No Intelligence? Darwinism under Attack, Again


In Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism Michelle Goldberg discusses a document called “The Wedge Strategy,” a five year plan for attacking evolution and pushing (so-called) intelligent design. She writes:

The plan, then, is to undermine the Enlightenment conception of the physical world as a prelude to undermining the Enlightenment’s social legacies. What the authors of “The Wedge Strategy” want to discredit isn’t just Charles Darwin–it’s the very idea that truth can be ascertained without reference to the divine. Religious law makes much more sense when religion is seen as the foundation of reality.

Well, this strategy is back in the form of a new movie moderated by Ben Stein called Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. This seems to be in line with Pamela Winnick’s A Jealous God: Science’s Attack on Religion, which attempts to show how biotech companies and powerful lobbies associated with the same have mounted a distorted attack on religious groups from the Catholic church to the Evangelicals (the argument is something like this: religion’s resistance to things like stem cell research, cloning, etc., have frustrated private labs obsessed with profits). I’m sorry, but I don’t quite buy into the idea that design theorists are anything but a representation of “alternative experts.” Nor, am I sure why design theory is once again making the rounds masquerading as a legitimate scientific theory. Election year?

Many on the design side like to point to the experiment at MIT from the 60’s in which one mathematician dryly noted that a whirlwind whipping through a junkyard would stand a better chance of spontaneously assembling a 747 than the current state of life on the planet having come about through Darwinian mechanism. They go on to suggest that Darwinism has been unable to come up with answers to problems like homologous structures and disjunctions, point mutations and their survival value, amino acid sequences that lead to no evolutionary sequence across phyla (claiming that microevolution is at best a fairytale), and oddest of all, gesture to the “huge gaps” in the fossil record (Err….really?) and love to gesture to all of this as so-called irreducible complexity (as if complexity is enough to drive a wedge into Darwinism and make a case for a designer). Finally, proponents of design like to suggest that we have no idea how life began and suggest that evolutionary biology’s best response so far has been the punctuated equilibirium theory, which is a failure because it is much more descriptive than explanatory. The fact is that we can duplicate evolution in a high school science classroom in a glass jar! Now, it would be good to have a bunch of “science smarties” go at it and talk about this stuff, which on the face of it seems to be independent from religion or concepts of God (as far as I can tell they tend to sneak all that in later). Yet, according to a review I came across not only does the film do none of this it even goes so far as to suggest that evolutionary biology makes us more likely to give into totalitarianism. Spooky! For some reason though I’m quite looking forward to watching what seems to be a disaster of a documentary. Read the full review below the fold:

Flunk This Movie!

“This is not a religious argument,” asserts Discovery Institute president Bruce Chapman in conservative Hollywood gadfly Ben Stein’s new anti-science propaganda film, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. The movie opens this Friday in 1,100 theaters, the largest theatrical release ever for a documentary, according to Expelled‘s producers. The movie’s basic point? To quote a transcript from a Rush Limbaugh show posted to the movie’s offical website: “Darwinism has taken root, taken hold at every major intellectual institution around the world in Western Society, from Great Britain to the United States, you name it. Darwinism, of course, does not permit for the existence of a supreme being, a higher power, or a God.”

Yet despite its topic, the film is entirely free of scientific content—no scientific evidence against biological evolution and none for “intelligent design” (ID) theory is given. Which makes sense because biological evolution is amply supported by evidence from the fossil record, molecular biology, and morphology. For example, the younger the rocks in which fossils are found, the more closely they resemble species alive today, and the older the rocks, the less resemblance there is. In addition, molecular biology confirms that the more distantly related the fossil record suggests species lineages are, the more their genes differ.

Instead of evaluating this evidence, Stein spends most of the movie asking various proponents of evolutionary theory, including Richard Dawkins, P.Z. Myers, Michael Ruse, and Daniel Dennett, for their religious views. Neither the producers nor Stein understand that offering critiques of a theory with which they disagree is not the same as proving their own theory.

Stein and the film’s producers maintain that belief in evolutionary biology makes societies more likely to succumb to totalitarianism. The flick is replete with grim black-and-white shots of Soviet armies, Nazi thugs, Stalin, Hitler, and concentration camps. The filmmakers portray opposition to teaching ID in universities and public schools as a threat to freedom on a par with Communist and Nazi repression. But ID proponents in the academy are not being dragged off to concentration camps by goose-stepping Darwinist thugs—the worst thing they suffer is the loss of their jobs. That’s not fun, but it’s not the gas chamber either.

