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Who Made Who? (with apologies to Angus Young)

by Robert L. Jones

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Featuring Ben Stein, Peter Atkins, Hector Avalos, Doug Axe, David Berlinski, Walter Bradley, Bruce Chapman, Caroline Crocker, Richard Dawkins, William Albert Dembski, Daniel Dennett, Guillermo Gonzalez, John Hauptman, Ben Kelley, John Lennox, Robert J. Marks II, Alister McGrath, Stephen C. Meyer, P.Z. Myers, Paul Nelson, John Polkinghome, William Provine, Michael Ruse, Gerald Schroeder, Jeffrey Schwartz, Eugenie Scott, Michael Shermer, Mark Souder, Richard Sternberg, Deano Sutter, Daniel Walsch, Richard Weikart, Jonathan Wells, Pamela Winnick, and Larry Witham. Original music by Robbie Bronniman and Andy Hunter. Camerawork by Ben Huddleston and Maximilian Zenk. Edited by Simon Tondeur. Post-production supervisor, Patrick Tittmar. Written by Kevin Miller, Walt Ruloff, and Ben Stein. Directed by Nathan Frankowski. (Premise Media Corporation/Rampant Films, 2008, Color, 90 minutes. MPAA Rating: PG).

What’s not to admire about Ben Stein? If I were given the chance to be anyone else for just one day, it would be the monotone-speaking economics teacher from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Yale Law School valedictorian, Nixon speechwriter, Comedy Central game show host, New York Times financial columnist, Ford administration attorney, Clear Eyes pitching über-Renaissance man, who’s comfortable being himself in his trademark Nike sneakers with his suit jacket and tie.

I also like that Stein’s a conservative who speaks his own mind: When Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sent a “leaner, tougher” (read: Waging War on the Cheap) Army into Iraq in 2003, Stein was one of the few Republicans who saw through his idiocy and advocated building up the U.S. military to Cold War levels to fight the Jihadists. I also like that he’s a Hollywood fixture who nonetheless has the guts to loudly advocate for pro-life causes.

He’s also one of the sharpest knives in the drawer. While objectivists and libertarians try to paint Michael Milken as some kind of modern-day Prometheus, I still stand by Stein’s assessment, his 1992 book A License to Steal, of the junk bonds king as a swindler who defrauded investors. He’s a mensch in the best way, too: He sticks by his friends, and doesn’t let political differences get in the way of contributing to comedian pal Al Franken’s (whom I loathe, actually) Minnesota senate run.

And that’s just scratching the surface. I daresay at the rate I’m going it would take ten lifetimes to equal Stein’s prolific résumé. Despite his vast array of talents, though, I think it’s safe to say that the one thing Ben Stein is not is a first-rate biologist.

In his opening narration, Stein says,

I believe everything that exists was created by a loving God…. All along, I’ve been well aware that other people, very smart people, believe otherwise. Rather than God’s handiwork, they see the universe as a product of random particle collisions, and chemical reactions. And rather than regard humankind as carrying the spark of the divine, they believe we’re nothing more than mud and made by lightning. Somehow, that mud found a way to grow, reproduce, swim, crawl, breathe, walk, and, eventually, think.

Stein interviews a number of scientific academicians in what trying to establish the documentary’s assertion that the adherents of Intelligent Design—a position with which I am in great sympathy—are systematically being censored, kicked out of the academy, and blacklisted for daring to question Charles Darwin’s theories of the origins of species and evolution. Yet, even if the viewer were unaware of Stein’s manipulative questioning and editing—in portraying these scientists as martyrs felled by the sword of secular intolerance—it nonetheless becomes embarrassingly clear that, in number and quality, ID’s proponents are rather thin.

While I agree with much Ben Stein says regarding issues of free academic speech, much about Expelled came off as a right-wing version of a Michael Moore “documentary,” in that the movie’s designed to lead the viewer to a foregone conclusion. One segment shows Stein interviewing Guillermo Gonzalez, an astronomy professor allegedly denied tenure at Iowa State University because of his writings on ID. However, Stein left out that the professor was more likely a victim of the “publish or perish” policy that most universities foist upon their faculties.

Although I, being a Deist, believe that God created the universe, this planet, and the life that exists on it, I readily admit that those beliefs are largely matters of faith. I don’t believe that religion can disprove scientific theories any more than science can explain away God. Both propositions are akin to squaring the circle. That said, if there is evidence supporting the idea of Intelligent Design (the Big Bang Theory is an excellent place to start), then I am certainly open to it.

Stein tries to make his case that there are well-respected scientists who’ve discovered evidence that an “intelligent designer” (God) created life on this planet. Fine, but we in the audience are never made privy to exactly whatthat evidence is, save the inability of what Stein tags “Darwinism” at explaining how everything got here in the first place. We are supposed to infer that since, A). There is no explanation, that, B). Therefore, an “intelligent designer” must have created it (which is quite reasonable, but–as Clara Peller might inquire—where’s the beef?).

