Monday, April 21, 2008
Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed: a case for accepting intelligent design, not necessarily religious
Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (2008) seems to have done very well in standard theaters this weekend as an “issue” film (from Premise Media, distributed by Rocky Mountain pictures, dir. Nathan Franowski, 90 min). The film seems to have been avoided by the art houses because of its superficially “right wing” message, which really is not the case.
Ben Stein, himself Jewish, interviews a few scientists to make the case for intelligent design as genuine science that does not presuppose a particular deity. In fact, we could have been designed by a previous alien civilization (in the spirit of Smallville) which in turn would have to be explained. He covers some brief scientific arguments on the chemical and mathematical nature of DNA, as a one dimensional helix that transforms to a three dimensional being, as leading to us in a progression beyond the normal operation of probability. He discusses Darwin’s “Origin of the Species” as not in itself explaining new species. He doesn’t go into the cosmology of the other ID film, “The Privileged Planet.”
For much of the film, the concern is for the sacking of (“expelling from”) careers for scientists (at the Smithsonian, at Iowa, at Baylor, various other schools) for publishing papers, even going through normal channels, that give credibility to the idea of “intelligent design” even without promoting it. The film takes the technique of building a metaphor with other historical episodes, especially those involving Hitler and Stalin and the Berlin Wall. In fact, the opening of the film feints being in black and white with a 40s style presentation.
The most disturbing idea in the film has to do with the idea that Nazism developed out of Darwinism. In fact, the philosopher who is closer is probably Herbert Spencer. He visits a museum in Germany that is the site of a “hospital” where the weak and sick were gassed and cremated. There is a chilling but brief scene where a “patient” is undressed and “examined.”
Then he presents an interview at Auschwitz-Birkenau as it looks today. I visited it in May 1999 and the scene looks as it did then, as I envision it in the opening chapter of my novel. The other person claims that Hitler’s philosophy in Mein Kampf and other writings came out of Darwinism, and that Hitler thought he was doing “good” by making the human race “better.” The interviewee says, however, that Hitler was “evil” even though the thought he knew “good.” But Hitler’s racial ideas had no conceivable “scientific” foundation, and his categorization of people had nothing to do with medical or physical or mental fitness in any objective sense by modern standards. So I’m not sure that the film is drawing the proper comparison.
The film also presented the idea of eugenics (as promoted by the Nazis) as connected to social Darwinism. The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh had a presentation on eugenics in early 2007.
The film here is trying to make a case that sometimes man needs an appeal to a higher calling and belief in a Being who can supersede man’s own determination of fitness or of what is “good”. The film suggests that there were other “Darwinian” moral theories in the 1920s and that even Planned Parenthood started then. Of course this gets into the right to life debate, not just about abortion or even stem cells, but also about the way the “costs” of caring for the less lucky should be shared: just by parents, by whole families, by society? Some of the practices of extreme capitalism in the workplace would seem to contradict this broader and more humane view of the value of human life. Emotional independence is said to be a good thing in personal relationships, but when carried to the point that people no longer "care" about others (besides of their own children) who would need to depend on them, perhaps can invite new rationalizations for new forms of political authoritarianism. That seems to be what the Pope was talking about a couple of times in homilies in his US visit last week.
There is a brief shot from "Inherit the Wind" and that fits.
A related PBS film is "Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial," review link here.
Update: Oct 27, 2008
There is a new legal controversy over this film, since it shows 15 seconds of a song called "Imagine" which has brought copyright litigation from the family of John Lennon. The order in federal court in June 2008 denying an injunction to stop showing it is available here.