Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed

starring Ben Stein
written by Kevin Miller, Walt Ruloff and Ben Stein & directed by Nathan Frankowski
Rated PG for thematic material, some disturbing images and brief smoking.

Comedian and television personality Ben Stein wades into the middle of the debate over the theory of Intelligent Design with what he hopes will be a bombshell that will destroy the wall supposedly keeping it outside the realm of serious academic discussion. Framed as an intellectual journey from skepticism to belief that the intelligent design discussion is being suppressed, Stein interviews a variety of scientists and relevant personalities on both sides of the debate.

I am sorely tempted to discuss Expelled purely as entertainment, but that would be rather unjust, both to the filmmakers (who believe that, at least on some level, they have made a serious film) and to any potential audience members who might go, expecting something quite different from what they would get. Expelled was quite different from what I expected, definitely not what I hoped and perhaps least of all what it pretends to be.

In rough outline, the film begins with Stein finding and interviewing a number of scientists who have lost jobs, tenure, research grants and so forth because they have chosen to associate themselves in some way with Intelligent Design (including former faculty of the Smithsonian Institute and George Mason University). He interviews various members of “the establishment” (including Richard Dawkins) to determine why Intelligent Design has such a stigma attached to it, what makes evolution so much better and what alternative theories exist, such as directed panspermia. He also attempts to establish, by talking to a number of proponents of Intelligent Design, including faculty from Biola University, Baylor University and members of the Discovery Institute.

All Stein claims to be interested in is opening the lines of communication within academia, to get a healthy dialogue going. On the surface, his movie pays lip service to that ultimate goal throughout. With that in mind, the choice of subtitle is a poor one. And that is only the beginning. Expelled never really shakes the overwhelming sense of cheap points being scored and propagandist one-sidedness such as one might expect from a Michael Moore documentary. At its best, it feels as though a dialogue might begin in spite of its efforts rather than because of them.

There are several significant issues that plague the arguments presented by Expelled and seriously cripple either its case for Intelligent Design or its attempt to start a dialogue. First, evidence that Intelligent Design is persona non grata in academic circles to the degree that Stein claims is extremely one-sided. The stories of the scientists who have supposedly been persecuted by the scientific community, for instance, appear at the very beginning and are taken completely at face value.

A minimal, perfunctory effort is made to get the other side of the story. For instance, Stein walks through the front door of the Smithsonian, cameraman by his side, apparently to demand an explanation for one of the firings, but security turns him away immediately. Of course. He walked in the entrance with a camera and didn’t explain himself. This is not a genuine attempt to get both sides, and it doesn’t even happen until the film is almost over. Furthermore, the claim is totally subverted by the interviews. There are scientists who are obviously prominent and respected members of the scientific community, who also espouse the possibility of Intelligent Design (such as physicist Dr. John Polkinghorne). There are also scientists who are obviously staunchly opposed to the theory who express their willingness to tolerate anyone who has “thought through” the scientific theories they espouse.

Stein frequently resorts to some creative and sporadically-entertaining, but manipulative, methods of editing. Few comments, whether made by scientists from one side or the other or by himself, are allowed to pass without inter-cutting a brief clip from an old movie or educational film. Example: One scientist mentions that the opponents of Intelligent Design want to silence the opposition. Cut to a scene from the original Planet of the Apes as a gorilla sprays Charlton Heston with a high-pressure hose and screams, “Shut up, you freak!” Heston responds with the famous line, “It’s a madhouse! A madhouse!” Back to your regularly-scheduled movie.

Stein’s question are consistently and infuriatingly disingenuous, in the same vein as a test question once asked by a conservative professor I knew: “Why are Republicans so bad?” Near the end, in an interview with Richard Dawkins (which, in most respects, was the best and most interesting part of the film), Stein establishes that Dawkins does not believe in the Judeo-Christian God. He then asks if he believes in any Hindu gods. Dawkins’ first reaction is a dumb-founded stare. Surely this is not a serious question? Stein follows it up by asking if he believes in Allah. How about any other gods? I am far from sympathetic to Richard Dawkins’ worldview, but I felt, as Dawkins surely did, that my time was being wasted.