This silly, duplicitous film features one associate after another of the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based “think tank” that has been at the forefront of campaign to smuggle intelligent design into science classrooms and public discourse. This campaign was outlined in the Discovery Institute’s infamous “Wedge Strategy” document in 1998. That document begins with the sentence, “The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built.” The Wedge document goes on to complain: “Yet a little over a century ago, this cardinal idea came under wholesale attack by intellectuals drawing on the discoveries of modern science.”

The Wedge document makes it crystal clear what comes first for intelligent designers, and it isn’t evidence. Under activities to popularize intelligent design, the Wedge document mentions “documentaries and other media productions.” Expelled is just part of that propaganda strategy.

The film is being bankrolled by Walt Ruloff, a Christian evangelical software millionaire. A resident of Vancouver, British Columbia, Ruloff hooked up with another Expelled producer, Logan Craft, when Craft was studying with evangelical theologian J.I. Packer at Regent College in Vancouver. Ruloff claims that he was shocked when one of the leading genomic researchers in the U.S. told him that as much 30 percent of research in his field is never published because it points toward intelligent design theory. Just how this much research is hidden from view goes unexplained.

The film begins with moody shots of Ben Stein backstage before he addresses an unidentified audience on the alleged suppression of scientific research in the name of Darwinian orthodoxy. Stein stalks onstage and declares that freedom is the essence of America. So far, so good. Then he muses, What if our freedom was taken away? In fact, Stein asserts that this is already happening. We are losing our freedom in one of the most important sectors of our society—science.

As evidence of this loss of freedom, Stein trots out a small parade of intelligent design martyrs. Let’s look at a few cases. In 2004, Richard Sternberg, who was editor of the scientific journal Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, published an article by Stephen Meyer arguing that the “Cambrian explosion” 570 to 530 million years ago in which most of the body types of animals developed was evidence for intelligent design. Meyer was then a professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University where all “trustees, officers, members of the faculty or of the staff, must believe in the divine inspiration of the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments; that man was directly created by God.”

Sternberg was serving on the editorial board of the Baraminology Study Group, a group of young-earth creationists. Baraminology is the study of biblical animal “kinds.” Sternberg argued that he was a friendly outsider advising them against their young-earth views. Meyer is now the head of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture and Sternberg is a signatory of the Discovery Institute’s A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism.

Many of Sternberg’s colleagues reacted with dismay and the journal retracted Meyer’s article. In the film, Sternberg says he lost his office at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, was pressured to resign, and had his religious and political beliefs questioned. Yet, he still has office space in the Museum and has been reappointed for three more years. To be sure, probably some of his colleagues are unhappy with him and don’t want to hang out with him anymore. This is far cry from the concentration camps, or what Stalin did to proponents of evolutionary biology in the name of Lysenkoism.

In another case of alleged persecution, George Mason University (GMU) did not renew a teaching contract with Caroline Crocker, an adjunct biology lecturer who believes in ID. She says that she only wanted to teach students to question scientific orthodoxies. “I was only trying to teach what the university stands for—academic freedom,” she says in the Stein’s film. Since GMU let her go, she says that she can no longer find work. In the film, Crocker insists, “I did not teach creationism.” Interestingly, Crocker apparently delivered the same offending lecture at a local community college later. It didn’t turn out to be a “balanced” presentation of evidence for and against biological evolution. Why not? “There really is not a lot of evidence for evolution,” Crocker said.

Assistant professor of astronomy
and ID proponent Guillermo Gonzalez was denied tenure at Iowa State University in 2007. In 2004, Gonzalez was coauthor, with theologian and Discovery Institute fellow Jay Richards, of The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery. The publisher’s press release claims that the authors “demonstrate that our planet is exquisitely fit not only to support life, but also gives us the best view of the universe, as if Earth—and the universe itself—were designed both for life and for scientific discovery.” Gonzalez is arguing that the Earth is precisely positioned to enable researchers like him to make scientific measurements. But is this so? An Iowa State colleague, associate professor of religious studies Hector Avalos, disagrees and neatly skewers this conceit. To wit:

This rationale is analogous to a plumber arguing that if our planet had not been positioned precisely where it is, then he might not be able to do his work as a plumber. Lead pipes might melt if the Sun were much closer. And, if our planet were any farther from the Sun, it might be so frozen that plumbers might not exist at all. Therefore, plumbing must have been the reason that our planet was located where it is.

Did Gonzalez fail to get tenure because of his ID views? Although the university denies it, my guess is probably yes. Why? On the evidence of The Privileged Planet, Guillermo’s colleagues could reasonably worry that his ID views weren’t likely to lead to fruitful research results. Gonzalez was not thrown into a concentration camp for his views. He just didn’t get tenure.

