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.