I had a unique opportunity yesterday to catch a pre-release screening of the new documentary from Ben Stein, Expelled. The film is an exploration of the tight reigns that neo-Darwinism keeps on the academy and the consequences that evolution has had on our society. It’s also very, very funny. For years now, the mere mention that Darwin’s “dangerous idea” might either have some rather gaping holes or be patently false has been sufficient grounds for dismissal for scientists teaching in our schools. This is not news to anyone who has followed the debates even remotely, but the revelation has reached a boiling point for Ben Stein and in Expelled he tries to get to the heart of the matter.
Being a bit weary of big-production documentaries thanks to Michael Moore, I had strong doubts about this film. I expected a rather polemical and skewed view that was going to do little more than restate the obvious and probably do more harm than good. I’m happy to say that I wasn’t entirely right.
No doubt, this film has an agenda – to expose ardent dogmatism in the academy towards the neo-Darwinistic understanding of life, the universe, and everything (as Douglas Adams put it). Then again, it’s not like this is a stretch of a thesis. Open up the newspaper and you’re bound to see an article every week on some state duking it out in the courts over the right to teach alternative theories of origins and life, chiefly Intelligent Design, or Design Theory as it’s known in some circles. Don’t walk in to this film think that it’s just a he-said, she-said affair. If you’re on one side or the other, you’re likely not to change your mind about your theory.
But having said that, this film is not about changing your mind about the actual theory of evolution, per se. It seemed more effective at pointing out the gross disparity between science’s long-standing creed of free inquiry and its embarrassing treatment of dissenters. Stein digs deeper to show that this witch-hunt is not constrained to the field of science alone; the media and our culture are responsible as well for caving in to the dogmatic assertions of the modern evolutionary synthesis and its ever vocal proponents. And you hear plenty from these proponents, chiefly Richard Dawkins himself, the man who revolutionized evolutionary thinking with The Selfish Gene and has become the most “notorious” atheist of the day with his best-selling The God Delusion.
Through interviews with several who have felt “expelled” or are critical of neo-Darwinism, Stein lets the experts do most of the talking. I was most impressed with the on-going dialogue Stein has with David Berlinski, a very intelligent and outspoken critic of evolution who is highly ridiculed for his stance. Berlinski’s thoughts on why evolution has not shut up everybody and essentially has failed to convince the world yet are interesting. Especially when you factor in the public-relations campaign that evolution has going on and the extreme polemics of men like Dawkins and Daniel Dennett towards Christianity of all things. I appreciated that Stein let the members of the intelligent design movement clearly distinguish themselves from any religious claims and demonstrate that such a mis-perception is one perpetrated by critics and the media.
Towards the end of the film, Stein has a deeply personal exploration of the implications and consequences of neo-Darwinism, both potential, actual, and historical. This is where he loads on the pathos and I must admit, it was the one part of the movie that probably had the most lasting effect for me thinking through the origin of the very idea of evolution from a Christian point of view. I won’t elaborate now, but suffice to say I believe you will understand what I’m talking about when you see this film.
I should also mention the final interview of the film is worth the price of admission alone, though not without its faults. Ben Stein interviews the ever-confident Richard Dawkins and it is rather amusing. Though Stein makes Dawkins say some things that he indeed is not saying, Dawkins looks lost when trying to explain the first spark and why it could not have been God. It was not Dawkins’ best moment, but it was a breath of fresh air to see the same man who filmed The Root of All Evil have no adequately prepared screed with which to denigrate Stein and the Judeo-Christian tradition. There are many others who look rather absurd in their defense of evolution in this film (perhaps none so bad as Michael Ruse – who sounded like a politician when trying to explain how evolution got started), and the film offers people a good opportunity to discuss these things with friends and family.
When I wasn’t laughing, I was thinking. The best of both worlds. Say what you will and think what you will, but Expelled hits the mark in my estimation.
UPDATE: There is quite a bit of controversy spilling over about this film already (and it hasn’t even been released yet!). Now, in the interest of being fair and intellectually honest, here is Richard Dawkins’ take on how he was misconstrued in this film.
UPDATE2: Thanks to all who posted in the comments section, I have made a few minor changes in light of the dialog that I believe are more accurate.