Expelled also commits what I believe to be a major fallacy by presenting Darwinian evolution as the theory of evolution currently espoused by the scientific community despite the numerous flaws in it. It is my understanding that conflating the modern theory of evolution with Darwin’s initial hypothesis is akin to equating Freudian psychoanalysis with the cutting edge of modern psychology. Nevertheless, Stein is careful to discuss only Darwinian evolution, and leaves out all mention of more recent developments and discoveries in the field, as well as totally ignoring the existence of theistic evolution. Of course, theistic evolution would have no place in the film anyway, as several minutes are devoted to establishing that a belief in evolution of necessity destroys belief in God.

The most egregious of this film’s many sins, however, is undoubtedly its transgression of Godwin’s Law, which essentially decrees that “the first person to call the other a Nazi automatically loses the argument.” Expelled spends a grossly disproportionate amount of time exploring the link between Darwin’s theory of evolution and the Holocaust under Hitler (with a discussion of eugenics thrown in on the side). There is a logical fallacy at work here: reductio ad Hitlerum. In short, “a view is not refuted by the fact that it happens to have been shared by Hitler.” This segment, which is quite long and appears right in the middle of everything, serves only to obscure the real issue almost beyond recognition. It is clearly not germane to the discussion, or even conclusive in determining whether or not Darwin was wrong.

Expelled truly did entertain, and it had some moments of genuinely thought-provoking discussion. I think that ultimately I wanted to like it more than I knew I did, and ended up liking it less than I thought I would. There is much more that could be said on the subject, but the bottom line is that the film will probably be counterproductive to its goals because it suffers from the flaw that many people (unfairly, in my opinion) attribute to the proponents of Intelligent Design: it enters a serious, complex debate wielding a foregone conclusion.

On a more personal note, I was quite surprised by the prominent role played by Baylor University, a subject of some interest to me as I was recently accepted by a graduate program there (in a field that is totally unrelated to this debate, of course). I was even more surprised when my Sunday school teacher, a Baylor professor, appeared on the screen for a brief interview segment (although his link to Baylor was not noted by the film, perhaps because he has not experienced any repercussions for his beliefs). I had no inkling beforehand that he was involved, but I certainly intend to ask him about the Baylor controversy the next time I see him. I will not be at all surprised if he tells me what I already suspect: that Expelled, here as elsewhere, was not telling the whole story.

For a little further reading, see this review by Carl Hoover, of the Waco Tribune, who attended the same showing I did.


~ by Jared on April 18, 2008.

6 Responses to “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed”

  1. he doesn’t necessarily call Darwinists “Nazis”… he likens then to Nazis

  2. You are technically correct, and in citing Godwin’s Law I should have been more careful than to imply that the phrase “Darwinists are Nazis” appears in the film. However, I would say that your assessment of the film’s argument is also misleading.

    Far beyond merely likening Darwinists to Nazis, Stein calls the Nazis “Darwinists.” And while he is careful to state that not all Darwinists are Nazis, he concludes that one cannot be a Nazi without also being a Darwinist. He is clearly drawing a much closer connection between the two than merely “likening” them to each other. That he interviews the man who wrote “From Darwin to Hitler” should make that quite clear. The mere fact that he spent such a significant portion of the film highlighting and exploring this connection will result in some audience members equating the two ideologies with each other.

    Perhaps that was not Stein’s intent, but I think it might well have been, so interested is he in “scoring points” over his opponents. In any case, surely you will agree that either saying your opponent is a Nazi, or merely saying that he is “like” a Nazi, is no way to win his respect, sympathy or agreement . . . which is at the very heart of my problem with the film. Without the ability to win over anyone in the opposing camp, of what use is it?

  3. A line from Stein’s interview with CT Movies makes his position pretty clear. Asked about how he prepared for the film:

    I read one book cover to cover, From Darwin to Hitler, and that was a very interesting book — one of these rare books I wish had been even longer. It’s about how Darwin’s theory — supposedly concocted by this mild-mannered saintly man, with a flowing white beard like Santa Claus—led to the murder of millions of innocent people.

