Starring Ben Stein
Reviewed by Matt Beck
The world is changing.
No, that isn’t merely this reviewer’s melodramatic reference to The Lord of the Rings. There is in fact a change of epic proportions just beginning in the deep metaphysical currents of Western societies; a change whose full dimensions are so far apparent only to the very few, but one whose direction and causes will be no mystery to any who have sought the truth with sincerity and determination. Many intelligent people, from various walks of life, are coming around to the belief that there is something profoundly wrong with how the scientific dialog is progressing. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—yes, you know them: that menacing quartet consisting of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens—have been criticized by those both inside and outside the scientific establishment for their condescending tone and lack of philosophical rigor. It isn’t just that cracks in the Darwinian orthodoxy are being inexpertly papered over (and those cracks were always visible in any case), but that science itself no longer stands apart from the murky metaphysical debates in its pursuit of empirical truth. It is increasingly obvious—brutally obvious might be more accurate—that open inquiry, logic and criticism, reason and evidence have fallen out of fashion, to be replaced by a spirit of tribal warfare. Scientific shibboleths like Darwinian evolution now stand as proxies for a worldview that tolerates no dissent.
This is an encouraging sign, believe it or not. Any strong civilizational belief in a so-called objective science only builds up an impenetrable armor-plating against justified criticism which leads to tyranny. We are better off to be free of this baggage from the 19th Century. The debate has always been about worldviews, as the Christian opponents of Darwinism knew better than anyone. With the specter of an immaculate science now relativized down to the same human level as the rest of us, conditions are finally right for the debate to begin in earnest. However, the oversolicitous champions of scientism are not going to give up their privileged position without a fight.
In this 90 minute documentary, former presidential speech writer, commentator, actor, and humorist Ben Stein attempts to take the fight to them. One’s estimation of his success will no doubt be largely colored by one’s own opinions of the subject matter, but the film is well worth seeing despite its mixed results. It styles itself as a broadside for academic freedom (there’s even an online petition you can sign if you’d like to support the effort), yet it is primarily a not-so-subtle argument for the theory of Intelligent Design. Suitably, it begins with a series of interviews of prominent biologists who have seen their careers damaged or ended for daring to mention Intelligent Design in their classrooms or published papers. This is indeed most unfortunate, not to mention impossible to square with any reasonable interpretation of academic freedom. Think what you will about ID, the rights of free peoples to research and discuss it should be inviolate. Almost everyone can agree on that. What the scientific establishment does not agree on, however, are the rights of such people to public monies and to tenure at publicly funded institutions. The movie only hints at the bread-and-butter aspect of this academic debate, but it is safe to say that, for most working scientists, personal job security far outweighs ideology when it comes to determining why they believe and publish as they do.
Most working scientists; certainly not all, and certainly not the leading lights of the ultra-Darwinian cheering chorus featured in the next segment of the film. For them, ideology is front and center. The publicly expressed sentiments of men like Richard Dawkins leave no doubt that their attitudes are informed by extreme antireligious and anti-Christian leanings. Such attitudes are often disturbing to hear spelled out in full clarity. Calm, highly credentialed scientists at the pinnacle of their profession, warmly discussing the elimination of religious belief from the world as if it were some kind of disease, are fearful things to behold. Their impenetrable egos, distorted logic, willful misreading of history and readiness to desacralize human life all bear an unmistakable Luciferian stamp. One of their number—the creepy Dr. Will Provine of Cornell University—even exhibits signs of demonic possession. If you don’t believe me, watch the film; he speaks about his own imminent suicide and his rejection of free will in tones that are positively hellish.
And in case anybody is still wondering, yes, the connections to Nazism and the eugenics movement are made. In the fourth segment of the film, Stein visits a former Nazi extermination camp for medical defectives. Amid stock footage of emaciated corpses, he asks his German guide if she thought the perpetrators were insane. “No,” she answered in broken English. “They weren’t insane because they had purposes.” Her simple answer was exactly to the point. The Nazi doctors of death wouldn’t have met any clinical definition of insanity. They were acting out the implications of their worldview with perfect logical consistency. A committed Darwinist can carry out crimes against humanity with an eerie impassivity, convinced of the rational underpinnings of his actions. After the war, a much-maligned Martin Heidegger tried to make this point to a world that had already decided not to forgive him. Ben Stein makes it for us again today. He sees the same evil implicit in our contemporary abortion practices, and it’s hard to argue with his conclusions.
But the film is probably most effective in its third segment, which highlights the thinking of various intellectuals for whom Darwinism does not compute. The crowning moment is Stein’s conversation with the well-traveled, highly accomplished David Berlinski. It serves no purpose to ask whether or not Darwinism is correct when the theory is not precise enough to be correct or incorrect. The fuzziness of Darwinian Theory has been noted by many before. In Berlinski’s words, it is like “looking into a room full of smoke.” I think the film will have served its purpose if it prompts viewers to seriously reflect upon one single question: What do we mean when we say “evolution”? If we mean a vague notion that life changes over time, virtually nobody would dispute it. But that is not the theory that Darwin advanced. Textbook evolutionary theory is committed to upholding the common decent of all life on earth from a single ancestor, origins unspecified, via speciation through random mutation and natural selection. It leaves no room for teleology of any kind, from any source, in any degree, at any stage. This stronger claim is impossible to defend with empirical evidence, and masks a deeper agenda which is fearful of being exposed. One of the scientists featured here admonishes us to “beware the sound of one hand clapping.” Whenever one side asserts that the debate is finished, that’s because it isn’t.
For my own part, I am no follower of Darwin, but I have little use for Intelligent Design, either. If living organisms have been designed, that means that there is some algorithm capable of exhaustively describing their capacities. Even if said algorithm is exceedingly complex, such that it could never be deciphered within a comprehensible timescale or written down within the observable universe, it remains nonetheless finite and unmysterious. Under this scheme, freedom is just as much an illusion as it is under Darwin’s. But if those dissenters had read Aristotle, or Aquinas, or Leibniz, or Goethe, they would have known there is another way; a knowledge as old as time, expressed in many settings and uttered in various idioms, but everywhere an expression of the same pure intuition, that life is the prime stuff of existence. It doesn’t arise from anything simpler, either by design or by chance. A living being is a monad, an atom of nature, a form inhering in matter, which, although limited, stands atop an infinite depth. We have a Creator to be sure, but his unsearchable Word cannot be reduced to a set of biomolecular Tinkertoys. Intelligent Design is perhaps a shallower version of Darwinism, an occultic explanation of life prepared from the same Cartesian fallacies as its antagonist. What’s missing from biology is an understanding of Being as it actually is. But now the world is waking up. Perhaps we will soon be ready for Intelligent Dasein.