(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)
I realized that I hadn’t discussed a film that deals with evolution and intelligent design (ID), topics that are central to this blog, so here is my long overdue review.
Frankly, Expelled is a mess. The film is polemical but that is not the problem. There is nothing wrong with having a point of view and making the case for it. The creators of Expelled have a story to tell of a scientific community (especially biologists) acting like a totalitarian cabal that demands Darwinian orthodoxy from all scientists and expels heretics from their midst, by denying them tenure, rejecting their papers, and firing them. All those who would even dare to whisper that evolution may be wrong and that there is a possibility that a designer is at work in life processes are victimized, ostracized, and expelled from the academy.
To tell this story, the narrator Ben Stein basically tries to copy Michael Moore’s patented shtick of the bemused Everyman, just a simple guy who has a childlike belief in truth and justice, trying to figure out what’s going on, and constantly being surprised at all the chicanery and bad intentions that he stumbles across almost by accident. In Stein’s case, he acts like a naïf who assumes that scientists were open to every possibility and every alternative theory and he is shocked, just shocked, at the extent they are willing to go to suppress ideas that they see as contradicting Darwin, and the appalling lengths they will go to destroy the people who are brave enough to do so.
Stein starts off by speaking to five scientists and a journalist who say their careers were destroyed because they criticized aspects of evolution and spoke in favor of intelligent design. I am not going to examine the validity of these claims since they have already been scrutinized here, but will instead focus on the filmic aspects.
The major difference between Moore and Stein is that Moore has a deft touch with comedy. He knows how to make people laugh by inserting verbal, visual, and musical gags that can startle the viewer into laughter while at the same time making an important and serious point. With his huge bulk, disheveled appearance, and trademark baseball cap, Moore comes across as a big lug, a doofus, a regular guy confronting the rich and powerful.
Stein, by contrast, looks throughout the film like an undertaker having a bad day. He seems to never crack a smile and speaks in a monotone. We see a lot of him walking everywhere in a dark suit and sneakers, with an inflectionless voiceover narration, and interviewing people with a dour expression.
The filmmakers have all the subtlety of a sledgehammer and the word ‘overkill’ is not in their vocabulary. The tone is set right at the beginning, with stark black and white images of the Berlin Wall going up as dismayed onlookers watch helplessly. The Berlin Wall is a central metaphor throughout the film. (The scientific community wants to prevent the free flow of ideas, just like the Communists, get it?)
From then on, we get repeated black and white stock film footage of Nazi and Communist soldiers marching in formation (the scientific community marching in lockstep, get it?). We also see lots of footage from what seems like old school education filmstrips and newsreels and films, with the grimacing, scowling faces of old wrinkled people (the hidebound nature of the scientific old guard, get it?) and slapstick comedy (the childish arguments against intelligent design, get it?).
And then there is Hitler. There is always Hitler. Religious people never seem to get enough of Hitler. They seem to think he is an argument against evolution and atheism even though Hitler was a Catholic and his entire program of mass extermination was carried out by a nation of presumably devout Catholics and Lutherans. We see images of Nazi death camps and hear much about their eugenics program. The claim is made that the theory of evolution leads in a straight line to eugenics, which in turn leads to not only the atrocities of the Nazi concentration camps but also to euthanasia and abortion. In other words, when you accept evolution, you embrace a culture of death. The scientific community apparently just loves the thought of killing people in huge numbers. Oh, and Stalin appears in the film too but Pol Pot does not. He must have ended up on the cutting room floor.
The heavy-handed allusions last right up to the end. The film concludes with clips of Reagan making his famous speech calling for the Berlin wall to be torn down, juxtaposed with cuts to Stein concluding a speech to some college students, exhorting them to break free of the chains of scientific orthodoxy and fight for freedom. As the students stand and cheer Stein at the end of his speech, the film cuts away to the Berlin wall being brought down by young people. The take-home message is clear: Stein=Reagan and Evolutionists=Berlin wall. The self-aggrandizement is so painfully obvious as to be cringe-inducing.
The film was interesting to me in that it gave me a glimpse of some of the people in this debate whom I had not seen before. Evolutionist (and atheist) P. Z. Myers, author of the blog Pharyngula that has a pugnacious, take-no-prisoners writing style, comes across as low-key, soft-spoken, and mild-mannered. Mathematician David Berlinski, an apologist for intelligent design, comes across as smug, supercilious, condescending, and thoroughly unpleasant.
Richard Dawkins is of course the person the ID people hate and he gets a lot of questioning from Stein, mainly to highlight the fact that he thinks evolution and science tend to support and encourage atheism. Stein goes to great pains to get Dawkins, perhaps the world’s most famous atheist, to explicitly say that he does not believe in any god. In fact, after Dawkins has made it quite clear that he thinks the idea of god is absurd, Stein starts listing the gods of the various religions individually by name, asking him if he believes in each. Dawkins’s expression clearly signals that it is beginning to dawn on him that he may be talking to an idiot. He asks, “How could I? Why would I? Why would you even need to ask? Any god, anywhere, would be completely incompatible with anything I’ve said.”
Stein spends a lot of time in the film talking about the origin of life and the fact that we do not as yet have a good theory of how the first self-replicating molecule and the first cell appeared, even though neither the theory of evolution nor intelligent design has anything to say about this question. The reason is, of course, that religious people’s last resort is to insert god as an explanation for whatever question science has not yet answered, and the origin of life and the origin of the cosmos is their Little Big Horn, their last stand. But even here, they will meet the same fate as Custer.
One of the chief negatives about ID is that it is a useless theory that does not make any predictions or provide the basis for any research program. The film did not provide any either, because there is none. In the DVD edition though, it promised a bonus segment dealing with the practical applications of ID. This I had to see. It lasted a little less than three minutes and dealt with just two items: a neurosurgeon who looked at how engineers designed buffer systems and used that idea to understand how blood pressure to the brain is modulated, and another person who said that he thought a part of a cancer cell looked like a turbine (which is of course designed) and used that idea in his research.
That was truly pathetic. Scientists borrow ideas from other areas all the time. The fact that you got an idea from something that was designed and used it to understand the workings of a biological system is not evidence for the truth of ID. Doing science means postulating mechanisms that enable one to predict new outcomes and do experiments to test hypotheses. After all these years and all that money, ID still has not done any of that basic science and this is the truth that they cannot hide from.
ID is rejected by the scientific community because it has failed as science, not because of any grand conspiracy to keep it from exposing the weakness of evolution. This film is, at the end, a confession of this failure.
POST SCRIPT: Obama’s disingenuousness
“[I]f anyone from either party has a better approach that will bring down premiums, bring down the deficit, cover the uninsured, strengthen Medicare for seniors, and stop insurance company abuses, let me know. Let me know. Let me know. I’m eager to see it.”
Really? He hasn’t heard of the single payer option, the Medicare-for-all option, and the public option? All of these things would achieve all his goals and have been widely discussed. It was he and his cronies in Congress who went out of their way to make sure that they were never seriously considered.
To pretend that he is open to better ideas is simply a flat out lie. He sold out to the health industry and all his fine words cannot hide that ugly truth.