Intelligent Design foes no match for Stein in 'Expelled'
Posted on Apr 4, 2008 | by Michael Foust
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--Actor, commentator and comedian Ben Stein promises he hasn't lost his mind. Well, he says with his famous dry monotone humor, at least not in this instance.
On the contrary, Stein -– whose documentary film "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" opens in two weeks, April 18 -- believes he's involved in one of the leading cultural and political battles of his life: the fight for academic freedom against an establishment that teaches Darwinian evolution as fact. Intelligent Design (ID) -– the belief that certain aspects of the world are so complex that they are best explained as having been created by an intelligent being, instead of by a random process –- deserves a place at the academic table, he says.
"I think I'm engaged in a struggle that's very much uphill in which the establishment is very much against me," he said in a recent telephone conference call with reporters. "But I'm a rebel to my core ... and happy to be in an uphill struggle, as long as the cause is right."
Obviously, conservatives and supporters of Intelligent Design don't believe Stein has lost his mind. Rather, they believe "Expelled" –- one of the year's most controversial films -– has a chance to change dramatically the landscape in the ongoing struggle between evolution and Intelligent Design (ID). In the film, Stein travels the globe, interviewing scientists, philosophers and doctors who believe in evolution and those who believe in Intelligent Design. In case after case, Stein recounts the story of ID supporters who lost their jobs or couldn't get tenure because of their supposed controversial beliefs.
The documentary, rated PG for thematic material and very brief language, ends in a climactic scene with Stein interviewing one of the world's leading backers of evolution, atheist and author Richard Dawkins.
Stein's humor is on display throughout the film, although supporters of evolution likely won't find it too funny. Christian conservative leaders are on board, supporting it. The film was shown at the recent National Religious Broadcasters meeting. It's also scheduled to be the topic of an upcoming Focus on the Family broadcast.
ID supporters, Stein and the film assert, are facing staunch opposition in the academic world, in the media and in the courts.
"The case we're making," associate producer Mark Mathis said, "is that there needs to be freedom in science, that we have highly qualified scientists who are being persecuted for unscientific reasons [and] are being driven [away] by a philosophy. That is the core content of the film -– the persecution of scientists needs to stop."
A secondary theme is that evolution, taken to the extreme, can have deadly consequences. In one part of the documentary that likely will stir controversy, Stein tours a Jewish concentration camp and interviews an expert who argues that evolution was a contributing factor to the Holocaust. For Stein, who is Jewish, the moment was personal.
Some critics will say the documentary unfairly links evolution to the Holocaust, but Stein believes the film showed restraint. One person in the film says evolution was a necessary, but not sufficient, cause of the Holocaust.
"If I had my way about this movie -- which I didn't, because I was not one of the producers -- I would have had much more of it [be] about Nazi Germany," Stein said. "The unequivocal nature of the evidence that Darwinism had a big part to play in rationalizing the Holocaust for the Nazis is so painful and so horrible that I think we touched on extreme, extreme restraint."
The film, Stein says, is not saying evolutionists are Nazis.
"What we're saying is that the Nazis thought they were carrying out Darwinian ideas in the sense of eliminating inferior races and making mankind healthy and so forth," he said.
Although the Nazi element might get the media's spotlight, the majority of the documentary focuses on the ongoing fight for academic freedom by supporters of Intelligent Design.
Stein interviews, among others, Guillermo Gonzalez, a supporter of ID and an astronomy professor at Iowa State University who was denied tenure, as well as Caroline Crocker, a biology teacher at George Mason University who was forced out because she questioned Darwinian evolution and introduced Intelligent Design in the classroom. Stein also speaks with Richard Sternberg, a biologist who was ridiculed and harassed by his peers at the Smithsonian Institution for allowing the publishing of a pro-Intelligent Design paper in an academic journal. Sternberg's plight received national attention in 2005-06 and even led to a congressional investigation that found top officials had desired to make Sternberg's "life at the Museum as difficult as possible and encourage him to leave."
Stein also interviews Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary philosophy professor William Dembski, one of the nation's leading supporters of Intelligent Design.
Getting involved in the project, Stein says, wasn't a difficult decision.
"I was always interested in Darwinism because I never thought it gave a particularly coherent explanation of how life originated and developed," he said. "... I also was extremely concerned about the social implications of Darwinism and the moral, ethical and human costs of Darwinism, because I knew Darwinism was one of the main props under the national socialist regime of Adolf Hitler and that the Holocaust was commenced in large part to satisfy social Darwinists' aims of eliminating so-called inferior races. That was my starting point."
As he got involved in the project with the documentary's producers, Stein said, he began seeing it as a free speech issue. Stein and the producers conducted the interviews over a period of two years.
In addition to Dawkins, the film includes interviews of several prominent backers of evolution, including biologist PZ Myers, a biologist and atheist at the University of Minnesota Morris, and Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education.
Some of the pro-evolution scientists and philosophers in the film have claimed the interviews were conducted under false pretenses -– a claim Stein and the producers reject. Mathis said he contacted each person, telling him or her they were working on a film about the cultural intersection of evolution, religion and Intelligent Design.
"[We said,] 'You, Mr. or Mrs. Scientist, are an outspoken person on this topic. Would you like to do an interview with us on this film? And you'll be paid.' And they said, 'Sure, we'd love to,' because they do this sort of thing all the time," Mathis said.
In some instances, he said, questions were sent to people in advance. After the interview was done, the person signed a form giving the producers the rights to use the footage as they deemed necessary. Those who believe in evolution, Mathis said, are given ample time in the film to explain their position. The producers didn't tell anyone the name of the film, he added, because the film didn't yet have one.
"We think we were very above board with them," Mathis said. "... The people who want to attack the film are raising some issues that are really kind of irrelevant issues –- side issues, diversionary issues -– and not addressing the content of the film."
The content, Stein agreed, should be the focus. Asked how he could question Darwinian evolution when those in academic leadership say it's been established as fact, Stein gave one of his patented half-serious, half-joking answers.
"The intelligentsia often is wrong," he said in a serious tone. "I'd say they're wrong at least as often as they're right. We aim to show them that they're wrong again. We're sick of being pushed around by the intelligentsia."
Then he added jokingly, in his famous monotone voice, "Even though I am one of the intelligentsia, we don't like to be pushed around; we don't like to be pushed around by other members of the intelligentsia, and I don't even like pushing myself around."
Mathis said the "biggest part" of the debate over evolution isn't about science but rather about a worldview.
"If you acknowledge this idea that design can be detected scientifically in the universe, then you open up the door to saying, 'Maybe this atheistic view isn't true,' [and] the entire worldview of people who are atheists crashes down around them," Mathis said. "This is a foundational concept for people who believe this way. So they defend it with incredible vigor."
For more information visit www.getexpelled.com or www.expelledthemovie.com. Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.