Friday, April 18, 2008

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed

This is Ben Stein's new movie. I will confess, I had some misgivings going into this that it might be the right's equivalent to Michael Moore's "documentaries." There are aspects of it that seem intentionally mocking key elements of the Moore style. For example, trying to get into the Smithsonian to talk about the retaliation against Richard Sternberg, a scientist who allowed a peer-reviewed piece that mentioned intelligent design to be published in a Smithsonian-affiliated science journal. There's a cartoon about the origins of life casino clearly intended to parody the history of America in Bowling for Columbine.

I also had some nervousness when the opening credits were, very cleverly, added into archival footage of the building of the Berlin Wall. I feared that perhaps this was going to be heavy-handed.

Nope! The first half was actually quite amusing, once we got past the credits, partly because of Ben Stein's deadpan delivery, and partly because the film uses a lot of very funny 1930s movies clips intercut with what otherwise might be excessive numbers of talking heads.

The primary point of the film is that the biological sciences (and to a lesser extent, astronomy) has reached a point of simply refusing to allow any serious criticism or discussion of any alternative models--and interviewed a number of people whose careers have been cut short for raising questions or even, in some cases, simply for pointing out that there are legitimate scientists who suggest that methodological naturalism (the dogma that says that only non-theistic explanations are allowed or even considered) might be a mistake.

Now, I don't know how fairly Expelled portrays all of these incidents. I know that, if anything, they understated what happened to Richard Sternberg. With respect to Guillermo Gonzalez, he is an astonishing superstar of astronomy. That he was turned down for tenure for having argued that perhaps there's some merit to intelligent design claims is certainly a plausible explanation. I would have preferred that Stein at least mentioned the claim that it was because Gonzalez wasn't very good at getting research grants that he was denied tenure. Still, Stein does a nice job where he interviews Gonzalez's former boss. He asked this guy to explain the email he sent to the faction that was trying to get Gonzalez kicked out of Iowa State where he referred to "religious nutcases." It was obvious that the department chair didn't expect Stein to actually ask him about this. I would say in conjunction with Gonzalez's publication history, the most logical explanation for failure to get tenure is the profound contempt that much of the academy has for ideas that even slightly smack of any religious beliefs.

Where the film gets a lot heavier is where Stein points to the connection between Darwinism and Naziism. This is hardly new; Stein does a nice job of using Nazi propaganda films justifying eugenics that are awash in Darwinian terminology. Stein is also fair in pointing out that while Darwinism was a major factor in Nazi racial ideology, it was not the only factor. Certainly, there are big chunks of leftover Romanticism, nationalism, and radical environmentalism that went into brewing up Naziism. But Naziism without Darwinism, as most historians admit, would have been a very different beast. Probably still beastly--but just differently beastly.

Stein also interviews a left-of-center philosopher who does raise some interesting points about how evolution, because it deprivileged man, reducing him to just another animal, fundamentally changed the notion of ethics. Stein interviews Professor William Provine, who is a loud and vigorous atheist, and who argues that evolution inevitably leads to no God, no fundamental ethics, and no free will. In that respect, Provine is right up there with Clarence Darrow, whose defense of Leopold and Loeb, two smart rich kids who murdered a 14 year old boy (probably after raping him) was that they had no choice--they were simply biological organisms driven by biology to do what they did, and therefore not fully responsible for their actions. In light of the role that Darwinism played in Naziism, and the various eugenics movements here in the U.S., one would think, if Provine had any awareness at all of where his idol has taken us before, that he would recognize the dangers involved.

Like any good Michael Moore documentary, there's some scary music in places. But scary music doesn't add much when you are going through one of the T-4 species improvement extermination facilities, and through Dachau.

At one point, the film is trying to give some idea of the enormous complexity of the interior of a cell. The graphics are impressive--but I wish that they had made a bit more of an effort to explain what you are seeing: how DNA unzips; becomes a pattern for creating messenger RNA; how transfer RNA ends up used to manufacture proteins, folds them for a purpose, and then exports it. Unlocking the Mystery of Life does an excellent job with this same subject--but it would have taken a bit of the humor out of what is still fundamentally a film intended to entertain (and maybe do a little educating).

By far the best part of the film is the very end, where Stein interviews Richard Dawkins, the biologist who insists that teaching children about God is a form of child abuse. Dawkins insists that intelligent design is absurd--and then Stein asks Dawkins a few questions which leads Dawkins to admit that perhaps life on this planet was intentionally created by another species, which must have come about because of evolution. And it wasn't like Stein was being very manipulative. Dawkins strikes me as a very angry person--but not necessarily all that bright.

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