    Ah, yes. Watch out for those saintly scientists whose theories lead inexorably to the Holocaust. They’ll gitcha.

  4. “Stein is careful to discuss only Darwinian evolution, and leaves out all mention of more recent developments and discoveries in the field, as well as totally ignoring the existence of theistic evolution. Of course, theistic evolution would have no place in the film anyway, as several minutes are devoted to establishing that a belief in evolution of necessity destroys belief in God.”

    Maybe this is the reason so many scientists are not willing to “give Intelligent Design a fair chance.” I’m often surprised at the fact that ID theorists and creationists do not find the evidence FOR evolution an interesting philosophical problem. Why would God purposely design a world that makes it look like everything evolved? Supposedly Michael Behe has opened Darwin’s black box, but everything looks like it has evolved!

  5. I’m often surprised at the fact that ID theorists and creationists do not find the evidence FOR evolution an interesting philosophical problem. Why would God purposely design a world that makes it look like everything evolved?

    That’s a problem for creationists, Asa, but I don’t think it’s a problem for all ID theorists. Michael Behe himself, iirc, is a Catholic who has no problem with the theory of evolution.

    But for me, that is one of the frustrating things about the whole debate. Both proponents and critics tend to treat ID as the thin end of the creationist wedge (an image Phillip Johnson embraces). At the very least, they treat it as an alternative to evolution in biology textbooks. Yet the theory doesn’t lend itself to that at all. ID is, at most, evidence for the existence of God, not for the validity of any creation model.

  6. Ben(jamin) Stein is under heavy artillery for ‘exaggerating’ or ‘going easy’ on the influence of evolutionism behind Nazism and Stalinism (super evolution of Lysenkoism in the Soviet Russia). But the monstrous Haeckelian type of vulgar evolutionism drove not only the ‘Politics-is-applied-biology’ Nazi takeover in the continental Europe, but even the nationalistic collision at the World War I. It was Charles Darwin himself, who praised and raised the monstrous German Ernst Haeckel with his still recycled embryo drawing frauds etc. in the spotlight as the greatest authority in the field of human evolution, even in the preface to his Descent of man in 1871. If Thomas Henry Huxley with his concept of ‘agnostism’ was Darwins bulldog in England, Haeckel was his Rotweiler in Germany.

    ‘Kampf’ was a direct translation of ‘struggle’ from On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859). Seinen Kampf. His application.

    Catch 22: Haeckel’s 140 years old fake embryo drawings have been mindlessly recycled for the ‘public understanding of science’ (PUS) in most biology text books until this millennium. Despite factum est that Haeckel’s crackpot raging Recapitulation/Biogenetic Law and functioning gill slits of human embryos have been at the ethical tangent race hygiene/eugenics/genocide, infanticide, and Freudian psychoanalysis (subconscious atavisms). Dawkins is the Oxford professor for PUS – and should gather the courage of Stephen Jay Gould who could feel ashamed about it.

    Some edited quotes from my conference posters and articles defended and published in the field of bioethics and history of biology (and underline/edit them a ‘bit’):

    The marriage laws were once erected not only in the Nazi Germany but also in the multicultural states of America upon the speculation that the mulatto was a relatively sterile and shortlived hybrid. The absence of blood transfusion between “white” and “colored races” was self evident.

    The first law on sterilization in US had been established in 1907 in Indiana, and 23 similar laws had been passed in 15 States and sterilization was practiced in 124 institutions in 1921 (these were the times of IQ-tests under Gould’s scrutiny in his Mismeasure of Man in 1981). By 1931 thirty states had passed sterization laws in the US. Typically, the operations hit blacks the most in the US, poor women in the Europe, and often the victims were never even told they had been sterilized.

