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Intelligent design film far worse than stupid

Rarely has a movie subtitle so capably assessed a movie’s content as does "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed." There is not a shred of intelligence on display in this so-called documentary.
Image: Expelled, the movie.  Ben Stein and Darwin
Ben Stein engages in a staring contest with a statue of Charles Darwin in the so-called documentary "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed."

Rarely has a movie subtitle so capably assessed a movie’s content as does "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed." There is not a shred of intelligence on display in this just released "documentary" purporting to be a careful examination of the fight over teaching creationism and evolution in America.

The movie seeks to explain why, as a matter of freedom of speech, intelligent design should be taught in America’s science classrooms and presented in America’s publicly funded science museums. But what is really on display in this film is a toxic mishmash of persecution fantasies, disconnected and inappropriate references to fallen communist regimes and their leaders and a very repugnant form of Holocaust denial from the monotone big mouth Ben Stein.

You may know Stein from his days a speech writer for Richard Nixon, the host of the comedy show, "Win Ben Stein’s Money," his appearances offering economic advice on many television programs or the commentaries he offers on Sundays on the "CBS Morning Show." What you may not know but most certainly cannot fail to realize by the time this film ends is that Stein has no understanding of science and is a proponent of a singularly despicable explanation of the cause of the Holocaust in Nazi Germany. Stein is so far gone in his hatred of evolution that when asking the flamboyant British atheist and evolutionist Richard Dawkins if he believes in any god he perseverates so long that it raises the suspicion that Mr. Stein is displaying the sort of repetitive behavior seen when zoo animals are kept caged up in small places for too long. Making this narrow, crimped mess of a movie may not have been good for his mental health.

We get a long running start toward irresponsibility early in the film in the form of case studies of persons supposedly fired from their jobs for subscribing to a belief in intelligent design. The movie implies that this is just the tip of a McCarthyesque cleansing of the faculty ranks by jack-booted Darwinians. In fact, in the few cases presented in the movie, the removal of faculty members seems more closely tied to their either wandering away from the subjects they were hired to teach or getting into subject areas outside their area of expertise. At most universities that I am familiar with, a belief in intelligent design would make you the object of gossip but hardly the target of dismissal.

What the heck is Intelligent Design anyway?
What is especially startling and monumentally deceptive is that the movie never bothers to tell us what Intelligent Design actually is. We hear cries of persecution but we don’t know why.

What is it that devotees of intelligent design believe that gets their colleagues in such a rage? Do they just want to invoke god as the starting point of the universe? Do they see god's hand in the design of every creature? Are they asking us to see the gods of every faith and tradition — those posited in Catholicism, Hinduism, Mormonism, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism, Rastafarianism, etc. — in our DNA? Do they believe that competitive accounts of creation based on the Bible need to be in every American classroom? Do they see empirical proof of god in every molecule, plant, animal, rock, vegetable and fungus? "Expelled" never really tells us.

One suspects that sympathy for those portrayed in the movie as hapless pariahs might be reduced if the movie spent more time describing what it is this tiny handful of Ben Stein-proclaimed martyrs actually believe.

The definition of what science is and what should be taught as science in a world in which Asia and Europe are itching to clean our economic clocks by seeing us throw away our considerable lead in synthetic biology, genomics, agriculture and the biomedical, oceanographic, geological and energy sciences escapes Stein and his producers. This despite the fact they have ample time to regale us with all the documentary stylings involving old movies, public health messages and TV film clips that Michael Moore has already made stale. The failure to say what science is constitutes a huge failing in this cinematic cant.

Pitting science against religion
Science, by the very definition of the term, wants to invoke god or divine intervention as little as possible in seeking explanations for natural phenomena. Is that because, as "Expelled" suggests, scientists hate religion? No. Rather it is because the whole point of science is to press to see how far natural causes and mechanisms can go in explaining what is going on around us. There is not much room in science, although there is in history, religion, philosophy or sociology class, for jumping up and down and invoking god as the explanation of anything and everything. Could such an explanation be true? Sure. Is it science? Hardly. Does the movie get us anywhere close to understanding the difference? Not a bit.

