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In practically every scene, Expelled insults the science of evolution and the scientists who study it, accepting the long-ago-debunked criticisms and conspiracy theories of the intelligent design proponents as valid. On the contrary, evolution is well accepted in the scientific community, where it is considered the organizing principle of biology and central as well to the field of geology. The notion that scientists have formed an atheistic cabal to keep intelligent design from its day in the sun is ludicrous.

The Claim

Large numbers of scientists are secretly questioning evolution. “One on one, in a scientific meeting, after the third or fourth beer, my experience has been that many evolutionary biologists will say, “Yeah, this theory’s got a lot of problems.” (Paul Nelson, Expelled)

The Facts

For a movie obsessed with evolution, it is odd that Expelled never bothers to define evolution properly. The big idea of biological evolution is that living things have common ancestors: that they have descended with modification from earlier forms. To understand evolution, we have to study the pattern that the branching tree of life has taken through time as well as the processes or mechanisms that bring about the changes. It is well documented by statements from scientific societies large and small (see Voices for Evolution) that scientists no longer feel any need to debate whether evolution took place; what they are doing now is working out the details. Scientists agree that natural selection, genetic drift, gene flow, genetic recombination, mutation, and symbiosis are major evolutionary processes, but they continue to debate the relative importance of each mechanism to the history and diversity of life. Similarly, scientists agree on the basic contours of the tree of life, although they continue to refine and revise the picture in detail in the light of further data and theory.

Expelled confuses the debates among scientists about the details of evolution – how it works and what descended from what – with a nonexistent dispute about whether evolution occurred. This approach plays into the conspiracy theme of the movie: somehow, scientists are scheming to keep the unwary public from learning the truth about the supposed falsity of evolution. Science, however, rewards dissent and independence of thought – when it has a solid base. Scientists are an independent lot who find success and professional advancement by successfully overturning established ideas and through vigorously debating the evidence supporting scientific interpretations in scientific conferences and journals. The thought that anyone could herd them together to conspire against anything – even intelligent design – is laughable. One may as well conspire to herd a roomful of cats.

The Claim

“When we see an elite – and it is an elite – an elite that controls essentially all the research money in science saying ‘There is no such thing as moral truth, science will not be related to religion.’ I mean, it’s essentially official policy at the National Academy of Sciences, that religion and science will not be related.” (Jeffrey Schwartz, Expelled)

The Facts

Expelled claims that an atheistic, amoral scientific elite is barring the door to the consideration of ideas like intelligent design that include a religious component. Yet scientists who are religious also perform science without bringing God in as part of their theories. Scientific theories do not include God because scientific theories must be tested. Testing requires holding constant some variables, and no one can “control” God; therefore, scientific explanations are restricted to the natural causes that are testable. All scientists work this way, whether they are religious or nonreligious. This is a practical restriction on what science can do, not a philosophical or moral restriction imposed by some elite.

The implication that the National Academy of Sciences is anti-religious is equally absurd. In 2008, their booklet Science, Evolution, and Creationism answers the question “Aren’t evolution and religion opposing ideas?” by writing:

Newspaper and television stories sometimes make it seem as though evolution and religion are incompatible, but that is not true. Many scientists and theologians have written about how one can accept both faith and the validity of biological evolution. Many past and current scientists who have made major contributions to our understanding of the world have been devoutly religious. At the same time, many religious people accept the reality of evolution, and many religious denominations have issued emphatic statements reflecting this acceptance.

The Claim

“If Darwin wanted to challenge the consensus today, how would he do it? Science is not a hobby for rich aristocrats anymore, it’s a multi-million-dollar industry. And if you want a piece of the pie, you’ve got to be a good comrade.” (Ben Stein, Expelled).