The most egregious part of the film is the attempt to link evolutionary biology with Communism and Nazism. The claim that Communism was motivated by Darwin is just plain silly. Official Soviet biological doctrine was Lysenkoism, which was opposed to the findings of the modern synthesis of genetics and evolutionary biology. In fact, evolutionary biologists and geneticists were denounced as “Trotskyite agents of international fascism” and actually thrown into the Gulag for their scientific sins.

As for Nazism, the film interviews mathematician and Discovery Institute fellow David Berlinski who says, “Darwinism is not a sufficient condition for a phenomenon like Nazism, but I think it was a necessary one.” To visually illustrate the alleged totalitarian temptations of evolutionary biology, Stein wanders through the Nazi death camp at Dachau. Berlinski and other Discovery Institute denizens are basically claiming that scientific materialism undermines the notion that human beings occupy a special place in the universe. If humans aren’t special, goes this line of thinking, then morals don’t apply. This is a variation of the adage, “If god is dead, then everything is permitted.”

Of course, this overlooks the fact that people down through the millennia have found all sorts of justifications for why they are permitted to murder each other, including plunder, tribal competition, and, yes, religion. Meanwhile, insights from evolutionary psychology are helping us to better understand how our in-group/out-group dynamics contribute to our disturbing capacity for racism, xenophobia, genocide, and warfare. Evolutionary psychology is also offering new ideas about how human morality developed, including our capacities for cooperation, love, and tolerance.

Near the end of the film, Stein asks Dawkins, author of The God Delusion and arguably the best-known living evolutionary biologist on the planet, if he could think of any circumstances under which intelligent design might have occurred. Incautiously, Dawkins brings up the idea that aliens might have seeded life on earth; so-called directed panspermia. This idea was suggested by biologists Francis Crick and Leslie Orgel back in the 1970s. In the film, Stein acts like this a great “gotcha” and is the silliest thing he’s ever heard. Of course, the irony is that this is precisely what proponents of intelligent design are claiming—that a higher intelligence created life on earth. Only, they don’t want that higher intelligence to be a race of purple space squids. (By the way, Dawkins says that he is not a proponent of directed panspermia.)

The film’s close returns to Stein’s speech in which he declares, “There are people out there who want to keep science in a little box where it can’t possibly touch a higher power.” Earlier in the film, Warwick University “science studies” sociologist Steve Fuller archly poses the question: Which comes first, worldview or evidence? Fuller aims his question at the proponents of evolutionary biology. However, as this dreary film itself makes it painfully clear, the question is far more relevant to the supporters of intelligent design theory.

If ID is all worldview and no evidence, here’s something else to ponder. At an April 15 press conference for bloggers held at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., the movie’s producers said that they plan to use the movie as part of a campaign to roll out legislation in states—so-called “freedom bills”—that would forbid anyone from “punishing” teachers and professors who question “Darwinism.” Walt Ruloff noted that the science standards of about 26 states are currently in play and that Florida was likely to pass such a “freedom bill.”

Asked if the movie’s makers expected any friendly interest from scientific journals, Ruloff noted that Scientific American had savaged Expelled, adding, “I would expect that any other ‘science rag’ would do exactly the same thing.”

“What’s happening here is politics,” lamented the film’s star, Ben Stein, at Heritage. “Politics in the halls of science and that needs to be stopped.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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9 thoughts on “No Intelligence? Darwinism under Attack, Again

  1. “For some reason though I’m quite looking forward to watching what seems to be a disaster of a documentary.”

    Please do not give them your dollars. For the good of humanity, if you just have to see this terrible film, pirate it. Any money that goes to these people is going to be used for nefarious purposes, like making more of these movies. I liked “Win Ben Stein’s Money”, and now I hate Ben Stein; I’d prefer to not have this happen to any more comedians I like.

  2. I actually look forward to some assessments of this film that do more than reproduce reviews that confirm your worst suspicions. That sort of behaviour is not reassuring of your capacity for independent thought.

    As someone who participated in both the recent NOVA show on ID and Expelled, I can tell you right now that it doesn’t make a single bit of difference whether you’re informed in advance or not of the ultimate product (NOVA did and Expelled didn’t). If you sign the form saying you’re allowing the filming to proceed, you’ve given your approval to how you’re being used.

    When it comes to Darwinism and Nazism, I’m not sure about the nature of the complaint here. Is it simply that Ben Stein overeggs the point visually or that some of you seriously doubt that Nazism could have received the overwhelming support of the German scientific community without the Darwinist overlay? If anyone believes that Nazism would have happened without Darwinism, then you should write a book on the subject. It would be news to most historians.

