April 21, 2008

Science and Environment

Design and Dissent

Dan Cloer

Charles Darwin concluded his treatise on natural selection On the Origin of Species (2nd edition) with this interesting thought: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that . . . from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” 

It would appear that Darwin believed that intelligence is at the root of the evolutionary process. A more likely interpretation, however—one more in tune with the rest of his voluminous writings—would paint his remark as being akin to a physicist’s notion of seeing the “mind of God” in the laws of the universe. It is one thing to invoke the idea of a Creator as placeholder for things we do not understand; it is another to believe that such a Being actually exists. 

The problem of offering up such a belief as more than a placeholder is at the heart of the new film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Produced by Premise Media and hosted by actor Ben Stein, the documentary investigates the issue of freedom of speech and the clash between Darwinism and Intelligent Design (ID). On his blog, Stein writes that the film “chronicles my confrontation with the widespread suppression and entrenched discrimination” against scientists who question evolutionary theory. 

It is clear from his blog and the film’s promotional materials that Stein has taken a personal interest in the apparent stranglehold Darwinism has on scientific research. In countering the argument that ID be denied access to the scientific enterprise, he writes, “Freedom of inquiry is basic to human advancement.” 

Big Science in this area of biology has lost its way,” Stein believes. “Scientists are supposed to be allowed to follow the evidence wherever it may lead, no matter what the implications are. Freedom of inquiry has been greatly compromised, and this is not only anti-American, it’s anti-science. It’s anti- the whole concept of learning.” 

Critics of ID argue that it is not considered a valid scientific hypothesis because it is not experimentally testable. “Only a reasonably detailed model could provide explanatory hypotheses that can be empirically tested,” claims the National Center for Science Education, an organization opposing ID. “‘An unknown intelligent designer did something, somewhere, somehow, for no apparent reason’ is not a model.” 

The National Academy of Sciences adds, “Science is a way of knowing about the natural world. It is limited to explaining the natural world through natural causes. Science can say nothing about the supernatural. Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral.” 

Credited as screenwriter along with Kevin Miller, Stein, former presidential speechwriter (Nixon and Ford), actor (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), and game-show host (Win Ben Stein’s Money), here steps into the slippery role made infamous by Michael Moore, the creator of Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 911. In those films, some say Moore stretched the documentary genre beyond previously allowed limits. 

While it may be argued that Moore achieved success in conveying politically edgy and controversial messages through dishonest filmmaking, in a press release for the film co-executive producer Walt Ruloff promises otherwise for Stein’s effort. “The incredible thing about Expelled is that we don’t resort to manipulating our interviews for the purpose of achieving the ‘shock effect,’ something that has become common in documentary film these days.” 

The film centers on the backlash evolutionary biologist Richard Sternberg received following the publication of an ID-friendly paper in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. Sternberg was the managing editor who green-lighted an article titled The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories. Written by Dr. Stephen C. Meyer, the article was published in August 2004. 

The article questions the ability of Darwinism to explain the origin of genetic information upon which natural selection may operate. “Microevolution looks at adaptations that concern the survival of the fittest, not the arrival of the fittest,” wrote Meyer, who earned a doctorate in the history and philosophy of science at Cambridge University. He is also director of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, the bastion of ID. To have an article in the peer-reviewed journal of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History was a coup for ID.  

The problem of the genetic source material, once simply called “variation” by Darwin, has a long-standing history (see “Everything Old is New Again”). In his almost 12,000-word essay, Meyer wrote, “Since natural selection can do nothing to help generate new functional [gene] sequences, but rather can only preserve such sequences once they have arisen, chance alone—random variation—must do the work of information generation—that is, of finding the exceedingly rare functional sequences within the set of combinatorial possibilities. Yet the probability of randomly assembling (or “finding,” in the previous sense) a functional sequence is extremely small. . . . Without functional criteria to guide a search through the space of possible sequences, random variation is probabilistically doomed.” 

No one in the scientific community today doubts that evolutionary theory remains incomplete; after nearly 150 years since Origin was written, nagging questions such as those raised by Meyer’s paper are still unanswered. Because the peer review process remains private, one can only speculate that the paper was published on the grounds that the issues it raised were legitimate. Nevertheless, Sternberg was hounded over his decision. 

I was repeatedly pressured to reveal the names of the peer-reviewers of the Meyer article, contrary to professional ethics,” Sternberg says on his Web site devoted to the controversy. “I was also told repeatedly that I should have found peer reviewers who would reject the article out-of-hand, in direct violation of professional ethics which require editors to find peer reviewers who are not prejudiced or hostile to a particular author or his/her ideas.” 

The trouble with the paper is embedded in Meyer’s dissent from the expected evolutionary perspective on possible solutions to the points he raises. “The causal powers that natural selection lacks—almost by definition—are associated with the attributes of consciousness and rationality—with purposive intelligence. Thus, by invoking design to explain the origin of new biological information,” he argues that “contemporary design theorists [ID proponents] are not positing an arbitrary explanatory element unmotivated by a consideration of the evidence. Instead, they are positing an entity possessing precisely the attributes and causal powers that the phenomenon in question requires as a condition of its production and explanation.” 

Meyer cogently concludes his essay, “Scientific interest in the design hypothesis is unlikely to abate.” 

Expelled was released on the eve of Passover. Stein and the many evangelicals supporting the film intended this to be the “Let my people go” moment when Intelligent Design would finally break through to be seen as more than a political movement. 

People will be stunned,” contended co-producer Ruloff before the film’s release, “to actually find out what elitist scientists proclaim, which is that a large majority of Americans are simpletons who believe in a fairy tale. Premise Media took on this difficult mission because we believe the greatest asset of humanity is our freedom to explore and discover truth.” 

Will the film be the rod that finally parts the sea of Darwinism and makes a dry path to the mountains of free inquiry? Or will it succumb to the churning sea, the erosive waves of controversy that roil against anything that places doubt in the full legitimacy of “this view of life”—a view that insists the appearance of design stems from random process? 

Whichever the case, even if one were to part that sea, there remains a wide wilderness on the other side. Crossing that void to finally reach the promised land of truth concerning Charles Darwin’s “Creator” will be a long trek indeed.