Academia

Flunk This Movie!

Ben Stein's Expelled is all worldview and no evidence.

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“This is not a religious argument,” Discovery Institute President Bruce Chapman asserts in the new anti-evolution propaganda movie, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Yet the film is free of scientific content: It gives no scientific evidence against biological evolution and none for “intelligent design.” Instead, host Ben Stein spends most of the movie asking various proponents of evolutionary theory for their religious views.

The film begins with moody shots of Stein backstage before he addresses an unidentified audience on the alleged suppression of scientific research in the name of Darwinian orthodoxy. Stein stalks onstage and suggests that we are losing our scientific freedom.

As evidence, Stein trots out a small parade of martyrs. In 2004, Richard Sternberg, then editor of Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, published an article by Stephen Meyer arguing that the “Cambrian explosion” 570 to 530 million years ago in which most of the body types of animals developed was evidence for intelligent design.

Many of Sternberg’s colleagues reacted with dismay, and the journal retracted the article. In the film, Sternberg says he lost his office at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, was pressured to resign, and had his religious and political beliefs questioned. Yet he still has office space in the museum and has been reappointed for three more years. True, some of his colleagues might not want to hang out with him anymore. But that is a far cry from the grim black-and-white shots of Soviet armies and concentration camps featured in the film.

In 2005, George Mason University did not renew a teaching contract with Caroline Crocker, an adjunct biology lecturer who believes in intelligent design. She tells Stein that she only wanted to teach students to question scientific orthodoxies: “I was only trying to teach what the university stands forâ€"academic freedom.” Since George Mason let her go, she says, she can no longer find work.

Interestingly, Crocker delivered the same offending lecture at a local community college later. It didn’t turn out to be a “balanced” presentation of evidence for and against biological evolution. Why not? “There really is not a lot of evidence for evolution,” she says.

An assistant professor of astronomy, Guillermo Gonzalez, was denied tenure at Iowa State University in 2007. In 2004 Gonzalez co-wrote The Privileged Planet, which argues the Earth was precisely positioned to enable researchers like him to make scientific measurements. An Iowa State colleague, Hector Avalos, neatly skewers this conceit: “This rationale is analogous to a plumber arguing that if our planet had not been positioned precisely where it is, then he might not be able to do his work as a plumber. Lead pipes might melt if the Sun were much closer. And, if our planet were any farther from the Sun, it might be so frozen that plumbers might not exist at all. Therefore, plumbing must have been the reason that our planet was located where it is.”

Did Gonzalez fail to get tenure because of his views? The university denies it, but my guess is he did. On the evidence of The Privileged Planet, Guillermo’s colleagues could reasonably worry that his views weren’t likely to lead to fruitful research results.

The most egregious part of the movie is the attempt to link evolution with Communism and Nazism. The claim that Communism was motivated by Darwin is just silly. Official Soviet biological doctrine was Lysenkoism, and Russian Darwinists were denounced as “Trotskyite agents of international fascism” and thrown into the Gulag for their scientific sins.

And Nazism? In the film, the mathematician David Berlinski says, “Darwinism is not a sufficient condition for a phenomenon like Nazism, but I think it was a necessary one.” Berlinski is suggesting that scientific materialism undermines the notion that human beings occupy a special place in the universe. If humans aren’t special, goes this line of thinking, then morals don’t apply.

But people through the millennia have found all sorts of justifications for murdering each other, including plunder, nationalism, and, yes, religion. Meanwhile, insights from evolutionary psychology are helping us understand how our in-group/out-group dynamics contribute to our disturbing capacity for racism, xenophobia, genocide, and warfare. The field also offers new ideas about how human morality developed, including our capacities for cooperation, love, and tolerance.

At one point in the film, the science studies gadfly Steve Fuller archly poses the question: Which comes first, worldview or evidence? Fuller aims his question at the proponents of evolutionary biology. As this dreary film itself makes it painfully clear, the question is far more relevant to the supporters of intelligent design.

Ronald Bailey is reason’s science correspondent.