Thursday, April 24, 2008

Ben Stein’s War: A Review of Expelled

I am a practitioner of Orthodox Judaism and a believer in evolution. My view as to the role of religion and science has been heavily influenced by the work of Rabbi Natan Slifkin and Dr. Francis Collins. Because of this I am fairly hostile to intelligent design and its promoters. So I came into Ben Stein’s documentary, Expelled, with apprehension. I think Win Ben Stein’s Money was the greatest game show in the history of television, featuring Ben Stein’s dry wit and the spectacle of him putting his money where his mouth was, matching himself against the show’s wining contestants. I have tremendous respect for Ben Stein’s intelligence and the thought of him taking the stand on behalf of intelligent design was disconcerting to say the least.
Expelled is a film that will have a lot of people saying a lot of different things about it. Religious conservatives will likely declare it to be a stunning refutation of Darwinism and pretty much everyone else will see it as a pile of rubbish. Be careful about accepting at face value what you hear about this film; this is one of those films that one must see for oneself. The film is very open ended and one can imprint almost anything you want onto it; this is a weakness of the film, but also just might be its saving grace.

Judging just from the film, I am not certain were Ben Stein stands on the issue of intelligent design. He is clearly critical of what he sees as a Darwinian establishment that, from his point of view, has used strong arm tactics against all those who would dare to challenge Darwinian orthodoxy. Proponents of intelligent design are portrayed sympathetically as scientists who are the victims of a totalitarian Darwinian establishment, which seeks to quash all dissenters. This point is emphasized by frequent cuts to footage of the totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. To be fair to Ben Stein he specifically denies that the theory of evolution caused the Holocaust. He just believes that evolution was a key enabling factor in the rise of the Nazis. Further than this I am not certain. Is Ben Stein an actual supporter of intelligent design or is he simply defending their right to dissent? For that matter what does Ben Stein mean when he uses the terms intelligent design and Darwinian evolution; does intelligent design mean that evolution came about through a creator and does Darwinian evolution mean that evolution happened without a designer?

This lack of clarity severally weakens the film, turning it into a hodgepodge of vague generalizations. We are given a parade of people representing either “Big Science” on the one hand or who are dissenters from it. The film never really clarifies what each of these people hold. I think the film would have benefited if each interviewees were asked if they believed in God and if so what sort of God they believed in and to what extent they were willing to accept the theory of evolution.

I believe that this film, despite itself, is useful precisely because it illustrates the problem that has plagued the whole debate over evolution, which unfortunately, all too often, has descended to rhetoric, vague generalizations and accusations. While Expelled has all of these same flaws, I did not find it to be mean spirited and Ben Stein, to his credit, conducts himself with a high level of class.

This ambiguity over what the intelligent design debate is supposed to be about plays itself out very nicely over the course of the film. In the film, the head of the Discovery Institute, which has spearheaded the intelligent design movement, denies that there is anything religious about his group’s work and that they are simply critical of certain elements of traditional Darwinism. Advocates of intelligent design claim that they are not arguing for the existence of God. Believing in some sort of High Power, might offer a solution to some of the issues they raise, but that is simply speculation and has nothing really to do with their work as scientists. On the other side, Richard Dawkins, one of the most outspoken opponents of intelligent design, when interviewed, is perfectly willing to acknowledge the possibility that life was seeded by some being of “higher intelligence,” but that this being must have also come into existence by some sort of naturalistic process. So what is everyone arguing about? I guess it is that intelligent design advocates claim that Darwin is flawed. But there are a lot of ongoing debates within the scientific community as to many of the details of evolution via natural selection, such whether it happened gradually or whether it happened through relatively sudden shifts. The advocates of intelligent design do not seem to be actually rejecting Darwinian evolution so what is all the fuss about?

Despite the fact that I disagree strongly with what I think the film is trying to say, Ben Stein still manages to be entertaining. Maybe this is just me trying to see the good in what Ben Stein has produced here, but I do think that he has accomplished something worthwhile.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yeah, maybe it is just you trying to see the good where there is none. Scratch that, it definitely is just you.