The Facts

New scientific views challenge the consensus all the time. Is intelligent design being kept out of the scientific consensus because of some “old boy” network that requires scientists to “go along to get along?” Hardly. New scientific ideas do get a hearing – that is how a scientist makes a reputation, after all.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Carl Woese proposed a radical rearrangement of the evolutionary tree of life, splitting bacteria into two groups and dividing life into three “domains,” rather than the traditional five kingdoms. As he produced new evidence for this approach, his colleagues began to apply his ideas in their own papers. When it became accepted within the scientific community, textbook authors rewrote the chapters on the classification of life, and college professors and high school teachers were glad to modify their lesson plans.

Phylogenetic tree, as proposed by Carl Woese

Darwinian evolution and Mendelian genetics both went through a similar process, as did Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity, plate tectonics, Big Bang cosmology, and the atomic theory. We have cataloged a number of recent biological theories that faced intense criticism, surviving and becoming well-accepted and acclaimed, and then were incorporated into pre-college textbooks and curricula.

Thus far, intelligent design hasn’t made a scientific case that its proposals help us understand nature, and the ideas have not generated the sort of research which led Woese’s ideas to wide acceptance. Protestations in Expelled to the contrary, scientists knowledgeable about relevant subject areas have critiqued intelligent design – it has not merely been waved away without consideration (see reviews of classic intelligent design statements like Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box and William Dembski’s The Design Inference) The burden of proof is upon intelligent design advocates to show through scientific research that intelligent design is a useful scientific proposition. If they did, the science-funding agency review panels would gladly fund such research. As things stand now, intelligent design can be considered neither scientific nor useful for understanding nature.

There has been a history of promissory notes from intelligent design proponents, but where is the actual research? Here we can agree with intelligent design proponent Stephen C. Meyer when he says, “The debate isn’t going to be settled by numbers, it’s going to be settled by the evidence and the arguments.” But these arguments must be made to the scientific community, not to the movie-going public.

Expelled makes so many erroneous claims about the science of evolution that it would require several movies to correct the record. Whenever Ben Stein talks about evolution, the viewer should remember that actor-pundits are not known for their scientific training. There simply is not time to correct so much misinformation, but would like to set the record straight on at least some examples.

The Claim

“Darwinism also has not one meaningful word to say on the origins of organic life, a striking lacuna in a theory supposedly explaining life”. (Ben Stein, Darwinism: The Imperialism of Biology, on Expelled The Movie blog.)

The Facts

Darwin wasn’t trying to explain the origin of life; you could just as easily complain that the theory of island biogeography doesn’t explain the origin of islands. Darwin himself says, in the Origin of Species, “It is no valid objection that science as yet throws no light on the far higher problem of the essence or origin of life” (Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species. 6th edition, 1882. p. 421). (On the same page, Darwin notes, “Great is the power of steady misrepresentation.” Here, at least, is one place where the makers of Expelled apparently agree with Darwin.)

Darwin was writing 150 years ago. We no more expect modern evolutionary theory to be dependent on what Darwin knew in the 19th century than we expect modern physics to be dependent on what Lord Kelvin knew then. In the 20th and 21st centuries there has been significant research into the origin of life, which Ben Stein would have realized if he had interviewed a scientist who works in the area, or even searched for “origin of life” on the internet.

Rather than consulting a researcher on the origin of life, Expelled instead consults a historian and philosopher of science, Michael Ruse, who tries his best – amid numerous sneering interruptions – to convey a layman-friendly explanation of a complicated theory devised by A. G. Cairns-Smith. This theory suggests that the lattice-like nature of clay crystals could form a template of sorts for the lattice-like structure of organic molecules that eventually produced the heredity information RNA and DNA. Rather than honestly presenting an intriguing scientific idea that is being actively researched, Expelled instead ridicules Michael Ruse for suggesting “joyriding crystals,” clearly a silly and bizarre idea. But how does this theory sound when described by people who are actively pursuing related research?

