Monday, March 10, 2008

Expelled: The Movie

Conservative blogger Ed Morrissey, from Captain's Quarters, reviewed a preview of Expelled, Ben Stein's latest brainchild and surprisingly didn't make a bad job of it. But there remain in his essay a number of simplifications, which I want to point out here. I need also to clarify that I haven't seen the movie.


Before discussing my feelings about the film, which is still in post-production and will not go into release until April, I should explain my approach to the ID/evolution debate. I believe evolution is demonstrably proven in enough examples to say that its effect on variation in species cannot be denied. The example I used tonight in discussing this with another viewer (certainly not the only example) is antibiotic effects on bacteria. Antibiotics that kill 99% of bacteria eventually promote the survival and the expansion of the 1% that resist them, created superbacteria that require another set of antibiotics to cure, and so on.

That said, evolution does not interfere with my faith in God. God certainly could have created the universe with a design that included life. The rational laws of nature would include evolution, as well as the myriad of other rational and mathematically provable mechanisms that undergird nature. In fact, the impulse of man to discover the rational laws of nature began with the belief in a rational God, as scientists understood nature's rationality to reveal an intelligent Creator.

I'd go deeper than that, but Dinesh D'Souza covers it nicely enough already in his book What's So Great About Christianity, and it's getting late enough as it is. Suffice it to say that evolution doesn't present a threat to my worldview.

So, we have at least one conservative blogger who doesn't have a problem with evolutionary biology. Good man...
Rationally, we have to admit that some use ID as an excuse to teach the more literal form of Creationism that has been used to argue against evolution entirely, especially against teaching evolution in primary-school classrooms. That admission does not appear in Expelled, which is a glaring omission. It tends to take out of context the frustration some scientists have about ID, and its place in polarizing the debate over its use. Properly framed, ID accepts all of the science without accepting its transformation into its own belief system.

Very magnanimous indeed, this admission of a glaring hole and the correct pointing to a lack of context provided by Stein. To ignore the genuine and justified frustration scientists feel when confronted with this pot pourri of religion, Young Earth Creationism and Intelligent Design, should not be left out of any debate on Stein's chosen subject matter.

But soon after Ed starts to go wrong:
What do I mean by that? In this, the film does an excellent job of demonstrating atheism as a belief system. Atheism as represented by Richard Dawkings and others in this film gets exposed as exactly the kind of belief system they claim to despise. They can't prove God exists -- and they can't prove God doesn't exist. They make the common fallacy of arguing that absence of evidence amounts to evidence of absence.

The old chestnut: atheism as a belief system. Absence of belief doesn't make belief (although certain brands of atheism could, on the face of things, easily be mistaken for some kind of faith). Ed, already in a hole, decided to keep digging by emphasising the word 'exactly'. As Dawkins himself pointed out (in a discussion with the philosopher A.C. Grayling, if I recall well), there is no such thing as 'positivist atheism': no one can prove or disprove the existence of G-d and in that sense we're all agnostics. Dawkins doesn't "make the common fallacy of arguing that absence of evidence amounts to evidence of absence", as Ed claims, instead he too accepts that he can't know and that at the end of the day the individual does need to go beyond the evidence to decide on theism or atheism. But in the absence of any positive evidence for the existence of a theistic G-d, believing in His existence requires a far greater leap of faith. Theism and atheism therefore do not mirror each other, at least not philosophically speaking.
But in a way, this is all secondary to the real issue of the film: academic intolerance. The debate over ID vs Darwinism sets the table for a truly disturbing look at academia. Science should be about the free debate and research of ideas and hypotheses for duplicable results and provable theorems. However, as the examples Stein and the film provide amply show, the Darwinist academic establishment will brook no dissent from the orthodoxy -- and scientists have to be shown with hidden faces to speak to the issue for the film.

Here Ed merely parrots the undoubtedly exaggerated message of the movie but clearly the thesis of suppression of dissent is a fallacy: ID proponents are vocal and can be heard loudly and clearly. T'inkerwebs are full of opinion on it, as well as commentary, columns, now a movie and more besides that, but it's short on actual empirical research to back up any claims.
Amusingly, Stein asks people how the first cell came to be. None of the scientists could give him a straight answer. Dawkins himself admits he doesn't know and that no one else does, either -- but postulates that aliens could have brought life to this planet, and then postulates that another alien civilization could have brought life to that planet, and so on. He then concedes that one entity could have been the original source ... but insists that entity could not possibly have been God. For this he gives absolutely no evidence at all, relegating it as a belief system somewhat akin to Scientology.

