Film uses science, not religion, to debate Darwin

Original Article

With nothing but a projector screen and folding chairs, the tiny Embassy Auditorium of the Davidson Conference Center is a far cry from the 50-foot-high IMAX theater where Darwin’s Dilemma was originally scheduled to be screened. Even though the California Science Center recently backed out of its contract to host the film’s Los Angeles premiere, the tensions created by the controversial documentary’s release followed the event to its new location.

As everyone settled into their seats, the room was already bustling with conflicting opinions on Darwin’s 150-year-old theory of evolution.“I don’t believe in this intelligent design stuff,” one attendee whispered; another gently poked fun at the idea of humans popping out of a random interaction of atoms. Even in today’s modern world, the intimate room was a clear display of the debate raised since Darwin first published The Origin of Species in 1859: Who are we and where did we come from?

The night started off with a short clip from We Are Born of Stars, the first 3-D film created for IMAX projection. Choppy, rough and with limited black-and-white computer graphics, the film provided a structural view of our essential building block of life — DNA. Unfortunately, the film was in Japanese, and those who came without a basic scientific knowledge of DNA structures were left in the dark. But this brief prelude was meant to portray the deep mystery of DNA in living creatures, which is an integral component in Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Darwin’s Dilemma, screened shortly afterwards, was a much more modern and technologically sophisticated film in comparison. The final installment of Illustra Media’s long-planned Intelligent Design trilogy, this documentary brings to light the contradiction between the fossil record and Darwin’s theories. It focuses on the Cambrian explosion, a time period in the earth’s history in which there was a sudden “explosion” of complex species without any ancestral trace.

The film can be divided into three counterarguments.

First, it states that the Cambrian explosion heavily conflicts with Darwin’s theory. According to Darwin’s theory of natural selection, every organism requires a prior ancestral form. But even Darwin admits that the fossil record below the Cambrian strata is devoid of any evidence of such creatures. How, then, did these vast and inexplicably new species suddenly appear out of nowhere?

Darwin attributed it to an incomplete fossil record, but after 150 years, scientists are still searching to fill the gap. The film goes into depth on this point, giving several reasons and evidence on the lack of Precambrian fossils that are ancestral to modern phyla in the Cambrian strata.

Next, the film questions the truth of Darwin’s theory. The graph drawn according to Darwin’s theory is very much like a tree of life, stemming up from one common species and branching into many different groups of organisms. But the film turns this graph upside down, suggesting that a basic structural form for complex life existed first, which then evolved into the differing, elaborate details.

It also gives several reasons why a gene mutation cannot be transformed into a new species, mainly because DNA is actually not responsible for the blueprint of animal development. DNA by itself cannot assemble cells, tissues, muscles and body parts. The film uses these ideas to form its final proposal: intelligent design.

Though unmistakably pro-intelligent design, Darwin’s Dilemma takes on a purposefully secular stance. The word “God” is never mentioned. Instead, less threatening euphamisms like “information source” and “designer” are used. In fact, post-screening panelist and anti-evolution activist Jonathan Wells emphasized that intelligent design is not creationism or natural theology.

“Intelligent design is not a random, convenient solution to evolution,” Wells said. “In fact, it actually opens more doors to scientific research and investigation.”

This, according to Wells, is because a lot of scientific claims come from from a preconceived “story” (Darwin’s theory), in which the scientists just plug in the “plot” (or whatever fossil they happen to find) to make the story work.

Darwin’s Dilemma is indeed an eye-opener, but it does so in an analytical and scientific way. It addresses many key points and counterarguments, providing ample evidence and support with the help of cutting-edge computer graphics and interviews from several leading scientists, some of whom are not even proponents of intelligent design.

It challenges a lot of conventional scientific ideas about evolution, including information from educational textbooks.

But does it leave the viewer with a definite conclusion to this evolution debate? The film ends appropriately with a quote from Darwin: “I can give no satisfactory answer.”

This being a controversial and emotionally charged subject, the large number and varying types of questions thrown by the audience to the post-screening panelists was not surprising. David Berlinski, senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and author of numerous books such as The Devil’s Delusion, touched upon the social implications of evolution.

“Discussion and debate over evolution is not just limited to scientific issues,” he said. “It is a conflicting view of the nature of human beings, and the society that we humans want to build.”

Will the debate ever come to an end? Will we ever reach a satisfactory answer to the origins of life?

Berlinski answers, “Maybe, but probably not.”

And thus, the dilemma goes on.