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From Darwin To Dachau With Ben Stein

Photo of Ben Stein by Patrick Metzger.
Just so you know, Torontoist did not ask Ben Stein to say “Bueller? Bueller?” for the tape recorder, and we’ll go to the grave regretting that failure of courage. Nevertheless, we spent an interesting 20 minutes with the monotone lawyer/writer/economist/actor/game-show host when he was in town last week promoting his documentary, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed which opens in Toronto this Friday.
The film argues that scientists willing to consider the possibility of Intelligent Design—the idea that there is an intelligence behind the emergence of life, rather than simple random mutation and natural selection—are being shot down, shut up, and having their careers ruined for questioning the Darwinian establishment.
ID is controversial, especially in the United States, where some secularists view it as the thin edge of the wedge that will drag Adam and Eve back into public schools, while supporters consider it a legitimate point of view warranting equal time in the classroom. This documentary, unfortunately, adds little that’s useful to the debate between science and whatever ID is.

Expelled is not a nuanced experience. It begins with a brief excerpt of Stein apparently giving a lecture on ID to an enthusiastic college crowd, during the course of which he repeats the word “liberty” approximately seven million times. Under Stein’s voice run clips of 1940s Germans escaping Soviet Berlin, disgruntled civilians taking potshots at Russian tanks, and other grainy Cold War footage of totalitarian intolerance. In case you’ve missed the point—and if you have, you shouldn’t be leaving the house unaccompanied by parent or guardian—it’s that the treatment afforded to scientists who question the “Darwinian orthodoxy” is equivalent to that of the oppressed peoples who wriggled under Stalin’s boot.
The film moves on to profile specific scientists who assert that they’ve been let go from their jobs, denied tenure, or generally become academic pariahs for being open-minded towards ID (these claims have been contested since the movie was released in the US a few months ago).
Around halfway through, Expelled diverts for a while into a whole different film, one that sees Stein wandering melancholy through Dachau, opining that Darwinism is a leading cause of abortion, forced sterilization, fascism, and genocide. Although Stein told Torontoist that “the connection between Hitler and his pals on the one hand, and Darwinism on the other hand seems to be incontrovertible,” the film presents no clear chain of logic between Darwin’s stuffy scientific tome and the gas chambers, except for the faint suggestion that a world without God is inherently amoral and prone to atrocity. Needless to say, the concept “it sure would be better if there were a God” is a long way from empirical evidence, but it seems to be what passes for science among many in the ID crowd.
Image (“Evolution”) by latvia.
Although anyone with a modicum of scientific knowledge will have trouble suppressing mixed astonishment and outrage at the misrepresentation of the current state of evolutionary biology, the film is nonetheless entertaining. Stein does his best Michael Moore as the befuddled innocent roaming the world, just trying to get a few simple answers in the face of a conspiracy of Da Vinci Code proportions and the “frightening agenda of the Darwinian machine.”
In person, Ben Stein is gracious, intelligent, articulate, and not prone to mincing words. Although the documentary has been widely excoriated in the press (in Stein’s words “the self-selected atheist elite”), Stein stands by it, saying, “You know you’re over the target when the flak is the heaviest.”
That said, he seems more interested in the psychology of the ID discussion than the science behind it. He professes astonishment at the vehemence of those who don’t like the film: “Why does some ordinary schmuck in some small town in Ohio write me a threatening letter about this? Why does a pathetic nobody in some town in Wisconsin write me a threatening letter? The reaction is so furious, so visceral that it goes beyond the reaction of Jews when you bring up the Holocaust. The reaction of Jews to the Holocaust is a kind of a sad, wistful feeling—the reaction of neo-Darwinists is ‘we’re going to kill you.’”
Stein offered a couple of theories on why people might become so enraged, including the Freudian (“deep-seated anger feelings towards their father”) and the “wrath of God” (“people being afraid that they’re going to be judged by God”). He did not address the possibility that some people simply object to allowing religion, that most untestable of hypotheses, to masquerade as science.
Stein also says that the public response to Expelled has been overwhelmingly supportive, and that he has received hundreds of emails telling him that not only did the writers love it, but that theatre audiences stood up and applauded (at the press screening attended by Torontoist, the small gaggle of ink-stained wretches just meandered out quietly mumbling to themselves, but to be fair most had arrived the same way).
Even the most committed atheist might agree that there’s much that science still can’t explain, including the origin of life itself. Expelled, however, misses the point that science doesn’t need God, and the world doesn’t need religious agitprop dressed up in a rhinestone lab coat.


