There is nothing so tiresome as an argument that no one will ever concede--particularly if the participants don't seem to know it. And there's no place the fighting is growing more pointless than in the ongoing smackdown between evolutionists and advocates of intelligent design--the theory that the emergence of life must have been guided by a sentient planner.
The latest shot is being fired by economist, actor and game-show host Ben Stein, with his documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, due out April 18. Stein nominally set out to make the case that academics who write about evolution are being muzzled or denied tenure if they so much as nod in the direction of intelligent design. It's impossible to know from the handful of examples he cites how widespread the problem is, but if there's anything to it at all, it's a matter well worth exposing.
The man made famous by Ferris Bueller, however, quickly wades into waters far too deep for him. He makes all the usual mistakes nonscientists make whenever they try to take down evolution, asking, for example, how something as complex as a living cell could have possibly arisen whole from the earth's primordial soup. The answer is it couldn't--and it didn't. Organic chemicals needed eons of stirring and slow cooking before they could produce compounds that could begin to lead to a living thing. More dishonestly, Stein employs the common dodge of enumerating all the admittedly unanswered questions in evolutionary theory and using this to refute the whole idea. But all scientific knowledge is built this way. A fishnet is made up of a lot more holes than strings, but you can't therefore argue that the net doesn't exist. Just ask the fish.
It's in the film's final third that it runs entirely off the rails as Stein argues that there is a clear line from Darwinism to euthanasia, abortion, eugenics and--wait for it--Nazism. Theories of natural selection, it's claimed, were a necessary if not sufficient condition for Hitler's killing machine to get started. The truth, of course, is that the only necessary and sufficient condition for human beings to murder one another is the simple fact of being human. We've always been a lustily fratricidal species, one that needed no Charles Darwin to goad us into millenniums of self-slaughter.
In fairness to Stein, his opponents have hardly covered themselves in glory. Evolutionary biologists and social commentators have lately taken to answering the claims of intelligent-design boosters not with clear-eyed scientific empiricism but with sneering, finger-in-the-eye atheism. Biologist P.Z. Myers, for example, tells Stein that religion ought to be seen as little more than a soothing pastime, a bit like knitting. Books such as Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great and Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion often read like pure taunting, as when Hitchens pettily and pointedly types God as lowercase god. Tautology as typography is not the stuff of deep thought. Neither, alas, is Expelled.