Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, written by Kevin Miller and Ben Stein, begins with intense footage of the building of the Berlin Wall. As the introductory credits roll, the confusion and shock at the wall’s construction is made very real as several young boys kick around a ball. As the ball is kicked into the air it flies up and over the wall, apparently lost forever. Numerous black and white film sequences are used throughout the film and are an effective (though cheap) way to elicit strong feelings from the viewer.
At the beginning of Expelled we watch Ben Stein, the infamously droll economics teacher in Ferris Bueller's Day Off and former speech writer for President Nixon, address a college group. In his presentation Stein introduces the major theme of this movie and it’s not necessarily intelligent design! Instead, Stein focuses on freedom of speech in the United States of America and suggests that as Americans we are “losing freedom in science.” In this way, the movie jumps into an investigation of whether this is the case.
Stein interviews several scientists who have lost their jobs and been “black balled” from mainstream science because of minor admissions of the plausibility of design. Richard von Sternberg, former editor of The Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, was fired by the Smithsonian Institute after he authorized the inclusion of a paper by Stephen Meyer that was supportive of intelligent design. Stein interviews two professors who each lost their jobs (from separate universities) after supposedly sympathizing with intelligent design. In addition, several more scientists are interviewed but their appearance is distorted because they fear repercussions from the scientific community. Overall, the conclusion appears clear that if you are a scientist you best never (publicly) discuss intelligent design.
So what is the problem with intelligent design? In one scientist’s mind ID is simply a “bore.” Another equates intelligent design with fundamental creationism and says that the only thing “intelligent” about ID is the clever way that this old idea has been repackaged. Still another scientist feels that an allowance of intelligent design in the classroom will eventually give way to mandated prayer in schools and religious intolerance. Ben Stein wonders if the ID movement is really the conspiracy that these scientists suggest.
The Discovery Institute is the primary think-tank of the intelligent design movement. This “institute,” according to its spokesperson, wishes only to encourage robust dialogue on the issues that Darwinism faces and intelligent design proposes. Stein interviews several other scientists that agree with ID and the impression is that these individuals are intelligent and are simply concerned about working under a set of scientific rules (Darwinism) that don’t totally work. David Berlinski questions whether Darwin is correct and/or whether these ideas are “clean enough” to really be worthwhile.
No movie that focuses on this issue would be complete without input from Richard Dawkins and we actually get to hear quite a bit of him. Dawkins is very direct and does not mince words. He knows that evolution is a fact and anyone who disagrees is “insane, stupid, or ignorant.” The movie delves into one of the questions that should be at forefront in the evolution-intelligent design conversation, how did life begin? Dawkins and others repeatedly state that we don’t know how life began. Maybe life on earth began on the backs of crystals or was seeded from an extraterrestrial source. What comes next is one of the best moments of the movie – a cartoon sequence starring Dawkins. Although the clip is a bit naive and dismisses the abiotic origin of life from a probability standpoint (argument from incredulity), it is hilarious to watch. In the end, evolutionary biologists believe that their hypotheses for life’s origin are less far-fetched than the explanation provided by intelligent design proponents.
The argument is made that our current understanding of cells and cellular technology goes far beyond what Darwin could have ever imagined when he first published Origin of Species in 1859. Several scientists wonder where the initial direction for cells and molecules (e.g., DNA) came from and suggest that this is a major area of biology with design implications. This point is made apparent as you watch a phenomenal three-dimensional sequence that puts the viewer on a ride through a working cell. I plan to buy a copy of the Expelled DVD primarily for this section. This clip was particularly impressive and although there was no explanation of the processes, someone unfamiliar with the cellular machinery would be equally struck by the complexity of the cell as I was.
After all of this discussion, the Berlin Wall footage returns and we are reminded of the freedom of speech angle. Not only scientists are to blame for the barricade that exists between those with reasonable intelligent design ideas and mainstream science. The government, media, and the courts are also responsible for the current stalemate. There is a disagreement from either side with one saying that intelligent design is misrepresented in scientific circles and the other saying that design is a religious war. At this point, much more of an attack on the opposition is seen from both camps. Although several people interviewed (i.e., John Polkinghorne) state that the ideas of Darwin and religious undertones of intelligent design can coexist, the film seems to focus on more of the extreme views and the particular evils of Darwinism.
One of the tangents explored by Expelled is the relationship between Darwinism and Nazism. It is likely that some of the ideas presented by Hitler in Mein Kampf were based on ideas of natural selection formulated by Darwin (but borrowed from Malthus). Stein and the producers of the film make a lot of the negative outcomes when Darwinism is overlaid onto human society. Nazism, racism, eugenics, and euthanasia are all presented as very real dangers of accepting Darwinism. While many may resonate with this viewpoint, most scientists, atheistic and otherwise follow the basic laws of society and an agreement with Darwinism does not automatically lead to these heinous acts. This connection is unfair and overstates the case by focusing on the extreme (and rare) examples.
In the end, we return to the metaphor of the wall and Stein makes an appeal to break down the wall that exists between entrenched science and novel (maybe better) explanations of life and its inner-workings. As the movie winds down we hear Ronald Reagan state that “the wall cannot withstand freedom” and watch as the Berlin Wall crumbles. In the same way, we can destroy the wall that exists in science by allowing a discussion of both perspectives and for the freedom of ideas in the scientific realm. This is a call to action. “Anyone? Anyone?”
I expected this movie to be more propaganda than anything and am pleasantly surprised that there is representation from both sides of the debate. What frustrates me is that this movie really doesn’t add to the viewer’s understanding of the real issue. Maybe the nuts and bolts of the issues are omitted because it is expected that anyone paying $7 (for a matinee) must already be informed. Unfortunately, this is probably not the case. In fact, if one was not aware of the issues at hand, there would be little solid evidence gathered from the movie to formulate an opinion. This is problematic in that there is much more to the Darwinist and Intelligent Design arguments, both of which can be incredibly convincing when presented in the “right” way. In fact, someone who did not hold a strong opinion either way before the movie might come out equating Darwinism with Nazism!
Another disappointing feature is the focus on the “wall” metaphor. While there is a divide between origins philosophy, most scientists agree on basic processes and mechanisms. It is more the metaphysical worldviews that divide us than the evidence that we gather from science. Though the request is made for scientists to consider design implications, the movie tends to paint the scientific community into a corner and adds more fuel to the debate than providing any relief.
I was very excited when I first learned of this movie’s release. In fact, I announced to my Philosophy of Origins class to watch for it last quarter and told students that I was going to see it this past week. Several students have since asked me for my reaction and unfortunately, I am not able to tell them much other than I am left empty by the film. In my mind, the status of the debate is unchanged by watching Expelled. While I do appreciate several aspects of what is presented, I remain decidedly unaffected by what I saw and heard.
Aimee C. Wyrick-Brownworth writes from Angwin, California where she is an assistant professor of biology at Pacific Union College.
Note: One of the associate producers of Expelled, Mark Mathis, spoke with Spectrum about the film. You can read that interview here.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/571