Ben Stein has an impressive curriculum vitae: presidential speechwriter, actor, comedian, social commentator, game show host, attorney, author. Now he has added "filmmaker" to that list with his documentary film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Its central premise is that the theory of intelligent design (ID) is better than the theory of Darwinian evolution, but "Big Science" refuses acknowledge that fact. Like the medieval Church, it excommunicates any academic who questions Darwinian dogma or advocates for ID.
I have not had the opportunity to see the film (it isn't playing in my city), so I will base my commentary on reviews and materials from the Expelled website. I'll start with the two-minute "Super Trailer," which opens with this dialogue between a teacher and Stein, who is sitting in the back of the classroom:
Teacher: Moving through history in an unguided and undesigned way, the theory of evolution --
Stein: Excuse me!
Teacher: Yes, Ben.
Stein: How did life begin in the first place?
Teacher: Mr. Stein. You have the same question every time.
Stein: Well, you never answer it, sir.
Teacher: (sputtering) You know, we've been through this so many times, you have been so --
Stein: Could there have been an intelligent designer? (cue electric guitar solo)
The film has been accused of being propaganda rather than a documentary by the site "Expelled Exposed," and this conversation between a cool, collected Stein and a caricature of a hapless teacher certainly supports that assertion.
The trailer continues with interview snippets from what are presumably supposed to be academics disgraced by their belief in ID, and then a choppy bit of an interview about the origin of life that reeks of out-of-context editing. It ends with some indignant comments about those people, including (heaven forfend!) the National Academy of Sciences, who insist on the separation of religious and scientific thought. Stein complains, "There are people out there who want to keep science in a little box, where it can't possibly touch a higher power, cannot possibly touch God."
This trailer has two main themes -- that scientists can't answer questions about the origin of life, and that science and religion are improperly kept separate -- both of which I strenuously disagree with. (Lest I be accused of taking things out of context, feel free to peruse the official overview of the film.)
I'll start with the second theme about the separation of science and faith. Religion and science have both different methods and different ends. Since both seek truth, they can never contradict each other when conducted properly, but neither do they answer the same question. Religion is ordered to learning about God and his relationship with us, and about sanctification -- ultimately, about all things supernatural. Science is ordered to learning about Creation -- all things natural. The scope and methodology of science is such that it is impossible for it to make conclusions about religious topics. If science attempts to explain a miracle -- a supernatural suspension of natural law -- it cannot call that event a miracle, only declare it "unexplained so far."
So yes, science absolutely should be kept in a little box where it can't touch supernatural things. That is its proper place. And religion properly should touch on only those aspects of the natural world that affect our relationship with God, and leave the rest to science.
The exact historical process by which the first living DNA cells originated is one of those events that belong to science. Religion can tell us only that God was the ultimate cause; science alone can (possibly) discover the method. And in only the last few years, new discoveries have begun to shed light on this method. We may someday (soon, even) have a pretty good idea of the nitty-gritty chemistry that sparked the first DNA life.
But there is another issue that begs to be addressed. Regardless of how the first life came into being, whether a natural process or an ex nihilo fiat, the origin of life actually has no bearing at all on Darwinian evolution. Evolution is concerned with what happens to life that already exists. In other words, even if the origin of life can never be explained naturalistically, evolution by natural selection is not thereby invalidated.
The information available to me about this film does not make me hopeful that it contains much scientific investigation. I rather suspect it will follow the fallacy that if you say something loudly and often enough, it will come true.