Where Stein succeeds more is at poking holes into what laymen vaguely construe as “Darwinism.” He’s quite piquant in showing Darwin’s adherents as seething dogmatists, which many of them indeed are. Touchy, even, as in the case of his interview with renowned British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins may be brilliant, but in this documentary he comes off as petty, peevish, and petulant. Is this really the guy you secularists so revere? Hasn’t it ever occurred to Dawkins that in his fervor to be Madelyn Murray O’Hair with Ph.D., that his many books “disproving” the existence of God violate the first rule of logic, that one cannot disprove a negative (at least in the eyes of atheists)?

Stein is clearly having fun trying to trip up Dawkins to admit even the possibility of God’s existence, and Dawkins defends his atheism, stating, with “ninety-nine per cent” certainty that there is no God. Some defender of atheism.

But, again, we are brought back to the proposition of ID’s adherents, who have a lot of valid questions, but—at least using Stein’s narrative—haven’t exactly presented anything to back up their assertions. The best in this regard was Stein’s interview with mathematician and molecular biologist David Berlinski. A senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, an ID think tank, and author of the book The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions, Berlinski—a secular Jew—came off as the opposite of Dawkins. “Now,” I thought, listening to this obviously brilliant, gregarious, and inquisitive man, “finally a thinker with a real argument in favor of Intelligent Design!” Yet, after being listening to him dissect Darwin’s theories from a scientist’s perspective, Berlinski really had nothing to say about ID. (By editing for brevity, the filmmakers do quite a disservice to Berlinski in this regard; he has quite a bit to say in making the case for an intelligent designer in The Devils Delusion, and I fear some of his arguments ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor).

One area I found quite a lot to agree with Stein was his assertion that Darwin’s ideas on natural selection—in the hands of American and British eugenicists and, later, the Germans (who were heavily influenced by American eugenicists)—can lead to the state exterminating millions of biological “undesirables,” as in the case of Nazi Germany. Oddly, this was the film’s most controversial segment, even more than its endorsement of Intelligent Design.

After the film’s release, the Anti-Defamation League, the alleged Jewish civil rights organization, took fellow Jew Ben Stein to task for “trivializing” the Holocaust: “Hitler did not need Darwin to devise his heinous plan to exterminate the Jewish people and Darwin and evolutionary theory cannot explain Hitler’s genocidal madness.”

Oh, really? I submit that this statement is ignorant of history: In Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler spelled out his admiration for the eugenics movement and Darwin. This is no trivial matter. In the film, Stein narrates a passage from Darwin’s 1871 work, The Descent of Man:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination. We build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick, thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. Hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

Stein’s detractors cried “foul!” noting that he omitted Darwin’s following sentences,

The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, if so urged by hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature.

What has been left out of the criticisms is that Darwin was friendly, personally and professionally, with many of the larger lights in the British eugenics movement, in particular Francis Galton and Herbert Spencer. Darwin later embraced the phrase Spencer coined “survival of the fittest,” and used it synonymously in later revisions of On the Origin of Species. Although Darwin’s later defenders have tried to distance him from Spencer’s cockamamie “Social Darwinist” writings, the fact remains this was done posthumously on his behalf; during his own lifetime, Darwin said little that could be used to contradict the leading eugenicists of his era. In fact, his son, Major Leonard Darwin, became chairman of the British Eugenics Society from 1911 to 1928, and was seen in his efforts as carrying on his father’s legacy.

Also left unmentioned by the ADL is the fact that Hitler perfected eugenics policies that in the United States, England, and continental Europe resulted in the forced sterilization and castration of hundreds of thousands, of genetic “undesirables.” Indeed, the preferred German term for eugenics was “racial hygiene,” and was carried out to the letter in the death camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, Dachau, and Treblinka.

I think most critics have misread Stein. He never claimed that Darwin would ever have advocated such ghastly horrors, and given his own writings, we know he would not have. What Stein’s (accurate) treatment of the linkage between eugenics and the Holocaust demonstrates is that scientists should tread with caution when making inroads into the ethical sphere, because the unintended consequences of ostensibly benign theories can have devastating effects, particularly when taken up by murderous statists (like, say, embryonic stem-cell research). Granted, Charles Darwin was no more causally responsible for the Holocaust than Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche or Richard Wagner were, but why are these latter fair game for the assignation of blame, but not Darwin? I recommend historian Edwin Black’s War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race, which uncovers the dark and sickening forgotten chapters of America and Germany’s history.

This doesn’t change the fact that Stein was trying to take out Darwin’s theory on the origin of species, using the eugenics argument and the Holocaust in support of debunking it.

Nonetheless, I think the movie had much to recommend it in recounting how the scientific community enforces its “consensus” will against dissenters, even prior to a peer-review article being published. This does not bode well for academic freedom. It is a result of government funding becoming too intertwined with scientific research. If Intelligent Design is such a preposterous set of ideas on its face, then let its adherents expose it to critical review.

The scientific “community” cannot have it both ways, dismissing ID out of hand, while diving into piles of government cash while advocating the pseudoscience of “climate change.” I think Stein is onto something when he says the scientific “community” is hardly objective, and requires its members to march in lockstep.

That said, Expelled was, sadly, otherwise largely a brilliant exercise in sophistry.

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