No intelligence allowed?

I’d like to start off by wishing everyone a happy Bastille Day. I’m not French, but I am a Rush fan, and this date always reminds me of the Rush song titled “Bastille Day”, with Geddy Lee’s Canadian high-pitched voice singing “there’s no bread, let them eat cake, there’s no end to what they’ll take…”. Anyway, while we’re on the topic of pop culture and media, let’s shift to something more academic in nature. In fact, lets take a look at a recent documentary that criticizes academia for allegedly suppressing advocates of a certain “scientific” theory.

 Those of you who have followed the ID movement closely will already suspect which documentary I’m referring to. To confirm your suspicions, yes, I am referring to Ben Stein’s Expelled. The problems with this film are myriad, and far too vast to be covered in one post. There is, however, a body of work criticizing this film available on the internet (see NCSE’s Expelled Exposed page, available here). As a result, I’ll focus only on a small piece of the documentary, namely it’s misrepresentations of mainstream science and scientists (and I will stop at 1 post with this topic). Let’s start out with one of the biggest quote-mines in the entire film, a misrepresentation of Darwin himself. In the film, Stein quotes from Darwin’s Descent of Man:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination. We build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick, thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. Hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.”

Kind of makes Darwin sound like a racist bastard (please excuse my tone here, but it‘s the best description I can think of), doesn’t it? If you’ve read my other posts on here, or are familiar with Darwin (or a combination of both), this passage should raise some red flags. If you’re familiar with Darwin’s work and quote-mining tactics in general, one question that likely pops up in a case like this is “well where’s the rest of the passage?” This passage made me feel uneasy, and so I referred to my copy of the Descent of Man to find the rest of it. And, lo and behold, it looks like old man Darwin wasn’t so cold after all. Here’s the half of Darwin’s statement that Ben Stein & co neglect to share with us:

“The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incendental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself while performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil.” (Darwin 1871 p. 152)

Not surprisingly, reading the passage in its entirety offers a strikingly different perspective on Darwin. Darwin didn’t condone a eugenic-type system to systematically prevent certain members of society from reproducing (as the film suggests). In fact, his actual position was completely opposite, where he implies that this type of move is, at its core, evil. But the filmmakers apparently don’t think that this fact is important. Perhaps they never read the full context of their mined quote, or perhaps their reading comprehension skills suck and they thought that they were accurately portraying Darwin’s position. Maybe they are willfully misrepresenting his position here. Hard to say, but what is obvious is that the credibility of this film is off to a very bad start.

 A second major incident in this film occurs when Stein is talking with Florida State philosopher of science Michael Ruse. Stein asks Ruse about the origin of life, and Ruse suggests one of many ideas on the topic as popular. Those familiar with this area of research will instantly recognize the idea that Ruse is alluding to as one backed strongly by mineralogist Robert Hazen. The framework Ruse alludes to suggests that the early molecules of life formed “on the backs of crystals”. In this process, molecules would have gained structural elements from the crystals themselves. This picture is actually a viable idea, which would explain (among other things) the extreme prevalence of “left-handed” amino acids over “right-handed” ones, and also offer an early source of variation and mutation. However, Stein & co go out of their way to make this idea look ridiculous, cutting to a scene of a fortune teller with a crystal ball. Here, while at least Stein & co aren’t misquoting the idea, they are extremely oversimplifying it to the point that an audience would not be able to grasp the strong points of it. Thus, to an uninitiated audience, this idea would, in fact, seem ridiculous. Looks like a possible political move here; they’re apparently not really out to do good science in this film, but rather to win some cheap points with viewers.

The third major incident I’ll focus on here is Stein’s encounter with Richard Dawkins. This encounter is saved for the end of the film, with Stein confronting Dawkins on his atheist views. Stein proceeds to ask Dawkins whether there could be an intelligent designer. Dawkins utilizes his standard example, with an alien civilization seeding Earth with life. However, the second part of Dawkins’ statement states that the existence of the aliens must be explainable. Stein bites on the first half of the statement, but not the second half. Thus, we see Stein jumping at Dawkins accepting the possibility of some sort of intelligent design, while totally missing the point. Dawkins’ example is simple. Essentially, in the case of intelligent design, there is always the following conundrum, namely “how did the designer come to exist?”. The designer, in Dawkins’ scenario, likely evolved in its own past, thus rendering the ID movement’s critiques of evolution false. But Stein, rather than discussing this fact, just focuses on Dawkins accepting “some types of intelligent design, but not others”. Once again, the makers of Expelled offer an intellectual snow job.

It’s clear from these three examples that Expelled really isn’t about science or accuracy. What matters in the end is not whether any scientific advances have been inspired, but rather the achievement of a political goal. This political goal is a decline in the acceptance of evolutionary theory and all the evils (Nazism, Communism, materialism, humanism, etc.) that certain groups blame on it. Evolution becomes the scapegoat for what is perceived as a larger problem, a society where abortion and divorce and homosexuality run rampant. If the producers of Expelled truly cared about producing a viable intellectual documentary, one would expect that they would have done a better job with the science involved. The fact that they didn’t raises some huge questions about the credibility of the film, but also alludes to its deeper goal.

Works Cited:

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (the Ben Stein documentary)

Darwin, C. The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, AL Burt Company Publishers, New York, reprint of 2nd Edition.

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2 Comments on “No intelligence allowed?”

  1. johnG Says:

    Delightful post, but that’s nothing new. I wonder if Stein is a believer or opportunist. If I, having no science credentials, wanted to make some money, I would write a book denouncing evolution or climate change. Then, I would be guaranteed a certain number of readers.

    I also wonder if evolution would be as much fun without creationists to motivate me to study. I started intense reading of articles about evolution (e.g., specific stuff like sympatric speciation among chichlid fishes) after a local science writer commented on his doubts about evolution vs creation. The statement was “evolution is being disproven with every new discovery…” and so I reviewed my backlog of unread Nature, Scientific American, and Science News, looking for the new discoveries. (I was expecting to find something like symptric speciation being reworked, rather than a challenge to the foundation.) Instead, I found about 15 articles from just the previous month either advancing a part of evolutionary theory or so reliant upon it that I could count the authors as evolutionists.

    So, I have to thank creationist for motivating me to read the science more that I would have.


    • darwinaia Says:

      Good point. Any attack on a science percieved to be controversial by the public will sell at least a few copies. Doesn’t matter if the attack is viable or not (most likely it’s not), but rather whether or not the author makes it look important. The general public tends to lack training in science, so it’s easy to bypass the rigorous testing involved with scientific publications when writing for the general public.

      I have to confess here that I agree with you; I’ve been interested in evolution for a while, but one of the biggest trends that excites me is pseudoscientific attacks on evolution. I have fun looking at Creationist/antievolutionist arguments, comparing them to the available body of scientific evidence, and then seeing whether or not they work. I’m open to the possibility of a challenge to evolutionary theory; I’ve just never seen one that is able to withstand scrutiny. Evolution itself encompasses so much that you’re bound to run into it when reading into paleontology or biology (especially since the work of Fischer and other early-to-mid-20th century scientists). The more I study the stuff, the more amazed I get when people claim that evolution is “a theory in crisis”. Sure keeps things interesting though!

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