Politics & Policy

The Dang Thing

John Derbyshire and the movie he hasn't seen.

In an essay published recently on National Review Online, John Derbyshire has declared that the documentary Expelled contains a blood libel against Western Civilization. His is an exercise of striking vulgarity, the more so since, as he insouciantly admits, he has not “seen the dang thing.” A blood libel, one might recall, refers to the charge that the Jewish people are irredeemably stained by their occasional, if modest, need for Christian blood. Some terms have acquired through their historical associations a degree of repugnance that persuades sensitive men and women not to use them. If Derbyshire has been repelled by the smell of blood, it is a revulsion that he has successfully overcome.

Having not seen the documentary that he proposes to criticize, Derbyshire is nonetheless quite certain that he knows what it conveys. “It is pretty plain,” he asserts, “that it is a piece of creationist porn.” Perhaps I will be forgiven for suggesting that John Derbyshire’s late-night scrutiny of the Internet may have corrupted his habitual search for le mot juste. Expelled has nothing to do with creationism, and if it is pornographic, the details have not become widely known.

Expelled makes a point far plainer than pornography and points to a phenomenon just as widespread. The scientific community is intolerant of dissent and morbidly so when it comes to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Those who reject criticism because it is unwelcome have in John Derbyshire acquired an ally of the best sort. He is not disposed to ask questions of his friends; and he is eager uncritically to attack their enemies.

It is a match made in heaven.

After first considering the possibility that Ben Stein was financed by secret Saudi funds — Je m’imagine cela — Derbyshire at once reprises two errors. The first is that the animations in Expelled were copied.

They were not.

And the second is that the brief segment of a John Lennon song used in the film required Yoko Ono’s permission before it could be aired.

It did not.

The facts are easily available from the Expelled website. John Derbyshire has failed to appreciate the neat retributive irony by which frivolous lawsuits have been used to suppress a film calling attention to the suppression of dissent.

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Derbyshire’s generous conviction that Expelled is an exercise in dishonesty owes much to the charge that those participating in the film were duped. It is an accusation made by both P. Z. Myers and Richard Dawkins. I appear in the film, and I read and signed the same release that Myers and Dawkins did. I knew precisely what the film proposed to do. So did they. Myers and Dawkins now regret their appearance. This is because they seriously overestimated their own ability to think nimbly before a camera. They are as result appalled either by how they look or by what they said. A veritable Internet scourge, Myers sits before the camera in solemn stupefaction. He has nothing to say and says nothing. Dawkins goes much further. Without ever once realizing that he is about to topple into the badlands of absurdity, he allows Ben Stein to force him into the acknowledgment that life as it appears on earth may well have been designed by space aliens.

That Dawkins was duped is undeniable; but as in so many of the better crime stories, the victim of a crime turns out to have been its perpetrator.

This is something that John Derbyshire might have realized without my help.

Having found in Expelled an occasion to exercise his organs of indignation, Derbyshire proceeds in his essay to squeeze them until they squeal. The Discovery Institute is a special target. He regards its very existence as an affliction. His indignation has prompted him to impertinence. Knowing nothing of my life, he has nonetheless concluded that I am one of a number of “eccentric non-Christian cranks keen for a well-funded vehicle to help them push their own flat-earth theories.”

Non-Christian? There is no need for euphemism. I am a secular Jew, reason enough apparently for Derbyshire carelessly to suggest that I am in it for the money.

Ah, that old familiar smell — blood, I mean.

As for my eagerness to affirm that the world is flat, I believe it round, and have said so many times. Beyond this settled conviction, I have no theories to offer — not even theories of intelligent design, which I have rejected in the pages of Commentary.

It goes without saying that in all this John Derbyshire is persuaded that the Other Side holds a monopoly in “dishonesty and sheer nastiness, even down to plain bad manners.”

Does it indeed?

All this would be trivial, if tawdry, were it not for the single serious charge that Derbyshire makes: That Intelligent Design is a disguised form of creationism.

In the United States, at least, creationism is a doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. Intelligent Design is otherwise. It is the thesis that living creatures appear designed because they are designed. It is said to be Darwin’s great merit that he successfully dissolved the appearance of design in life. Those who believe that the design of living systems is real believe correspondingly that Darwin’s theory is false, or, at best, incomplete.

Whether true or false, the issue is one of fact, and the inferences to which design theorists appeal are in common currency in subjects as diverse as political science, forensics and archeology. Seeing tallies scratched on a pre-historic ax handle, John Derbyshire — of all people! — might well conclude that they represent signs designating the natural numbers. The arrow of thought passes from the properties of an object to its classification as an artifact.

The question that Derbyshire has asked of an ax handle, design theorists ask of Derbyshire. Does he bear the marks of design?

Is it impermissible to ask this question? If so, why?

If not, whence the blood libel?

Like so many men who have reached late middle age, John Derbyshire suffers the impression that the “the barbarians are at the gate.” Women no longer topple blood-ripe into his lap. A “gaggle of fools and fraudsters” is everywhere disturbing his tranquility. Things that he treasures are under ceaseless attack.

And where awe is merited, none is forthcoming. “And now here is Ben Stein,” Derbyshire objects, “sneering and scoffing at Darwin.”

Stein is, in fact, doing no such thing, and I have seen the documentary in which he appears. He is asking that certain possibilities in thought not be struck from the table prematurely. In so doing, he is offering Darwin the homage that a serious thinker deserves. It is the only homage to which he is entitled.

As for the rest of John Derbyshire’s agitated geschrei, what can one say? A talented writer is entitled to make a fool of himself at least once.

Why not Derbyshire?

David Berlinski, author of The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions, is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute.

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