  • davedave

    Stein has turned into a right wing jackass.
    He suggests that Nazi atrocities were the product of atheism. Pretty stoopid.

  • Acadie

    Well if old Ben there bothered to look he would see religion is also part of evolution. This film is a joke and panders to the already self deluded. I am very familiar with this idiotic film and have seen a copy of it already, what it does it try to pass off ID ( Idiotic Design) as some sort of real science. I am intolerant of all religion and not one has any redeeming quality, none.

  • matty

    Great review, thoughtful and well balanced.

  • David Toronto

    This whole ID business leaves me wondering one thing: how does it justify the clowns like John Baird, Charles McVety, and Michael Coren?
    Doesn’t their very existence disprove the ID theory?
    Just asking, y’know.

  • Miles Storey

    Every time I hear someone calling a critic an “elite” it makes me shudder, especially when they turn around and describe another as a “pathetic nobody in some town in Wisconsin”.

  • Ling

    I haven’t seen the film, so I can’t comment on how they expressed the idea, but there is definitely a link between Darwin and forced sterilization/abortion/Nazism. Eugenics and Social Darwinism draw on the concept of natural selection and apply it to humans, and some of the most extreme proponents (the Nazis) believed that only the fittest should be allowed to survive. I don’t know if the film explained that clearly though.
    I think the movie sounds interesting, especially since it’s coming at it from a sociological and not scientific point of view. Evolution is such a controversial topic and is often blindly defending or attacked, more so than any other scientific theory…even ones that similarly threaten a literal interpretation of the Bible. Where’s all the Lyell hating?
    I got to say that I hate comments like the one David Toronto made. It’s great to talk about these issues in a mature, intelligent way.

  • Marc Lostracco

    The concept of eugenics existed long before the Nazis.
    Also, Darwinism ≠ evolutionism. Darwin was wrong about a lot of things, and the science of evolution involves much, much more than Darwin’s work. “Darwinists” is a term being used as a rhetorical tool against scientists by the right wing, who are intentionally mislabeling them in the same way how “pro-family” actually means “anti-family” and “fair and balanced” actually means “unfair and biased.”
    The most offensive thing about this movie is that it is positioning ID as a valid scientific counter-theory to evolution, and claims that those rejecting the defensible, scientifically undisputed mountain of evidence confirming the existence of evolution beyond a shadow of a doubt are discriminated against and muzzled by the godless, “atheist elite.”
    It’s alarming that there are massive swaths of kids being insularly homeschooled in this erroneous school of thought under the guise of sanctioned, “science” education, and that many will perpetuate this “documentary” as a confirmation of their beliefs.

  • kstop

    “…even ones that similarly threaten a literal interpretation of the Bible”
    The thing about that is, while the debate is often framed in terms of creationism vs. evolution (and I’m sorry, but ID is just creationism, let’s not pretend here), it’s actually creationism vs. evolution+cosmology+geology+paleontology plus probably a bunch of other -ologies. In order for creationism to be true, scientific theories of the age of the universe have to be wrong, and the same for the age of the Earth. Any sane interpretation of the fossil record also has to be wrong, or just ignored. So a consistent belief in creationism pretty much requires you to pretend whole areas of science from Copernicus on. Evolution has historically been picked on because it was an easy target in a technological society and it was relatively new compared to, say heliocentric models. Physics makes new toys, geology finds valuable minerals, so they get a pass. Everything else had already been tested by time, so evolution was the only one left.
    You’d hope that the one good thing to come out of the main C20 assault on evolution, Lysenkoism, would be that the economic and social disasters caused by that particular insanity would have made people less likely to attack evolution. But sadly, here we are in C21, with people like Ben Stein trotting out the same baseless propaganda linking evolution to Nazism that the Lysenkoites used, with the added irony that he’s so contemptuous of his audience’s intelligence that he also links evolution to Stalin!
    To me that’s the worst thing about this movie – it’s made by people who know that they’re lying, if they’ve done any research at all, and are cynically manipulating the audience and keeping them in the dark. This kind of stuff is no longer just of interest to academics. We have to have at least a passing understanding of the world if we’re to participate in a properly democratic process, and all this movie does is try to keep a whole bunch of people confirmed in prejudice and ignorance, and voting as a bloc for whoever is scummy enough to use the appropriate trigger-words in their speeches. What’s really going on here is not evolution vs. creationism, because there can only ever be one winner of that one on the battleground of fact. What is really at stake is access to knowledge and the capacity and opportunity for independent thought, and the makers of Expelled are squarely on the side of the bad guys.

