’s actually beginning to resemble a real city.
The film, a documentary, is about scientists and researchers who acknowledge the scientific evidence for the intelligent design of life and who have been ostracized or denied tenure as a result. In a word, they have been “expelled” from the academy.
Dressed in his squarest business suit, Ben Stein has heard about this controversy and so he sets forth to investigate — his clumpy sneakers striking a defiant note. As always he makes us laugh, less by his words than by the way he so plainly emphasizes them. Can it be, when openness and diversity and freedom of speech are so admired, that a defensible point of view has been suppressed? In America? Ben can hardly believe it. We know it’s true, of course, so we relish the prospect as he girds himself for shocking discoveries and starts knocking on doors in search of the truth.
I can only say that his interviews, conducted in a wide variety of locations, from Paris to Jerusalem and from London to Seattle, are outstanding. There are many of them, and they are edited and knitted together with such skill that the whole film is pleasure to watch. By turns serious and hilarious, it manages to be instructive without ever being didactic. (I stress that I didn’t see the film in its final form. Some segments may be cut and others added.)
Incompatible worldviews are at stake, and the debate between the advocates of chance and design, often a proxy for combat between atheists and churchgoers, can become acrimonious. In the movie there are somber moments, as when Stein visits World War II death camps and traces the Nazi philosophy back to the godless Darwinian world in which fitness must prevail and everything is permitted. More commonly, however, the movie defuses the underlying tension with lightness and comedy.
It is surely the best thing ever done on this issue, in any medium. At moments it brought tears of joy to my eyes. I have written about this controversy for over 30 years and by the movie’s end I felt that those of us who have insisted that Darwinism is a sorry mess and that life surely was designed are going to prevail.
We are introduced to the leading expellees, including Caroline Crocker (from George Mason University), Rick Sternberg (from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History), Guillermo Gonzalez (Iowa State), and William Dembski (Baylor). We also meet a number of the best known insurgents. Ben knocks on Bruce Chapman’s door at the Discovery Institute, which has received so much publicity as practically the sole institutional supporter of intelligent design that when Ben arrives at the Seattle address he reckons it must occupy the whole building. But no, Discovery fits within a single office. Stephen Meyer, Jonathan Wells, Paul Nelson, and others appear on camera. From his apartment in Paris, Commentary contributor David Berlinski dismisses Darwinism with elegant disdain.
What I had not expected was that the film would take the war to the enemy. Ben Stein pays a call on leading Darwinians, among them Oxford’s Richard Dawkins, William Provine of Cornell, and P.Z. Myers of the University of Minnesota. Dawkins and others later complained that they hadn’t been warned that the movie would be unsympathetic to their cause. In response, Ben Stein said that no one he interviewed asked what the film would be about, and the co-producer Walt Ruloff said at the preview that interviewees were paid and were even told ahead of time what the questions would be.
The double irony is that Dawkins’s second encounter with Ben Stein is perhaps the high point of the film. Dawkins, speaking with refreshing frankness, comes across as not in the slightest bit confused or caught off guard. He allows that science knows nothing about the origin of life, and that, yes, the Darwinian message is antithetical to religion. He surprises us, too, by allowing that if life really was designed, the designing must have been done by intelligent beings elsewhere in the cosmos who themselves evolved by naturalistic means. Their designs were then somehow transported down to Earth. (Francis Crick of DNA fame took the same view in the 1980s.) Cornell’s Provine was also excellent, pulling no punches in telling how his own youthful faith did not long survive his instruction in the Darwinian catechism.
Dawkins and Provine are among those evolutionists who unflinchingly accept the logic of their own position and reject what might be called the diplomatic option. This seeks to keep everyone happy by agreeing that evolution happened on schedule but allowing also that God arranged things that way. It’s the position taken by Ken Miller of Brown University, Francis Collins of the Human Genome Institute, and by many religious figures. It puts diplomacy before truth and adopts the Rodney King mantra: “Can’t we all just get along?”
In his bestseller The God Delusion Dawkins calls this the Neville Chamberlain option, and says no, we really can’t. The advocates of intelligent design agree with him about that because they insist that life must have been designed. But design is ruled out a priori in Darwin’s naturalistic worldview. The real question about the evolution of life by Darwinian means is not whether it is brutish or cruel or chilling or helpful to conservatism or harmful to it, but whether it is true. Design advocates say it isn’t.
WHAT DOES THE science show? The vast majority of species that once lived are now extinct. New animal designs and “models” appear in the fossil record without detectable precursors. But fossils can’t reveal ancestry so in the end they don’t get us very far. The real action today is within the microscopic study of living organisms. Here we are only beginning to discover the amazing complexity found at the molecular level.
In Darwin’s day the cell was thought to be little more than a “simple lump of protoplasm,” or, in another ludicrous simplification, a “cavity” filled with a “homogenous transparent fluid.” Now the cell is seen to resemble a high-tech factory. How did it get that way? There’s no answer in the Darwinian scheme — other than trial and error. The DNA within the cell, once thought to be mostly (98 percent) “junk” is now believed to be functional all the way through (a dividend of the Human Genome Project). The evolutionists were obliged to believe in a fundamentally simple world because all they had was an elementary mechanism — random mutation plus natural selection — to account for it.
The new research — and it doesn’t make any difference whether it’s carried out under the auspices of the Discovery Institute or the National Science Foundation — is uncovering a miracle of complexity. The growing allusions in the scientific literature to “molecular machines” have inspired one biologist, who calls himself Mike Gene, to publish The Design Matrix. I don’t know his real identity, which he conceals for obvious reasons. Expelled makes use of Cold War imagery, and the producers might have extended that metaphor by saying that we are now in the Samizdat period (before the fall of the Berlin Wall). That was a time when the most interesting Soviet authors used pen names to avoid being “expelled” — to the Gulag.
Walt Ruloff said in his pre-screening announcement that Premise Media had filmed 400 hours of interviews. I would love to see more of this fascinating project and I assume that least some of it will be included in the DVD. My only complaint about Expelled, scheduled for April release, is that its ending came all too soon.