Now, to the film itself. What a shoddy, second-rate piece of work. A favourite joke among the film-making community is the ‘Lord Privy Seal’. Amateurs and novices in the making of documentaries can’t resist illustrating every significant word in the commentary by cutting to a picture of it. The Lord Privy Seal is an antiquated title in Britain’s heraldic tradition. The joke imagines a low-grade film director who illustrates it by cutting to a picture of a Lord, then a privy, and then a seal. Mathis’ film is positively barking with Lord Privy Seals. We get an otherwise pointless cut to Nikita Krushchev hammering the table (to illustrate something like ‘emotional outburst’). There are similarly clunking and artless cuts to a guillotine, fist fights, and above all to the Berlin wall and Nazi gas chambers and concentration camps.
The alleged association between Darwinism and Nazism is harped on for what seems like hours, and it is quite simply an outrage. We are supposed to believe that Hitler was influenced by Darwin. Hitler was ignorant and bonkers enough for his hideous mind to have imbibed some sort of garbled misunderstanding of Darwin (along with his very ungarbled understanding of the anti-semitism of Martin Luther, and of his own never-renounced Roman Catholic religion) but it is hardly Darwin’s fault if he did. My own view, frequently expressed (for example in the The Selfish Gene and especially in the title chapter of A Devil’s Chaplain) is that there are two reasons why we need to take Darwinian natural selection seriously. Firstly, it is the most important element in the explanation for our own existence and that of all life. Secondly, natural selection is a good object lesson in how NOT to organize a society. As I have often said before, as a scientist I am a passionate Darwinian. But as a citizen and a human being, I want to construct a society which is about as un-Darwinian as we can make it. I approve of looking after the poor (very un-Darwinian). I approve of universal medical care (very un-Darwinian). It is one of the classic philosophical fallacies to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. Stein (or whoever wrote his script for him) is implying that Hitler committed that fallacy with respect to Darwinism. If we look at more recent history, the closest representatives you’ll find to Darwinian politics are uncompassionate conservatives like Margaret Thatcher, George W Bush, or Ben Stein’s own hero, Richard Nixon. Maybe all these people, along with the Social Darwinists from Herbert Spencer to John D Rockefeller, committed the is/ought fallacy and justified their unpleasant social views by invoking garbled Darwinism. Anyone who thinks that has any bearing whatsoever on the truth or falsity of Darwin’s theory of evolution is either an unreasoning fool or a cynical manipulator of unreasoning fools. I will not speculate as to which category includes Ben Stein and Mark Mathis.
Stein has no talent for comedy, as he demonstrates in a weird joke about scratching his back, which falls completely flat. But his attempt to do tragedy is even worse. He visits Dachau and, when informed by the guide that lots of Jews had been killed there, he buries his face in his hands as though this is the first time he has heard of it. Obviously it was not his intention, but I thought his rotten acting was an insult to the memory of the victims.
More sinister than the artless Lord Privy Seals, and the self-indulgent and wholly illicit playing of the Nazi trump card, the film goes shamelessly for cheap laughs at the expense of scientists and scholars who are making honest attempts to explain difficult points. Cheap laughs that could only be raised in an audience of scientific ignoramuses (and here Mathis’ propaganda instincts cannot be faulted: he certainly knows his target audience). One example is the treatment of the philosopher Michael Ruse: a decent man, bluff, bearded, articulate, and with a genuine and sincere desire to explain difficult ideas clearly. Stein asked Ruse how life originated. Ruse’s immediate impulse (as mine would have been) was to launch into an honest effort to explain a difficult scientific idea. He began by saying that he doesn’t know how life originated, and nor does anybody else. At this point in his interview, Ruse probably had no notion that his interlocuter had a completely different agenda to promote, with no hint of sincerity to balance his own. Ruse patiently explained that the origin of life (nothing to do with the Darwinian theory itself but the necessary precursor of Darwinian evolution) is an interesting and unsolved mystery, one that scientists are actively working on. By way of example, Ruse could have chosen any of a number of current theories. He chose just one (it would have taken too long to explain them all) purely as an illustration of the kind of properties such a theory must have. He happened to choose the theory proposed by the Scottish chemist Graham Cairns-Smith, that organic life was preceded by a strange and intriguing world of replicating patterns on the surfaces of crystals in inorganic clays. At no time did Ruse say he believed the Cairns-Smith theory, only that it was the KIND of theory that scientists are actively examining, as a CANDIDATE for the origin of evolution. Stein just loved it. Mud! MUD! The sarcasm in his grating, nasal voice was palpable. Maybe this was when Ruse realised that he had been had. Certainly it was at this point that he started to show signs of exasperation, although he may still have thought that Stein was merely stupid, rather than pursuing a malevolent and clandestine agenda. Stein kept returning, throughout the film, to the phrase “on the backs of crystals”, and the sycophantic audience in the Minneapolis cinema dutifully tittered every time.
