Ben Stein, confronting Darwin in

Dir. Nathan Frankowski
(PG)

Early on, a talking head in Nathan Frankowski’s Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed argues that science would benefit if we admit our biases, religious or otherwise, rather than demonize faith. Fair enough. I am agnostic, a lapsed Catholic, a proud liberal. I believe in evolution broadly, in the sense that I believe that our species, and others that walk the Earth, have changed over time from earlier forms to the ones we now occupy. As for the more specific and minute details of Darwinism, I am not a scientist and not well equipped to lead that charge in one direction or the other.

The star and subject of Expelled, Ben Stein, makes a persuasive case for intelligent design, and establishes convincingly that there is a suppression in the scientific community of anyone who dares breathe its name as a legitimate scientific approach. It is important that we define our terms. Intelligent design, as Stein and his impressively credentialed interview subjects explain, does not purport to ascribe any particular deity with creating the building blocks for life, but rather posits that there is a reasonable question that Darwinian evolution fails to answer: Why is there life instead of no life?

There’s merit to the argument, but pitting intelligent design against evolution is a faulty proposition from the start, not because evolution is right and intelligent design is wrong, but because both may be right or wrong since they pose different questions. From evolution, we may derive an understanding of how we got from the single cell to the creatures we have become today. From intelligent design, we may derive an understanding of how that cell got there in the first place.

It seems to me that the bigger problem with intelligent design as a scientific theory is that it is limited. To believe that life is too astronomically complex and improbable to have begun by any process but a deliberate architect of our molecules is to assume that the answer is unknowable by any other interpretation. You cannot test that hypothesis. You can neither prove it nor refute it. Critical examination ends. A brief featurette on the DVD discusses the advances made through intelligent design-guided research; scientists look to principles of engineering to understand the function of the human body. A reasonable approach. But one does not need to believe in God to imagine parallels between the human body and efficient machines. And short of isolating the creator, which no current science can do, when it comes to the big question — how did life begin? — intelligent design can’t explain itself any better than evolution can.

Neither should Darwinism be a sacred cow. Reasonable scientists in the film question Darwin’s theories, though Frankowski and Stein fail to shed adequate light on the specific tenets of evolution they find faulty. They discuss Darwinism more as a political and philosophical construct, an ideology, and I would have liked more rigorous science. The film upholds neither theory with any certainty, but calls for the best science to prevail, be it Darwin or intelligent design or … something else. Both sides of the debate would do well to take the counsel of William Shakespeare, who wrote, “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

By the halfway point, Stein has made a strong case for broader intellectual curiosity. So how then to explain my rating of this film? Anything lower than two stars I reserve for films I begin to resent.

The problem is not Frankowski and Stein’s defense of intelligent design but their discursive dishonesty. I do not believe they have admitted their biases, and in launching into propagandist diatribes they contradict themselves and undermine any valid points they might have hoped to make.

After spending time insisting that religion and science need not be mutually exclusive, and that intellectual dissent should be debated rather than dismissed, Stein launches a deeply offensive attack against Darwinism, not as science, but as a godless and dangerous philosophy. Many evolutionists interviewed confess that their religious faith eroded as the result of Darwinism, from which Stein segues shamefully to the Holocaust. A godless society produces scientific minds hellbent on eugenics and Naziism, Stein claims, philosophies that were founded, at least in part, on Darwin’s theory of evolution. His implication is that belief in Darwinism leads to atrocity, and by extension evolutionary scientists are somehow complicit in the extermination of six million Jews. Wretched.

Stein’s argument is specious. Evolution was perverted into genocide and involuntary castration at the hands of Hitler and eugenicists, but even if we can accept that evolution kills God, one can simply counter by citing the perversion of God by His believers. It would be easy to demonize Catholicism on the basis of the Spanish Inquisition, or Islam on the basis of 9/11, but it would be equally unfair. How can Stein defend intellectual freedom and in the same breath conflate Darwinism with Naziism? How can he defend freedom of faith and vilify atheism? And how dare he exploit the Holocaust as the basis for his hypocrisy? This entire segment of the film is emotionally manipulative, intellectually dishonest, and morally bankrupt.

Expelled becomes increasingly self-important. Darwinists are equated with the Third Reich. The struggle of intelligent design proponents is likened to the civil rights movement. Science and reason are established as the gateways to genocide. At one point Frankowski equates Stein with Ronald Reagan when he called for the destruction of the Berlin Wall, and he trains the camera on the standing ovation at the end of Stein’s oratory. Patting themselves on the back for a job well done? Any semblance of fairness has long since vanished, because Stein talks out of both sides of his mouth. He’s full of it.

As an agnostic, I am in a special position to observe the fundamental irony of religion and atheism. They share something that an agnostic does not have: faith. A belief in God versus a belief in the lack thereof, but belief nonetheless. As I write this, I am still agnostic. I do not have the answers. But if there’s one thing I know for sure, neither does Ben Stein.

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