Amusingly (sigh). Here Ed shows a truly bewildering and rather puerile ignorance of how scientific processes work. It's the one thing creationists will always bring up: the theory [EB] can't explain everything (yet) ergo the rest must be incorrect. Funny how they never apply the same logic to other scientific paradigms, many of which (quantum physics, to name but one) are also incomplete and still in flux.

[snip] Less effective is the heavy references to the Nazis in the movie. Although emotionally affecting for some obvious reasons, the fact is that while the Nazis were mostly Darwinists (along with a lot of other things), the vast majority of Darwinists aren't Nazis. Certainly the eugenicists in Nazi Germany were mightily influenced by Darwinism, but America had its own eugenicists, which the film points out.

Thanks, Ed, but there's a lot more to the pernicious attempt at linking Darwin to Hitler than your rather half-hearted 'most Darwinists aren't Nazis' spiel.

This here article by Michael Ruse, Professor of Philosophy at FSU debunks the Hitler - Darwin connection in some detail and I'll only quote a short excerpt (I warmly recommend reading the whole article):

[...] whatever the initial approval, the Nazi ideologists quickly realized how completely antithetical the whole evolution idea was to their own ideology. Not only are we first cousins to the monkeys but, even worse, the Aryans are brothers and sisters with the Jews, the Slavs, the gypsies, and the rest of the world's riffraff and degenerates. The greatest German evolutionist of the 19th century was Ernst Haeckel — a man whose solution to the Jewish problem was to interbreed with them so they would no longer exist as a definite group. There was not much celebration of this man and his ideas in the upper levels of the Nazi hierarchy.

So, as always, be careful not to be seduced by the ideas and claims of the anti-evolutionists. They are not scientists and, to be perfectly honest, they are not very good historians either.

But there's much more too. For one, ideas about eugenics ('race hygiene') predate Darwin and WW II by centuries, if not thousands of years. Aristotle wrote about the superiority of the 'Greek race' and provided justifications for the enslavement of conquered people as 'inferiors'.

Most cultures and their nationalistic narratives contain an element of cultural supremacy, Nazi Germany wasn't unique in that respect.

Eugenics, through the pseudo-scientific work of Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, did receive a boost from Darwin's theory, by means of hasty and self-serving interpretations of the then embryonic science now known as evolutionary biology. Racist ideas at the time were absolutely rife in Britain and it must come as no surprise that these ideas quickly made inroads into the British intelligentsia. Notably H.G. Wells was a great fan of this renewed pseudo-science of eugenics.

Christians have in the past endorsed their own eugenistic ideas, because after all 'G-d is white' and people of colour were believed to be the offspring of G-d's white children and primates. This provided a Christian justification for slavery. More recently, Eugène Terre'Blanche's South African Afrikaner Weerstands Beweging was literally littered with Christians whose claim on the land was based on the idea that 'G-d is white' and the earth belongs to white people.

One cannot help but wonder whether Stein's repeated references to the Nazis are borne out of ignorance or out of sensationalism, but I suspect the latter...
I should point out that the film has not finished production, and that changes will be made between now and its release in April. The filmmakers just completed an interview with Christopher Hitchens and will include it in the final cut. I believe other changes may be made which could address some of the criticisms I've written here.

Overall, though, the film presents a powerful argument not for intelligent design as much as for the freedom of scientific inquiry. If scientists get punished for challenging orthodoxy, we will not expand our learning but ossify it in concrete. Expelled: The Movie is entertaining, maddening, funny, and provocative. Keep an eye out for it in theaters in two months.

While the idea that ruling orthodoxies should always be challengeable is very much part of the scientific method, it's foolish to believe that all challengers are equal. Would we find it acceptable to provide tenure for a physics professor who wants to challenge the widely accepted orthodoxy that the earth is round and spherical, from a Flat Earth Society perspective? How about a historian wanting to challenge the proved and accepted wisdom of the Holocaust?

