I’ve had a chance now to watch Questioning Darwin. Twice. Short review: I liked it quite a bit. Now for the long review.
I’m obviously a bit partial, since this film represents my television debut! I was one of the talking heads interviewed in the film, and it was a thrill to be in the company of people like Rebecca Stott, Steve Jones and James Moore, among others. I show up around forty-five minutes in, to say a few things about the Scopes trial and the importance of Sputnik in bringing the creationism issue back to prominence in the United States. It was a lot of fun, and I enjoyed meeting director Antony Thomas and his crew.
Enough of that. How about the film itself? It was essentially two films woven together. One involved creationists extolling the virtues of their rather idiosyncratic world view. The other was a biography of Charles Darwin, focusing especially on his own struggles with religious faith, and including some history of the cultural responses to evolution over the years. This is definitely not a Michael Moore style documentary. There is no narrator mocking the creationists, and there is no attempt to tell you explicitly who the good guys are and who the bad guys are.
Technically everything is put together with great skill, and I could notice only the most trivial of nitpicks regarding the factual material presented. However, in assessing a film of this sort, there are a few red flags that I look for. If the film suggests that creationism has any merit at all as a scientific theory, then that is enough to consign it to the rubbish bin. Similarly, if the film implies that creationism is maintained with anything other than closed-mindedness and insularity, then I again start to lose interest.
Some of the comments both to my previous post and to Jerry Coyne’s post on this subject have suggested the film fails these tests. They are wrong. It passes these tests with flying colors, with one small exception I’ll come to later.
The United States is a very religious country, but the fundamentalists are actually quite a small minority. If you make a film that sneers at the religious folks, even if those folks represent an extreme fundamentalism, then a lot of more moderate people will take offense. Someone like me might find it emotionally satisfying to watch such a thing, but it probably does more harm than good.
But just let the fundamentalists speak for themselves, with bluntness and confidence, about all the crazy things they believe, and suddenly you have something far more effective. For example, early in the film we see Pastor Peter LaRuffa of Grace Fellowship Church in Kentucky saying this:
If somewhere within the Bible I were to find a passage that said two plus two equals five, I wouldn’t question what I’m reading in the Bible. I would believe it, accept it as true, and then do my best to work it out and to understand it.
We also hear Pastor Jobe Martin of Biblical Discipleship Ministries in Texas saying this:
There’s no dispute. God has determined what is true and He told us what He did in Genesis, the order in which He did it, and He expects us to believe it.
Have enough faith (pardon the expression) that no one not already in the fundamentalist subculture will find any of that remotely appealing. People might like airy God-talk, but they don’t like being shown that religion entails this level of mindlessness. It’s not even anti-intellectual as much as it is pro-stupidity. Any commentator remarking on the foolishness of this would be superfluous. It’s less effective then just letting the thing speak for itself.
There was also some skillful editing that served, in my view, to make the creationists look so extreme and dogmatic that no one not already with them would want anything to do with them. At one point the narrator reads Darwin’s famous line that accepting the transmutation of species was akin to confessing a murder. The film then cuts to Jenna Dee Martin of Biblical Discipleship Ministries saying this:
What he has done is worse than murder. I am saddened for Charles Darwin being led astray from the truth and leading so many others astray with his philosophies and doctrines and theology.
Later we hear Darwin say, “I feel within me an instinct for truth.” Cut to Charles Bonner of Bible Baptist Church in Washington saying this:
There is only one truth and truth is not an assimilation of information. But there is one truth and that’s found in the Bible. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the father except by me.”
At every turn, the professor-types talked about facts, evidence and science, and they are answered by relentless Bible-thumping and proud closed-mindedness on the part of the creationists. Have no fear that anyone watching was unable to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys.
Anyone reading this blog knows that I am generally skeptical of attempts to reconcile evolution and Christianity. So when they got to the parts where the creationists explained what they found troubling about evolution, I was largely nodding along. The general savagery of the evolutionary process is hard to reconcile with Christianity, as is the portrayal of humanity as just one more random species among many. People on the pro-evolution side can blather all they want about how easy it is to reconcile science and religion, but on this point it is the creationists who have the stronger argument.
One of the creationists interviewed was David Menton, who will be a familiar name to connoisseurs of this subject. I once had a somewhat heated discussion with him at the Creation Museum. He had given a talk in which he presented the standard creationist probability arguments against evolution. Afterwards I politely explained to him, while surrounded by a small crowd of his supporters, that he did not know what he was talking about. As you might imagine, it was not a very productive conversation.
But I thought he was on safer ground when he said in the film, in response to the idea that God might have created the system of natural laws in which evolution unfolded:
What that does is put God so remote, that we can safely ignore Him. He’s way back at the Big Bang and he hasn’t done much since.
This closely echoes a point I made in Among the Creationists. You can toss it off as a logical possibility that God established the initial conditions and then let everything unfold on its own, confident that things would develop in a way that expressed His intentions. But that notion has little power to inspire, or to make God seem present in the daily lives of regular people. That’s why it was such a serious blow that Darwin utterly refuted Paley. The problem wasn’t that any central piece of Christian theology requires that Paley be correct. It was that Paley was only partly trying to make an intellectual argument for God’s existence. He was also emphasizing the nearness of God in everyday life, and that’s what Darwin took away.
I do have a few criticisms, though. While I’m all in favor of letting the creationists hang themselves with their own rope, I do think the film gives them a little too much time to speak. I would have preferred a bit less of that and a bit more commentary from experts about the social and scientific aspects of evolution. Also, near the end of the film there is a segment where we see clips of a few videos from the Creation Museum. This is the one place where we hear about “creation science.” Prior to that point it was all Bible-thumping and obscurantism. Now, right after these videos are shown we get a clip of Steve Jones saying:
If the only way you can make your belief persist is to lie to children, which is what creationists do about the age of the earth and things of that nature, if that’s the only way this thing can persist then it isn’t worth it. It should disappear.
This is followed by Rebecca Stott explaining that all of the subsequent scientific progress since Darwin has confirmed all of his main ideas. Great stuff! Still, I would have preferred a more blunt statement that “creation science” is just a fraud, and that none of their scientific claims have any merit at all.
Strangely given my own views on this subject, I think I also would have liked to see someone like Ken Miller interviewed. The film largely seems to accept the view that evolution is a mortal threat to Christianity. The narrator makes asserts, right at the end, that evolution and Christianity can get along, but I think it would have made sense to have an expert commentator give voice to those views.
But these are relatively minor criticisms, and overall I think the film gets things right.
There is more to comment on in the film, but this has already gotten a bit long. So let me close by echoing what I wrote in this post about the Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham debate. A while back I wrote a post in which I argued that ID was dead. I was more right than I realized. The media attention given to the Nye/Ham debate, and now this well-covered documentary, show as clearly as can be that ID is no longer a factor in the discussion. From the late sixties to the late eighties, anti-evolutionism was just synonymous with YEC. Then ID was hatched in the late eighties, in an attempt to distance anti-evolutionism from the sillier aspects of fundamentalist religion. For a while, it seemed they might have some success. They received respectful coverage from major media outlets, and their books were widely reviewed in scientific journals. Those reviews were almost universally negative, of course, but the attention alone was a success for ID.
But those days are long gone. The combination of the Dover verdict and the complete stagnation of ID as an intellectual enterprise has left it moribund. The science journals barely notice when a new ID book comes out, and Stephen Meyer seems like the only one who’s still trying. Ken Ham has been perfectly happy to step into the vacuum. Nowadays, anti-evolutionism is once again easily seen to be synonymous with blinkered religious obscurantism.
That is precisely as it should be.