In his 2005 book Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life’s Origin, scientist Robert Hazen observes about Cairns-Smith that:

The crux of his argument rests on a simple analogy. Cairns-Smith likens the origin of life to the construction of a stone archway, with its carefully fitted blocks and crucial construction central keystone that locks the whole structure in place. But an arch cannot be built simply by piling one stone atop another. “The answer,” he says, “is with a scaffolding of some kind.” A simple support structure facilitates the construction and can then be removed. “I think this must have been the way our amazingly ‘arched’ biochemistry was built in the first place,” he wrote in a Scientific American article in 1985. “The parts that now lean together surely used to lean on something else—something low tech.” That something, he suggests, was a clay mineral.

Hazen then presents a number of testable hypotheses arising from this approach to the origin of life, noting that research into the ways that clay crystals interact with organic molecules has yielded scientific insights which improve the production of pharmaceuticals. Hazen emphasizes that the clay lattice theory is not the only one available for the origin of life, and that there are a number of viable ideas being tested by chemists, geologists and biologists right now.

This ongoing research draws on evolutionary ideas, and Ben Stein could have interviewed those researchers if he wanted to. Nonetheless, answers to questions about the origin of life are no more necessary to understand the diversity of life today than such an understanding is necessary to treat cancer, or to understand the emergence of new strains of the flu virus. But Expelled is more interested in ridiculing science than in presenting it honestly.

The Claim

Natural selection is inadequate to produce complicated things which require the infusion of some sort of “information” unavailable from natural processes. “But natural selection reduces genetic information and we know this from all the genetic operation studies that we have”. (Maciej Giertych, Expelled)

The Facts

Intelligent design advocates spend a great deal of time discussing “information,” yet rarely define the term. Natural selection reduces genetic variability, which can indeed be used as a measure of information, but to say then that selection therefore cannot produce complex structures demonstrates a basic misunderstanding of how natural selection works.

In addition, while natural selection reduces variability, and may even remove traits from a population entirely, it is not the only evolutionary mechanism. Genetic mutations, gene flow, genetic exchange from symbiotic organisms, genetic recombination, and neutral genetic drift all play important roles in evolutionary processes, and anyone who attempts to explain the complexity of life without considering all of these processes is presenting a one-sided and fundamentally inaccurate account of evolution.

The Claim

Intelligent design proponents are on the verge of making great new discoveries because they are applying the concept of design to complex biological structures, and gaining new insights. For example, Ben Stein says in Expelled, “Jonathan Wells is also making progress using intelligent design theory in his research on cancer.”

The Facts

Expelled uses the term “design” equivocally. The film regards a complicated cellular structure composed of many interacting parts as similar to a human machine that also is made of many interacting parts. Because the machine requires an intelligent human to assemble these parts to make a functioning product, Expelled infers that the cellular structure also required an intelligent agent to plan it and put it together. “Design” in this sense refers to a “purposeful assemblage of parts,” implying both function and origin. But scientists commonly speak of the “design” of structures in an informal sense of “parts working together to produce a function”; they might say, for example, that the elongated wrist bones of a deer are designed to allow the deer to run fast. The study of structure and function is common in medical and other biological research; there is much utility in finding out how something works. This research can be done – and ordinarily is done – without making any assumptions of “design” in the intelligent design sense: that there needs to be a guiding hand purposefully assembling those parts.

Jonathan Wells’s research on the function of centrioles in cell division is directly in this tradition, and does not require an assumption of an intelligent agent to determine the structure and function of these cellular components. Although Wells presents intelligent design as an important precursor guiding his discovery, in actuality it is an add-on. Even if he is right about the relationship of centrioles to broken chromosomes to cancer – and it seems likely that he is not – to say that intelligent design provides unique insight into cancer research is, to put it mildly, stretching things.

And contrary to what the movie would have you believe, evolution – common ancestry – is often of considerable assistance when researchers are investigating structure and function. By looking at the same structure – for instance the whip-like tail of a bacterium, called a flagellum – across several related species, scientists can discover similarities and differences that help them more fully understand the workings of complex structures. This paradigm has been much more fruitful than one that suggests an intelligent agent produced complex biological structures as a “purposeful arrangement of parts”.

Read More

New Scientist: Evolution: 24 myths and misconceptions
TalkOrigins FAQs on the origin of life