The documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed is hosted by Ben Stein, whose professional career spans everything from being a speechwriter and lawyer for U.S. presidents Nixon and Ford to starring as a droll school teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and anchoring a game show titled Win Ben Stein’s Money. Expelled’s role is to essentially dive-bomb the culturally established idea that Darwinian evolution has already won the scientific debate regarding the origins of man. And it boils over at the notion that the debate itself is now out of bounds.
"I have always assumed that scientists were free to ask any question, to pursue any line of inquiry, without fear of reprisal," Stein tells moviegoers. "But recently I have been alarmed to discover that this is not the case." He asks, "Darwin challenged the consensus view, and that’s how we got Darwinism. If Darwin wanted to challenge the consensus today, how would he do it?"
Off-camera, Stein told Focus on the Family, "Why do we allow, even celebrate, dissent in every other area of society, but not here? I’ve found that people who are confident in their ideas are not afraid of criticism. So this tells me that Darwinists are afraid. … Darwin was on to something gigantic. At the very least, he was on to changes within species. But whether there’s ever been a provable observation of a new species being created, I don’t think there has been. How did the whole thing start? How did the cell get so complex? Who created it all? Where did it come from?"
Are You Ready to Join My Side?
To explore these questions, Expelled utilizes brainy talking heads representing both extremes of the issue (from Discovery Institute’s Stephen Meyer to Oxford’s Richard Dawkins), anachronistic high school science class-style film strips and goofy, grainy flashes from old movies.
That last item works like this: A comment is made about, say, scientists slapping down opposing research and opinions, and the scene shifts to a black-and-white clip of some Three Stooges-ish slapstick smackdown. If scientists are referred to as bullies, we see a young ruffian pinning his latest victim to the ground, demanding that the weaker soul relent and join his side. A professor talks of being disciplined for not toeing the party line, and the screen fills with an image of a guillotine. You get the idea.
But vintage video isn’t always used for fun. A sizable portion of the movie explores what Stein believes to be a credible link between Darwinian thought and atrocities committed by Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. Here, images switch from hilarious to horrifying as we see glimpses of what happened when Nazis turned on Jews.
Eugenics, a branch of science that postulates humanity would be better off if its feebler souls were prevented from "breeding," is also linked to Darwin here. Further, Planned Parenthood specifically and the support for abortion and euthanasia in general are (somewhat hastily) linked to eugenics.
Handing Over Free Will
If you don’t believe honest and energetic debate on these subjects actually has ended quite yet, this documentary, by citing examples of scientists who’ve faced intellectual discrimination for exploring Darwin-challenging research, seeks to convince you that indeed it has. The New York Times’ science writer Cornelia Dean only manages to help illustrate this perspective when, in her article about the film’s interviewing techniques, she abruptly writes, "There is no credible scientific challenge to the theory of evolution as an explanation for the complexity and diversity of life on earth."
Similarly, if you don’t think that the shutting down of debate over what has become known as ID, or intelligent design, has much to do with you and yours, Expelled attempts to outline just how much it does. The answers to the questions of human origin ultimately define the way society is structured and how its members act, Stein explains. And a good deal of screen time is given to Prof. Will Provine of Cornell University, who details the final effects of Darwin’s theories—from the viewpoint of one who believes they are inevitable yet positive. If fully taken to heart, he says, you lose the idea that man has free will, that there is hope for life after death and the conception that there is anything or anyone higher than yourself.
Fair warning: The onscreen debate isn’t always entirely restrained or dispassionate—either from an intellectual or content perspective. The latter first: There is one exclamation of "h‑‑‑," and chilling images of piles of dead bodies are included as Stein visits the Nazi concentration camp Dachau.
Crossing over to the intellectual side of things, the flippant visual gags sometimes seem to trivialize the subject at hand. And many who see the film will bristle at the insinuation that scientists, educators and journalists who think this discussion terminated in 1925 should be compared to Hitler’s repressive regime in the 1940s. For his part, Dr. Dawkins says he regrets answering questions for the filmmakers and told The New York Times, "At no time was I given the slightest clue that these people were a creationist front."
Reinherit the Wind
Mightier minds than mine are fully engaged in defending the suggestion that Darwin’s theory of evolution falls far short of explaining how we got here and why we’re still here. And I will let them continue to do so. For my part as a Christian film critic, I will conclude with a more visceral reaction: Expelled makes one feel as though there should now recommence a rip-roaring argument over the merits of ID and the Darwinian hard-line. It’s about basic American freedom, Stein argues over and over again onscreen.
It also tackles the issue of God and why He’s important in this debate. "The situation has reached the point where many of evolution’s top apologists have switched from defending Darwinism to attacking religion," Stein narrates, clearly unhappy. And after Dawkins flagrantly discounts God’s presence, then states that if indeed He does exist, He has intentionally hidden Himself from us, Stein observes, "But if the intelligent design people are right, God isn’t hidden. We may even be able to encounter God through science if we have the freedom to go there. What could be more intriguing than that?"
So while Expelled doesn’t once-and-for-all prove creationism or even intelligent design, it goes a long way toward reinvigorating the public quarrel—if not the scientific one—over whether or not we randomly sprang from a primordial stew or Someone created us.
A postscript: Charles Darwin wrote, in The Descent of Man, "With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised 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; we institute poor-laws and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised 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. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed."
Indiana University’s Dr. Jonathan Plucker, on his "Human Intelligence" Web site, seemingly speaks for much of academia and the scientific community when he responds to this statement with, "It would be unfair to suggest that Darwin condemned these merciful acts. … He was simply providing evidence for the theory that humans have evolved a more sophisticated moral sensibility than other animals."
Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed could not disagree more.