Tuesday, April 22, 2008


Last night Meister and I made it to the new documentary Expelled. Sam wrote a Facebook note about it here last week (based only on hearsay??) to which I made only a smart-alec comment. Here is a slightly more substantial assessment:

1. It is definitely over-the-top in style. The longer it went, the more I felt like it was trying to fight fire with fire. That is to say, it was squarely within the genre of Richard Dawkins's recent work: it was flamboyant, included lots of things just for shock value, chased some red herrings, interpreted some things uncharitably (which some will say are outright mischaracterizations), etc. At times it felt more like an ad in the current political campaign. Perhaps the producers thought that was the only way they'd make a splash in our Hollywood-ized culture. And that was too bad.

2. I was disappointed there was such an overt and strong connection made between Darwinism and the Nazis (and other totalitarian states). There is no doubt that evolutionary ideas influenced Hitler; and a case can be made that the spirit of natural selection pushes a culture toward eugenics. But there is a big difference between that and the claim that neo-darwinists today in academe are just as morally reprehensible--and that is certainly what was insinuated.

3. If you strip the above qualities away from the film, it did an admirable job of exposing contemporary evolutionary theory to be what Thomas Kuhn called "normal science". There is a dominant paradigm that remains unquestioned within the enterprise of science (which includes journal publications, tenure, grants, etc.). People who are outside of that paradigm are labelled as trouble makers or worse, because they upset the balance that has been achieved in the guild. Of course there are problems within theory, but very few are willing to go outside of the theory in order to solve them and prefer to work from within.

4. They were not trying to make the point that Intelligent Design--much less creationism--is correct; rather they were trying to argue that its proponents deserve to be heard, deserve a place at the table. That is hard to argue with unless you have a view of science that is so committed to positivism that it's silly. Science is imbued with metaphysical assumptions and claims, so trying to claim that Intelligent Design proponents aren't really doing science comes back to bite just about everyone on the tush. I'm sure there are ID folks who aren't doing science, but the ones interviewed on the film (and many more that I know of) are: they're developing testable hypotheses and submitting them as the best explanation of certain facts. Ultimately, the theories will sink or swim based on their predictive power and their ability to lead to new discoveries. It just can't be substantiated that ID is merely young-earth creationism in sheep's clothing (or would it be wolves' clothing?). It just isn't the case that ID people are trying to get creationism taught in public schools with the hope that that will lead to mandatory prayer and Bible classes in schools and the dissolution of separation of church and state.

5. I think my favorite moment of the film was when Stein was interviewing Richard Dawkins and asked what he'd say if he dies and meets God. Dawkins kind of himmed and hawed a bit and said, "I guess I'd give the same sort of answer as Bertrand Russell did to that question: Why didn't you give more evidence of your existence?" The scene then cut to Stein's narration saying something like, "Maybe he did... maybe God left evidence of his intelligent design of creation, but scientists aren't willing to look for it."

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