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Expelling All Reason

Dan Whipple

June 16, 2008

“Ben Stein’s upcoming film, EXPELLED: No Intelligence Allowed . . . is powerful . . . shocking . . . intense . . . humorous at times.”

—Jack Brown
CEO, Capitol Prayer

“This is an enormously important project and I am so proud of the fact that Ben Stein, who is a national treasure, is part of it.”

—Michael Medved
Nationally syndicated radio host

Powerful? Humorous? National treasure?

These people need to get out more.

I was invited, probably by accident, to a preview in January of the independent movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, starring lawyer-economist-actor Ben Stein. Expelled, to be released in April, is the latest effort by the religious Right to put the alleged debate between evolutionary theory and intelligent design back on the political front burner after its devastating defeat in court in Dover, Pennsylvania, in 2005.

Expelled is such a morass of innuendo, untruth, irrationality, and fear-mongering that it’s hard to know where to start dissecting it. While presenting a brief for teaching intelligent design (in university classrooms, at least), the film never says what intelligent design is. Then, at a media telephonic extravaganza on January 22, Stein and co-producer Walter Ruloff said they had no theology to promote.

Said Ruloff, “We really are not validating one particular position, being the intelligent design or the design hypothesis, or creationism or other forms. What we’re really asking for is freedom of speech.” But the movie, or even a cursory review of the film’s Web sites (www.getexpelled.com and www.expelledthemovie.com), shows that this assertion is—how to put this politely?—unsupported. Says the GetExpelled.com site, “For decades now, Neo-Darwinism has maintained a stranglehold within public education, suppressing all other theories on the origins of life—especially those that hint of a ‘designer.’”

Some of Expelled deals with the alleged academic suppression of non-Darwinian ideas. The poster child for this is Richard Sternberg, whose tumultuous, pro-ID controversies at the Smithsonian Institution are chronicled in detail. There is some dramatic, if unfocused, footage of Ben Stein being denied admission to the upper floors of the Smithsonian by a security guard.

Repression of scientific thought, we can all agree, is horrible if true. But it isn’t true.

This is a dispute among academics. A lot of cyber-ink was spilled over the Sternberg tussle long before Ben Stein got around to it. You can read Sternberg’s version of his persecution (www.rsternberg.net) and a non-ID rebuttal by Ed Brayton (at www.scienceblogs.com/dispatches/2006/12/creating_a_martyr_the_sternber.php) online. The dispute has even made Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Sternberg), a high-water mark for the bureaucratic pissing match. But however you measure the fight, the allegations made in Expelled are wrong. Sternberg never worked for the Smithsonian, so the Smithsonian couldn’t threaten his job there. He was a visiting scholar with research privileges and an office. He still has both the office and the research privileges.

Which is not to say that Sternberg wasn’t criticized. He was. Harshly, rudely, and sometimes childishly by other scientists. But rough-and-tumble argument is part of the world of science whether you’re studying intelligent design, string theory, or antelope migrations. Freedom of expression protects your right to say what you want, but it doesn’t protect you from getting punched in the jaw over it.

There are three or four other cases explored in Expelled, all of which are presented in black-and-white terms as anti-ID intellectual repression by a Darwinist cabal. There isn’t space enough to go into them here. I’ll leave it as an independent exercise for the morbidly curious.

After a half hour or so of this, Expelled director Frankowski wanders off to blame evolutionary theory for Communism, the Berlin Wall, Fascism, the Holocaust, atheism, and Planned Parenthood. The portions blaming Darwin for the Holocaust are particularly despicable. There’s no denying that “social Darwinism” was an abused rationale for racism and cruelty. But genocide and racism were practiced long before the Nazis discovered them and long before Darwin. It can as easily be laid at the door of Christianity, Genghis Khan, the expansion of agriculture from the Fertile Crescent, the Crusades, or a thousand other causes.