Worse, those who embrace intelligent design — either the view that evidence of a designer’s hand can be found in living things or that the creationism of the Bible is a valid account of how we came to exist — have to behave as if these accounts are subject to empirical disproof. But, think about it, Ben. Is that any way to save religion? Isn’t the price of making faith into science and subject to empirical falsification heresy?

If you believe in god one hopes you are not going to give up that belief because of a geological discovery of a new type of rock or the identification of new oddball microorganism! Faith is faith. Those who would save faith by arguing that it is ultimately to be treated as a branch of science are recommending saving the patient by killing him. That is exactly what "Expelled" wants you to do. And that is why mainstream religion should ignore this film.

The movie’s faux tale of an evolutionist led Inquisition is followed by Stein interviewing a short parade of self-avowed atheists who also are fervent Darwinians as they mock intelligent design in particular and religion in general. They also look frumpy. As an antidote we get deep, sincere ruminations mainly from some monumentally pompous thinker no one has ever heard of who is nevertheless stylishly attired and living in a gorgeous apartment in Paris. He assures what is hopefully an increasingly irritated audience that god and science can live together in peace. They can but for no reasons ever articulated by this fellow or in this film.

Then, and most culpably in terms of the downright immorality of the movie and everyone associated with it, we are presented with what will happen if we keep teaching Darwinism in our schools. The logical consequence of Darwinism is Nazi eugenics: the state directed murder of the handicapped, mentally ill, political dissidents and racial "inferiors"!

No, I am not making this up. The core of the movie consists of a sequence in which Stein visits the former German psychiatric hospital at Hadamar where the mass sterilization and murder techniques were first perfected that were later to be used in the concentration camps. Then Ben heads to Dachau, the first concentration camp, where 35,000 people died. These excursions are followed by a visit to Down House, Charles Darwin’s country home outside of London where Ben looks warily at the memorabilia of Darwin’s scientific work that led him to posit the theory of evolution. Stein finishes this sequence by bravely visiting a statue of Darwin where he stares the long deceased now marbleized evil-doer down while making it clear who is directly to blame for Hitler, the sterilization of tens of thousands of German children, the death of 6 million Jews and the deaths of countless other millions of victims of Nazism and those who died fighting the Nazi regime.

This frighteningly immoral narrative is capped off with a lot of shots of the Berlin Wall, old stock footage of East German police kicking around those trying to escape through the wall to the West and some solemn blather by Ben, who calls upon each one of us to rise up in defense of freedom and knock down a few walls in order to get creationism back into the curriculum at Iowa State, Baylor, and other dens of American secular iniquity.

Why Darwinism doesn't equal Nazism
This is the core of what is ethically rotten about this movie. Darwinism did not lead to Nazism in Germany. Nor does Darwinism inherently contain the seeds of Nazism.

There were many nations, such as Brazil, where Darwinism led to no political ideology. There were some such as Britain which embraced Darwinism but saw a considerable number of their population killed trying to eliminate Nazism. There were other nations, such as the Soviet Union, where Darwinism was seen as so dangerous and subversive to state sponsored dreams of social engineering that those who espoused it were killed or exiled and a complete biological fairy tale, Lysenkoism, put into classrooms and agricultural policy ultimately leading to the deaths of millions from starvation.

And there were some nations where Darwinism was greeted with glee because it seemed so compatible with the prevailing ideology of the day. In particular the United States at the turn of the 20th century where robber-baron capitalists like the Carnegies, Mellons, Sumners, Stanfords and yes, even Jack London, could not stop rattling on about how the "survival of the fittest" justified crushing unions, exploiting immigrant labor or being left unregulated to amass huge fortunes while administering monopolies.

Ben Stein apparently understands none of this. He flags Darwin but does not bother to go and stare at the busts of Adam Smith, Herbert Spencer, Ernst Haeckel, Thomas Malthus so much beloved by American proponents of survival of the fittest.

Worse yet, while frowning at Darwin’s statute in a manly fashion, Stein makes no mention of the key factors driving Nazi ideology — racism, homophobia and hatred of the mentally ill and disabled.

To lay blame for the Holocaust upon Charles Darwin is to engage in a form of Holocaust denial that should forever make Ben Stein the subject of scorn not because of his nudnik concern that evolution somehow undermines morality but because in this contemptible movie he is willing to subvert the key reason why the Holocaust took place — racism — to serve his own ideological end. Expelled indeed.

Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.