Vox Nova at the Movies: Expelled

Vox Nova at the Movies: Expelled April 21, 2008

Ben Stein’s Expelled. It sounds like it should be the latest college comedy, perhaps loosely based on Back to School or some such thing. What it really is, however, is the latest in the series of the new, “hip” documentaries started by Michael Moore’s Roger and Me dealing with the controversy between Darwinism and Intelligent Design from an unabashedly pro-ID standpoint.

Given the controversial nature of the topic (at least on some parts of the Internet), I suppose I should begin by giving my own views on ID. Obviously I believe that human beings were intelligently designed in some sense. I believe that God created the heavens and the earth, etc., though how exactly He went about doing this I don’t presume to dictate, and the best of scientific inquiry over the last 150 years seems to have pretty well established that all life on earth today arose through the processes of evolution. Intelligent Design – which, it should be noted, is a name (like the Holy Roman Empire), not a description – consists in rejecting some part of this standard scientific view in favor of a more direct intervention by some sort of intelligent personal force, though exactly how much of the standard picture is to be rejected and what is to replace it varies wildly among ID proponents.

Arguments against ID fall into two basic types: there is the a posteriori (the specific arguments put forth by ID against evolution are specious or unsound and the positive vision put forth to replace it is fatally flawed), and the a priori (whatever the evidence, ID is not science because it posits a supernatural cause, and science, by definition, doesn’t deal with supernatural causes). To the extent I’m competent to judge such matters I’ve found the a posteriori arguments against ID to be compelling (see, for example, chapters 2-5 of Ken Miller’s book Finding Darwin’s God), and to the extent I’m not competent to judge I’m incline to accept the standard view simply because it is the standard view, and most biologists are not idiots. The a priori argument I find to be historically inaccurate and philosophically weak (as are most arguments from definition). My view on ID, therefore, is that it is bad science, verging in some of its incarnations into outright pseudo-science, but that there is no reason in principle why something like ID couldn’t be right.

With that out of the way, I thought the film was rhetorically brilliant, and highly entertaining, which may count as a mark in favor of the film, or against it, depending on your point of view. The film starts with an examination of several cases where professors, scientists, and journalists have been harassed and/or fired for espousing ID views. I can’t speak to the accuracy of all the accounts, but if the case presented in the film are true, then the ID folks really have been subject to some shabby treatment.

The film then tries to get into the merits of the ID vs. Darwinism controversy. Unfortunately, one realizes pretty quickly that a movie is not really the best vehicle for such a debate, and it pretty quickly devolves into sloganeering and a series of charges and counter-charges (“Darwinists are ignoring the evidence!” “No, ID ignores the evidence!”). Interspersed through the film are quick cuts to footage from old movies and instructional videos depicting Darwinists as close-minded louts and crypto-totalitarians which, while it does keep the film interesting, are not even close to being fair.

At about an hour in, the film veers off into dangerous ground, talking about how the main popularizers and proponents of Darwinism see it as a vehicle for destroying religious belief (which is true, they admit as much in the film, but belief in evolution need not lead to a decline of faith), and about the historical connections between Darwinism, Eugenics, and the Nazis (again, true, but still more than a little unfair). The film also talks about Margaret Sanger and the eugenic origins of Planned Parenthood, and draws a connection between Darwinism and support for abortion and euthanasia that is gutsy, to say the least. Ironically, given how far the film was willing to go in this direction, I was surprised that it never delivered the coup de grace, never mentioning Dawkins’ own views on the matter. The fatal flaw with this section (and therefore to some extent with the film as a whole) was the fact that no religious proponents of evolution were ever interviewed. Giving someone like Ken Miller or Francis Collins a chance to explain why they thought religious belief was perfectly compatible with Darwinian theory would have improved the film greatly, but it also would have prevented the film makers from presenting the straightforward believers vs. atheists message that was the basis of the film.

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