    Mendelism outweighed recapitulation (embryos climbing up their evolutionary tree through fish-, amphibian- and reptilian stages), but that merely smoothened the way for the brutal 1930’s biolegislation – that quickly penetrated practically all Western countries. The laws were copied from country to country. The A-B-O blood groups, haemophilia, eye colours etc. were found to be inherited in a Mendelian fashion by 1910. So also the complex traits and social (mis)behaviour such as alcoholism, schizophrenia, manic depression, criminality, rebelliousness, artistic sense, pauperism, racial differences, inherited scholarship (and its converse, feeble-mindedness) were all thought to be determined by one or two genes. Mendelism was “experimental” and quantitative, and its exaggeration outweighed the more cautious biometry operating on smaller variations, not discontinuous leaps. Its advocates boldly claimed that these problems could be done away within a few generations through selection, persisted (although most biologists must have known that defective genes could not be eliminated, even with the most intense forced sterilizations and marriage restrictions due to recessive genes and synergism. Nevertheless, these laws were held until 1970’s and were typically changed only when the abortion legislation were released (1973).

    So the American laws were pioneering endeavours. In Europe Denmark passed the first sterilization legislation in Europe (1929). Denmark was followed by Switzerland, Germany that had felt to the hands of Hitler and Gobineu, and other Nordic countries: Norway (1934), Sweden (1935), Finland (1935), and Iceland (1938 ). Seldom is it mentioned in the popular media, that the first outright race biological institution in the world was not established in Germany but in 1921 in Uppsala, Sweden. (I am not aware of the ethymology of the ‘Up’ of the ancient city from Plinius’ Ultima Thule, or the secret organ Thule Gesellschaft that introduced Adolf, however.) In 1907 the Society for Racial Hygiene in Germany had changed its name to the Internationale Gesellschaft für Rassenhygiene, and in 1910 Swedish Society for Eugenics (Sällskap för Rashygien) had become its first foreign affiliate. Today, Swedish state church is definitely the most liberal in the face of the world.

    Hitler’s formulation of the differences between the human races was affected by the brilliant sky-blue eyed Ernst Haeckel, praised and raised by Darwin. At the top of the unilinear progression were usually the “Nordics”, a tall race of blue-eyed blonds. Haeckel’s position on the ‘Judenfrage’ was assimilation and Expelled-command from their university chairs, not yet an open elimination. But was it different only in degree, rather than kind?

    In 1917 the immigration of “defective” groups was forbidden even in the United States by a law. In 1921 the European immigration was diminished to 3% based on the 1910 census. Eventually, in the strategical year of 1924 the finest hour of eugenics had come and the fatal law was passed by Congress. It diminished immigration to 2% of the foreign-born from each country based on the 1890 census in order to preserve the “nordic” balance in population, and was hold through World War II until 1965.

    Richard Lewontin writes:“The leading American idealogue of the innate mental inferiority of the working class was, however, H.H. Goddard, a pioneer of the mental testing movement, the discoverer of the Kallikak family,
    and the administrant of IQ-tests to immigrants that found 83 % of the Jews, 80% of the Hungarians, 79% of the Italians, and 87% of the the Russians to be feebleminded.” Regarding us Finns, Finnish emmigrants put the cross on the box reserved for the “yellow” group, until 1965.

    Germany was the most scientifically and culturally advanced nation of the world upon opening the riddles at the close of the nineteenth century. And she went Full Monty.

    Today, developmental biologists are anticipating legislation of laws that would define the do’s and dont’s. In England, they are fertilizing human embryos for research purposes and pipetting chimera embryos of humans and monkeys, ‘legally’. The legislation should not distract individual researchers from their personal awareness of responsibility. A permissive law merely defines the ethical minimum. The lesson is that a law is no substitute for morals and that dissidents should not be intimidated.

    I am suspicious over the burial of the Kampf (Struggle). The idea of competition is innate in the modern society. It is the the opposite view in a 180 degree angle to the Judaeo-Christian ideal of agapee (contra epithumia, eros, filia & storge) (ahava in Hebrew), that I personally cheriss. The latter sees free giving, altruism, benevolence and self sacrificing love as the beginning, motivation, and sustainer of the reality.
    Biochemist, drop-out (Master of Sciing)

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