ID isn’t explained very well in Expelled and neither is Darwinism. This quote from Ben Stein comes from the movie’s telephonic promotional extravaganza. It’s not in the film itself, but the theme is pervasive in the film:

“Darwinism as I understand it—and maybe I don’t understand it,” Stein said, “but Darwinism holds that life began by something like lightning striking a puddle and inorganic matter was converted into living matter. And from that, after four-and-half-billion years, came the form of life that we now know.”

This is wrong as far as it goes. Stein and Frankowski don’t understand evolution any better than they understand academic infighting and freedom of expression. Somebody always disagrees with me about this, but Darwinism as I understand it has nothing whatsoever to say about the origin of life. I have leafed The Origin of Species page by page in vain for Darwin’s viewpoint on this topic. Evolutionary forces act when there is already a replicating organism on which they can perform their tiny miracles.

Not that the origin of life isn’t an interesting question. It is. But it’s outside the realm of usual evolutionary inquiry. Frankowski spends quite a bit of time on the issue of how a cell could get constructed by random mutation, providing a cartoon of 250 random hits on a slot machine to illustrate his point. Apart from the technical details lacking in his depiction, while he might have trouble with the growth of single-celled organisms, Frankowski doesn’t blanch at accepting that an entire universe simply sprang up fully mature. Oh, right, the Designer.

I attended a screening of this film at a room in the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver with about twenty-five other people. Frankowski and Stein ridicule the hypothesis proposed some years ago called “directed panspermia.” This conjecture—for which, I hasten to add, there is zero evidence—is that life originated elsewhere in the galaxy then was planted on earth, perhaps delivered by alien visitors. Frankowski, and the audience I saw Expelled with, found this idea laugh-out-loud funny. But think about it. This is exactly ID’s hypothesis: some super intelligent being planted life on earth. IDers prefer that the “intelligence” be the God of Abraham, but there’s nothing in the hypothesis to rule out visitors from another galaxy.

While Frankowski preaches about evidence of design in Expelled, he presents none. Nor does he present any evidence of holes in evolutionary theory, though he claims that scientists fearful of exposure have found many of them. He never identifies these cowardly scientists, but the depiction of their trembling fear of the Darwinian establishment runs strongly counter to my everyday experience of researchers who couldn’t be happier to talk about their maverick ideas. The scientists I know live for original ideas, albeit ones they can support with evidence.

The film, more than any other creationist/ID effort I’ve seen, is antiscientific and antirational. In it, Frankowski opposes not just evolutionary theory but the scientific superstructure built in the West since Renè Descartes. Using Darwinian evolution as a springboard, he attacks nearly every scientific discipline and the scientific method as leading inevitably to atheism and global Evil.

If there is a theme running through the intellectual swamp of Expelled, it’s that academia should allow and encourage the airing of counter-Darwinian hypotheses, especially those that posit an intelligent designer. This ignores the thousands of years and hundreds of philosophers, theologians, and many early naturalists—some of them nearly as smart as Ben Stein—who have tried to prove the existence of God through the exercise of reason, such as Thomas Aquinas, for instance. Academia has been embroiled in the religion-evolution debate since the day Darwin published Origin.

So, is anyone going to be persuaded by Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed? It seems unlikely to convert anyone who isn’t already convinced. For one thing, as entertainment, Expelled is dull and depressing. Some people don’t need evidence to find their truths; some do. Expelled presents no evidence, it simply makes vague emotional attacks against Darwinism. People who go for that sort of thing already know everything they need to. At the end of the media teleconference about Expelled, Ben Stein said he planned to soldier on in the anti-Darwinian crusade, because “we’re missing something extremely basic in our understanding of the world, and how it got created and I’d like us to return to that.”

People who seek this kind of peace used to go into monasteries. Now in the aughts, they make movies. Fortunately, they don’t make too many as bad as Expelled.

Dan Whipple

Dan Whipple is a Colorado-based freelancer, writing mostly about science and the environment.