  • Ling

    Marc, did you mean to say that eugenics existed long before the Nazis or before Darwin? Because if you meant the former, well yeah, of course. But there’s still a strong link between the two because the Nazis used eugenics as justification for “purifying” the human race. It doesn’t make Darwin responsible for the Holocaust, of course, just because some nut-jobs distorted his work to suit their own purposes. But yeah, there is a connection, even though eugenics came first.
    But if you meant that it existed before Darwin, though that’s technically true, the modern eugenics movement really was started by Francis Galton (who, incidentally, is Darwin’s cousin).

  • PickleToes

    Movies such as Expelled are important, for they challenge the self-assured dogmatic attitude that permeates academia; perhaps next Ben should make one about human activity being the cause of global warming. That being said, I would feel just as positively about efforts to expose those within organized religion who try to strong arm theistic Darwinists.

  • spacejack

    kstop, I think there’s a difference between young earth creationists (biblical literalists who think the world is 6000 years old) and old earth creationists or ID’ers who would see the bible as needing interpretation (which probably includes most scientists who are also religious.) No idea which of the two Stein believes or advocates.

  • Patrick Metzger

    I don’t have the impression that Stein is a creationist; just that he sees unanswered questions in science and says “God!”.
    The problem for me is that while it’s perfectly legitimate to believe that some intelligence mashed together the first self-reproducimg molecule, within the bounds of science it’s also reasonable to assume that it happened by chance. Occam’s Razor tells us to assume chance in the absence of proof.
    Spirituality can be a wonderful thing but it doesn’t belong in a science classroom.

  • McKingford

    I’m not really sure what your point is, Ling, other than tarring by association.
    Darwinism, or evolution, as a scientific theory is either falsifiable or it is not. It is scientifically valid or not (hint: it is). Whether the Nazis usurped it (or not) for political or ideological purposes is entirely irrelevant to the discussion of whether evolution is good science. After all, the Nazis also perfected coal gassification, and put it to bad ends, but that says little about the scientific validity of coal gassification.
    Indeed, eugenics, or what the Nazis did, is entirely contrary to Darwinism (or evolution). Rather than a natural selection process in furtherance of evolution, the Nazis – through murder and eugenics – artificially distort the natural selection process.
    Which brings me back to my original point: what do the Nazis have to do with this?

  • McKingford

    Movies such as Expelled are important, for they challenge the self-assured dogmatic attitude that permeates academia;
    Movies such as Expelled lie. They are important to those who wish to believe such lies.
    That is all.

  • james a

    @14: Was that a counter-point, or just a demonstration of the aforementioned “self assured dogmatic attitude”?
    I have to say, I’m pretty excited to see this. I assume I’ll probably disagree with the message, but years of watching Win Ben Stein’s Money tell me that Stein is obviously a very smart and witty guy. If anyone can make that viewpoint interesting, it would be him.
    As an aside, congrats on landing the interview, TOist. I’m insanely jealous you got to meet Ben Stein. :)

  • EricSmith

    Eugenics is just the application of the long-established practice of “animal husbandry” to humans, and thus also a particular form of racism, both of which predate the theory of evolution by quite some time. And if it weren’t for the science of biology, there’d still be plenty of fine excuses for inhumanity. Guess what’s among them? Starts with a “G,” rhymes with “fraud.”

    Mass murder in the name of God was centuries old before Charles Darwin sketched his first finch. The faithful are projecting.

  • zeal4him

    See the movie. It shows, by evolutionist’s own words, that if you believe in anything, you will be censored, lose your job, research money, etc.
    It’s all true.
    Then ask some of the evolutionists to disavow what they said. They don’t want you to see the denial of academic freedoms and free speech.
    #12 all-time U.S. Documentary.
    I’m a Canadian native living in the U.S.