Another example. Toward the end of his interview with me, Stein asked whether I could think of any circumstances whatsoever under which intelligent design might have occurred. It’s the kind of challenge I relish, and I set myself the task of imagining the most plausible scenario I could. I wanted to give ID its best shot, however poor that best shot might be. I must have been feeling magnanimous that day, because I was aware that the leading advocates of Intelligent Design are very fond of protesting that they are not talking about God as the designer, but about some unnamed and unspecified intelligence, which might even be an alien from another planet. Indeed, this is the only way they differentiate themselves from fundamentalist creationists, and they do it only when they need to, in order to weasel their way around church/state separation laws. So, bending over backwards to accommodate the IDiots (“oh NOOOOO, of course we aren’t talking about God, this is SCIENCE”) and bending over backwards to make the best case I could for intelligent design, I constructed a science fiction scenario. Like Michael Ruse (as I surmise) I still hadn’t rumbled Stein, and I was charitable enough to think he was an honestly stupid man, sincerely seeking enlightenment from a scientist. I patiently explained to him that life could conceivably have been seeded on Earth by an alien intelligence from another planet (Francis Crick and Leslie Orgel suggested something similar — semi tongue-in-cheek). The conclusion I was heading towards was that, even in the highly unlikely event that some such ‘Directed Panspermia’ was responsible for designing life on this planet, the alien beings would THEMSELVES have to have evolved, if not by Darwinian selection, by some equivalent ‘crane’ (to quote Dan Dennett). My point here was that design can never be an ULTIMATE explanation for organized complexity. Even if life on Earth was seeded by intelligent designers on another planet, and even if the alien life form was itself seeded four billion years earlier, the regress must ultimately be terminated (and we have only some 13 billion years to play with because of the finite age of the universe). Organized complexity cannot just spontaneously happen. That, for goodness sake, is the creationists’ whole point, when they bang on about eyes and bacterial flagella! Evolution by natural selection is the only known process whereby organized complexity can ultimately come into being. Organized complexity — and that includes everything capable of designing anything intelligently — comes LATE into the universe. It cannot exist at the beginning, as I have explained again and again in my writings.
This ‘Ultimate 747′ argument, as I called it in The God Delusion, may or may not persuade you. That is not my concern here. My concern here is that my science fiction thought experiment — however implausible — was designed to illustrate intelligent design’s closest approach to being plausible. I was most emphaticaly NOT saying that I believed the thought experiment. Quite the contrary. I do not believe it (and I don’t think Francis Crick believed it either). I was bending over backwards to make the best case I could for a form of intelligent design. And my clear implication was that the best case I could make was a very implausible case indeed. In other words, I was using the thought experiment as a way of demonstrating strong opposition to all theories of intelligent design.
Well, you will have guessed how Mathis/Stein handled this. I won’t get the exact words right (we were forbidden to bring in recording devices on pain of a $250,000 fine, chillingly announced by some unnamed Gauleiter before the film began), but Stein said something like this. “What? Richard Dawkins BELIEVES IN INTELLIGENT DESIGN.” “Richard Dawkins BELIEVES IN ALIENS FROM OUTER SPACE.” I can’t remember whether this was the moment in the film where we were regaled with another Lord Privy Seal cut to an old science fiction movie with some kind of android figure – that may have been used in the service of trying to ridicule Francis Crick (again, dutiful titters from the partisan audience).
Enough on the film itself. Quite apart from anything else, it is drearily boring, the tedium exacerbated by the grating monotony of Stein’s voice.
Is it just me, or do you also get the feeling that Andy Guess’s comment of the movie being slick is unsupported unlike Dawkins’ reasonably well argued stand that it sucks?