Last year at UCSD, just before our annual Darwin’s Birthday concert, I was approached by Wendy Ward and her cameraman, Nathaniel, from Rampant Films. They told me, the other members of the band, and Carol, our manager that they were working on a film about Creationism and Evolution, tentatively entitled, “Crossroads-the Intersection of Science and Religion.” They asked permission to film our concert and then interviewed all of us about our views of the controversy over teaching evolution, creationism, and intelligent design in science classes. I told them I thought that creationism and intelligent design were basically religious views of the world and that they should be taught in comparative religion classes.
Now Ben Stein has released a film, “Expelled, No Intelligence Allowed,” which is the descendent (with modification) of the original project. I do not know if that is what he always intended. Our concert and our interviews ended up on the cutting room floor. Several other scientists have stated in print that they were approached in the same way and did not realize that they were being interviewed for a polemic, not a scholarly documentary. The film opened to general audiences last night. So, for my 64th birthday, I went to a movie.
The film opens with old footage of Nazi generals, then Russians constructing the Berlin wall. This sort of footage of Hitler, Stalin, Krushchev and their militaristic, repressive, and murderous societies is continuously interspersed throughout the film. Ben Stein uses these scenes to imply that biologists who accept evolution as the underlying, organizational principle of all of biology are so narrow-minded, in fact, fascistic in this belief, that they have built a wall that cuts off even the right to think about intelligent design in the same way that Hitler and Stalin destroyed dissent during their murderous reigns. Stein basically presents the intelligent design controversy as an issue of free speech. He doesn’t review any evidence about evolution or any evidence for or against intelligent design as a plausible or necessary agent to explain either the origin of life or speciation. Instead he interviews several scientists who claimed that they were fired or denied tenure because of their thoughts, statements, or actions supporting intelligent design. I’ll give two examples. The first is Richard Steinberg. Ben Stein claims that Steinberg was dismissed from his position in the Smithsonian and from his editorship of the “Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington” for publishing a pro-intelligent design paper by Stephen C. Meyer. Steinberg is interviewed at some length. Never does he note that he had resigned as editor the year before the paper by Meyer was published and, after resigning, he had arranged to have it published in the last volume of his editorial term at the journal. A second example is Guillermo Gonzalez, Assistant Professor of Astronomy at Iowa State University, who was not promoted to tenure. He claimed that it was because he advocated intelligent design. Iowa State said that his publication record was inadequate and that, during the time that Gonzalez was an Assistant Professor, four of twelve candidates for tenure were not promoted. This was not noted in the film.
Several other people with academic credentials who were critical of evolutionary theory were also interviewed. The interview of David Berlinski, a mathematician, was given extensive footage. He was critical of evolutionary theory but gave no specifics. He just generally implied that biologists had failed to answer all the questions raised by proponents of intelligent design. He also was quite critical of Richard Dawkins, saying that he was an incompetent philosopher. The interview of Berlinski was rather typical of the whole film, lots of people expressing criticisms of evolution and evolutionary biologists, but no examination of accumulated evidence. One scene in the film shows Stanley Miller behind his laboratory apparatus. Ben Stein claims that Miller was trying to create life in a test tube and that he failed. I knew Stanley Miller and read many of his papers. He was not trying to create life in a test tube. He was trying to discover plausible, abiotic, synthetic pathways for amino acids and nucleotide bases. I believe that he himself showed that eleven of the twenty amino acids that are found in proteins could be successfully synthesized from gases found in the likely atmosphere of the early Earth. Others have extended his work so that Miller should really be viewed as quite successful. In fact, when his work was first presented, the Nobel Laureate,Harold Urey, was asked if he thought what Miller had shown in the laboratory was what really happened on the early Earth. Urey said, “If God didn’t do it this way, He missed a good bet.”