  3. The Quest for Right: A Creationist Attack on Quantum Mechanics.

    Here’s a different take on creationism/ID: The Quest for Right, a seven-volume set of textbooks based on physical science, attacks Darwinism indirectly, by attacking quantum mechanics:

    “Atheists base their reasoning on quantum interpretation, hand in hand with mathematical elucidation. Summoning the dark forces of quantum mysticism, with mathematical incantations, scientists possess the power to bewilder and, thus, con the average person seemingly at will, into believing the bizarre and surreal; for example, imaginary Z particles, neutrinos, leptons, quarks, weak bosons, etc. Mystics attempt to pass off quantum abuse as legitimate science by expressing the theories in symbolic fashion. These formulae represent the greatest hoax ever perpetuated upon an unsuspecting public. The objective of the extensive investigation is to expedite the return to physical science by exposing quantum dirty tricks; that is, the unethical behavior or acts by the scientific league to undermine and destroy the credibility of biblical histories. A few of the dirty tricks include: absolute dating systems, Big Bang Theory, antimatter, and the Oort Cloud of comets. These have no further station in science.

    Of course, a more sophisticated way to argue against Darwinism is certainly to argue against quantum physics. Without modern physics, you lose astrophysics too, which enables the author to make the case for YEC [young earth creationism]. The author goes on to prove that things like red supergiant stars and X-ray pulsars don’t really exist, except in the imagination of scientists.” — Stephen L of the newsgroups.derkeiler.com

  4. What must it have been like to be a Jewish child growing up in a Nazi Germany?

    For some reason, the wise words of Paul Copan come to mind ””What then of the children? Death would be a mercy, as they would be ushered into the presence of God and spared the corrupting influences of a morally decadent culture.”’

  5. I actually look forward to some assessments of this film that do more than reproduce reviews that confirm your worst suspicions. That sort of behaviour is not reassuring of your capacity for independent thought.

    Thank you for a rather patronizing response. My capacity for independent thought? I fully admitted I hadn’t seen the film yet. I’m not quite sure what it is that you are talking about. I said I had hoped the movie would focus on the science, but it seems–according to this review and many others I’ve read–overwhelmingly not to be the case.

    When it comes to Darwinism and Nazism, I’m not sure about the nature of the complaint here. Is it simply that Ben Stein overeggs the point visually or that some of you seriously doubt that Nazism could have received the overwhelming support of the German scientific community without the Darwinist overlay? If anyone believes that Nazism would have happened without Darwinism, then you should write a book on the subject. It would be news to most historians.

    I’m not suggesting that Darwinian ideas did not play a role in Hitler’s overall “philosophical” outlook. Yet, the blinder wearing Creationist propagandists would have us believe that if Darwin never walked the planet, the Holocaust simply wouldn’t have happened. This is outrageous, forgetting about the fact that say, anti-semitic genocidal acts existed well before Darwin, and regardless of Adolf Hitler’s own ideological sources he encouraged a good many “willing executioners”, and drove tens of thousands more to a passive but nonetheless guilty agreement by mobilizing nationalistic and Christian themed blood and soil rhetoric. Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. My problem is with the claim of a direct, causal relationship from Darwinian evolutionary theory to Nazism. It is my understanding that Stein rehearses this whole notion by claiming that Darwinism was necessary for the Holocaust. Again, very disingenuous. Why make such a strong causal claim here? Doesn’t this move tend to conflate scientific and social Darwinism in a rather egregious and manipulative way? In fact, Darwin umambiguously rejected the idea of wiping out the “weak” as well, dehumanizing. So, my problem is less with the Nazi/Darwinism connection per se than it is with the manipulative use of such a connection, for one, to further political aims, second, to overstate the case in order to suggest that we should reject Darwinism b/c it leads to Fascism and the all around devaluing of human life. The inference, that all Nazi ideology came from Darwinism, is very disingenuous.

  6. just saw Expelled… Ben Stein’s goal in making Expelled (i gather) is to promote free thought, especially more thinking about motivations that drive American academia and a lot of other behind-the-scenes worldview that we tend to take for granted.

  7. Patrick, that “goal” of free thought is at best, rather misleading . The notion that scientists and more broadly, the public, fanatically accept uncritically some sort of Darwinian orthodoxy, and that those who dare to question “Darwinism” will quickly be silenced is a misnomer. Look, it’s not exactly simple to get a scienfitic idea, let alone theory to be broadly accepted and received. However, that is very different than saying that those people that challenge those “unthinking members of the evolution orthodoxy” are turned into pariahs. At bottom, there is a rigorous process in science regarding both evidence and logic. The notions that are the most sound become accepted when they are proven to be as such. People that advocate ID have, as far as I can tell, continually exhibited an unwillingness to engage a testable hypothesis, but still like to cry foul when nobody takes their ideas to heart.

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