Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (2008) / Documentary

MPAA Rated: PG for thematic material, some disturbing images and brief smoking
Running time:  90 min

Cast: Ben Stein, Richard Dawkins, Stephen C. Meyer, Eugenie Scott
Director: Nathan Frankowski

Screenplay: Kevin Miller, Ben Stein
Review published December 29, 2008

Former speech writer for Richard Nixon, Ben Stein (Son of the Mask, The Mask), whose claim to fame has been as a comedic character actor (most famously as the lackadaisical teacher in Ferris Bueller's Day Off) and a game show host, has found a second career as a voice from the political right in the United States.  His name recognition and industry connections serve as assets in getting a documentary produced from the conservative side of the spectrum -- a rare feat.  This documentary would go on to become the highest grossing documentary of the year until, ironically, the anti-religion Bill Maher doc, Religulous, which goes to show that religion is a hot topic, but not necessarily due to zealotry. 

The approach offered up by Stein is a bit of a Trojan Horse, as it is clear that he believes that we are created by God, but it works well enough to deem Expelled as a film that isn't so much trying to preach creationism to its audience so much as in trying to expose the hostile environment that educators face in suggesting that life on Earth may not necessarily have occurred through infinitesimally improbable random events.  Those professors and learned scholars who believe in Darwin's theories on the origins of species see no reason to pollute their curriculum with notions of design by an unseen deity.  And yet, many of them are shown to accept the possibility of alien beings creating or tampering with life on our planet, as if anything in the universe is a possibility so long as it doesn't include that which creationists believe. 

Stein's film doesn't argue for belief in Judeo-Christian religious teachings so much as that there is too much complexity in life to suggest that it is devoid of meaning.  If one looks at even a simple cell, one can see what a complex and efficient system it is.  In his mind, such a small building block of life could not possibly have just evolved over time without some creative spark behind it all.  Whether you believe it was from an all-powerful god, or the carry over of an ancient alien civilization, Stein at least thinks that the possibility that life on Earth didn't emerge from lightning sparking on random molecules brought forth simple cell which later evolved into the world we have today.  He doesn't argue that he is right; his argument is that his theories shouldn't be seen as wrong, and those with differing opinions on the origins of life shouldn't be banished from institutions of higher learning simply because they posit theories that differ with the scientific community at large.

Stein suggests that those who proffer notions of intelligent design in the classroom are systematically persecuted for such beliefs.  Not only are these educated scholars ridiculed by their respective peers, but they often lose their jobs over the mere mention of intelligent design in their lectures or papers.  Stein's best case is to allow us to hear from those who've lost their status in the scientific community themselves.  They come across as rational, intelligent and likeable.  Surely, only a hard-hearted person would want to wish ill on them just because they do not follow lockstep with the rest of their colleagues.  And yet, the question remains as to how evolutionists and creationists can aver agree on this intelligent design compromise when it has become so politicized, that many who consider the arguments must ultimately reject them as politicized poison.

Stein's approach is not dissimilar to that of his counterpart on the Left, Michael Moore, in that he doesn't really persuade anyone to his side so much as provoke thought or new ways of looking at existing controversial problems.  Stein doesn't assert that his way of thinking is correct, or that those who disagree are wrong.  Rather, he asserts that Darwinism and Intelligent Design should not be considered mutually exclusive.  Darwinists will contend that, of course they are, as the foundation of Darwin's theory is that nature dictates which species of animal survives based on their environs and other factors.  Intelligent design proponents piggyback on that idea in that these adaptive traits were encoded in the design of each individual creature's DNA, which makes them much more highly adaptable than had it all been left up to chance.  It's a fine line of distinction, but intellectual battles have been brewing on all fronts to either thwart such notions (basically, it's a foot in the door to allow creationism to be taught in class curriculum), or to allow opposing viewpoints to co-exist (it is much more scientific to allow all theories to be explored, and it is anti-scientific to only choose one theory above all others without any proof of life's origins.)  Stein goes a step further by stating that the shutting out of ideas in the debate about the origin of life is un-American at its core, since America was founded on the freedom of ideas and expression.

Also like Michael Moore, the arguments are more based on skewed conjecture rather than hardened facts.  The victims of persecution offered up by Stein posit that their dismissals were due to being proponents of intelligent design, but there is a lack of proof that just the mere mention of the theory proved to be the swift and decisive factor in their banishment from the scientific community. 

I like Michael Moore's films.  I may not always agree with them in execution, but they do provoke thought.  They are pithy works, full of amusing material, and tragic testimonies.  I recommend his films, not because they reflect how I think, but because they are worthwhile as philosophical entertainments with substantive issues at their core.  It is for this same reason that I am recommending Ben Stein's Expelled.  I don't generally agree with the arguments, but they are persuasive enough to cause me to think about the matter in a way that I was not prepared to, or interested in, prior to watching the film.  No, the film did not make me a intelligent design proponent, but it does make me aware of the merit of the philosophical argument. 

As much as Stein tries to take the religious connotations of the intelligent design argument out of the equation, it is always just bubbling just under the surface.  Whether the subject is the root cause of atheism or in abortion, Stein asserts that the belief in Darwinism is a factor, if not the main proponent, for the reason these are proliferating in acceptance.  One of the film's more poignant moments, even if it undermines his objective argument, is when Stein travels to a former Nazi camp where people with physical and mental afflictions were put to death, under the presumption that weeding out the weaker elements of the human race would result in the species being stronger.  Stein ties this in directly with Darwin's theories as being the catalyst for these notions, followed by a soul-searching expedition to the Darwin museum exhibit where he bemoans the potential of humanity to live in a world of science, where human life is devalued to the point where moral decisions make way for such cold and clinical ones that benefit the rest of humanity.  However, even in this moment it is clear that he doesn't blame Darwin for these acts so much as the fact that God and religion are removed from the equation, as if the only reason one person cares about another is because the Bible, or any other religious text, tells them to.

Now for my own personal take.  At the end of the film, while I do think that it is more scientific to not disregard an entire line of reasoning completely, at the same time, it seems very unscientific to push such notions as science when there is little basis in science other than the complexity of life that there is a grand designer responsible for all life as we know it.  I think Stein is confusing science with philosophy a bit here, which is where I think intelligent design belongs, if it must be taught in the classroom.  If Stein thinks that Richard Dawkins' statements regarding the possibility of alien influence could have "intelligently designed" all that we know, then I would say that his reasoning is self defeating. By using the same argument, Dawkins' theories, such as they are, would be banished from being taught as science in most institutions, so why does Stein think that his notions should be treated otherwise?  Until someone pushes forward that grandest of all scientific notions -- proof -- I suspect that intelligent design, whether from God or from extraterrestrial forms, will only be a footnote in the texts of science books, if even that. 

Expelled isn't likely to change anyone's mind, and it fails miserably if put to any scientific or even basic logic standards, but it effectively sparks the debate, and if nothing else, makes for an interesting conversation piece for philosophical-leaning viewers to haggle over once the credits start to roll.

 Qwipster's rating:

©2008 Vince Leo