The film has many interviews with evolutionary biologists, notably Richard Dawkins, whose interview is mostly reduced to his atheism and his statement that nobody really knows how the universe started. I believe that Stein is implying that, if scientists don’t know how the universe started, then design by a higher power should be considered. Of course, it has been, for thousands of years. Dawkins discusses this question at length in his writings but none of his arguments make it into the movie. Likewise, Dawkins notes that one argument for the origin of life on Earth is that it was created elsewhere and then seeded here, the so-called “Directed Pan-zoospermia” idea that Francis Crick discussed in his book, “Life Itself.” Dawkins has also discussed this at length in his writings but Stein breaks off the interview with Dawkins “admitting” that the possibility exists that some intelligence somewhere else created life and sent it here. Stein does not review Dawkins published arguments about the nature of this designer and how unlikely it is.
Perhaps the most chilling aspect of the movie is Stein’s implication that “Darwinism” led directly to the Nazi Holocaust. He interviews people who say that the Nazis were Darwinists and that they were inspired by their understanding of natural selection to murder Jews and cripples and mental defectives. Stein’s further implication is that evolution’s godless, amoral, and purposeless view of life and its variety will, if believed, somehow lead to the downfall of America and our precious freedoms. Considering the rest of the movie, perhaps it is not surprising that he did not discuss Roman Catholicism, the Crusades, and the Inquisition, which set despicable standards for intolerance, suppression of dissent, and murder well before Darwin published in 1859. One might also note, as Stein did not, that Hitler was raised a Catholic, Stalin was raised in the Russian Orthodox tradition, and Mao Tse Tung in no western religion or scientific tradition. All three were murderously intolerant of dissent and nonconformity to their views.
A minor part of Stein’s eugenics section is a swipe at Margaret Sanger, Planned Parenthood, and birth control. His strong implication is that Sanger and Planned Parenthood intended to use birth control to reduce the number of offspring for eugenic purposes. He doesn’t note that, since the use of birth control methods became widespread, the number of women entering all professions has skyrocketed. When I entered Medical School at Stanford in 1966, we had 12 women in a class of 64. This was the most they had ever had by far. Now, at UCSD, for the last several years, the medical school class has had an equal number of women and men. No affirmative action program has been used. Graduate schools, law schools, and business schools have all made similar gains in female enrollment. Stein doesn’t discuss this phenomenon.
So the proponents of intelligent design have produced no new hypotheses since William Paley’s 1802 observation that a watch implies a watchmaker so the Earth implies an Earth-maker. They have not proposed experiments and they do not publish papers except to observe that, since we do not yet understand everything about the universe and life, science must admit the possibility of the contribution of an intelligent designer to the complexity of physics, chemistry, and biology. Further, they argue that their theory should be taught in science classes as an alternative to the failed theory of evolution. They do not present evidence that evolution has failed as a theory. Instead they say that all the complexity of which we are aware is as yet unexplained. But their arguments proposing the “irreduceable complexity” of structures such as the eye and the bacterial flagellum have been repeatedly debunked by biologists who have described the evolution of several different forms of eyes in nature and the independent evolution of several parts of the flagellum and its ATPase motor. All these experimental results have been published over the years by biologists who are not in the intelligent design movement. Those who are, such as the molecular biologist, Michael Behe, do not work on these problems. Intelligent design advocates have repeatedly lost in court battles to force the teaching of their point of view in science classes. Their most recent loss was in Dover, Pennsylvania where Behe testified. The judge referred to their case and arguments as, “of breathtaking inanity.” Undaunted, they are now moving to argue that the resistance of the scientific world to their viewpoint raises questions of freedom of speech. Ben Stein’s movie has picked up the fallen standard. It would be interesting to get an office pool going on when a legal case based on such a constitutional argument makes it to court.
So, over the years, we have moved from arguments about teaching the Bible stories in science classes, to Creation Science, to Intelligent Design, and now to Freedom of Speech. In the Middle Ages the cause of religion against science was championed by the Roman Catholic Church; in America today it is mostly fundamentalist Protestants and The Discovery Institute in Seattle; and now we have Ben Stein. I really don’t understand why Ben Stein is doing this but “why?” is a religious, not a scientific question.