It may seem a long shot to link Flat Earth nuts, Holocaust denying "professors" and proponents of Intelligent Design and yet the analogy can be made easily. All three start from rigid assumptions about the world ('the Earth is flat, not round', 'the Holocaust is a Jewish lie' and 'G-d the Creator exists and had a dab hand in the origin and evolution of life on Earth') and then set out to seek evidence to prove that hypothesis. That's unscientific and can only lead to bias and forcing the hand of evidence.

I haven't seen the movie and therefore cannot judge Stein's case for claiming some academics were ostracised or denied tenure for their ideas on Intelligent Design. But I'm willing to believe it: academic freedom doesn't mean all opinions are equal and should be pursued with equal rigour: the Earth isn't flat, the Holocaust did happen and G-d's existence and his DNA handiwork cannot be proved or disproved by means of science. To believe otherwise is naive and unscientific to boot.


At 3:27 PM, Blogger Baconeater said...

Good job. These hip creationists, and Ed seems to be one himself, says he believes in evolution but it is apparent that he doesn't when it comes to how man got here.
The first paragraph you quote he is by definition a Darwinist who believes in God, but then he distanced himself from Darwinists when talking about the Nazis.
Also, D'Souza I believe falls into the same category as Ed when it comes to evolution including everything but man.

At 5:32 PM, Blogger Gert said...

Creationists that believe in evolution, that's a typical sign of a rear-guard fight, an attempt at an 'orderly retreat'.

Seems to me that these American Protestants that are so heavily involved in the fight, haven't ever heard of the Protestant reformation...

At 5:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Expelled is now exposed:

At 8:43 AM, Blogger Jaakonpoika said...

Ben(jamin) Stein is under heavy artillery for 'exaggerating' or 'going easy' on the influence of evolutionism behind Nazism and Stalinism (super evolution of Lysenkoism in the Soviet Russia). But the monstrous Haeckelian type of vulgar evolutionism drove not only the 'Politics-is-applied-biology' Nazi takeover in the continental Europe, but even the nationalistic collision at the World War I. It was Charles Darwin himself, who praised and raised the monstrous German Ernst Haeckel with his still recycled embryo drawing frauds etc. in the spotlight as the greatest authority in the field of human evolution, even in the preface to his Descent of man in 1871. If Thomas Henry Huxley with his concept of 'agnostism' was Darwins bulldog in England, Haeckel was his Rotweiler in Germany.

'Kampf' was a direct translation of 'struggle' from On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859). Seinen Kampf. His application.

Catch 22: Haeckel's 140 years old fake embryo drawings have been mindlessly recycled for the 'public understanding of science' (PUS) in most biology text books until this millennium. Despite factum est that Haeckel's crackpot raging Recapitulation/Biogenetic Law and functioning gill slits of human embryos have been at the ethical tangent race hygiene/eugenics/genocide, infanticide, and Freudian psychoanalysis (subconscious atavisms). Dawkins is the Oxford professor for PUS - and should gather the courage of Stephen Jay Gould who could feel ashamed about it.

Some edited quotes from my conference posters and articles defended and published in the field of bioethics and history of biology (and underline/edit them a 'bit'):

The marriage laws were once erected not only in the Nazi Germany but also in the multicultural states of America upon the speculation that the mulatto was a relatively sterile and shortlived hybrid. The absence of blood transfusion between "white" and "colored races" was self evident (Hailer 1963, p. 52).

The first law on sterilization in US had been established in 1907 in Indiana, and 23 similar laws had been passed in 15 States and sterilization was practiced in 124 institutions in 1921 (Mattila 1996; Hietala 1985 p. 133; these were the times of IQ-tests under Gould's scrutiny in his Mismeasure of Man 1981). By 1931 thirty states had passed sterization laws in the US (Reilly 1991, p. 87). Typically, the operations hit blacks the most in the US, poor women in the Europe, and often the victims were never even told they had been sterilized.

Mendelism outweighed recapitulation (embryos climbing up their evolutionary tree through fish-, amphibian- and reptilian stages), but that merely smoothened the way for the brutal 1930’s biolegislation - that quickly penetrated practically all Western countries. The laws were copied from country to country. The A-B-O blood groups, haemophilia, eye colours etc. were found to be inherited in a Mendelian fashion by 1910. So also the complex traits and social (mis)behaviour such as alcoholism, schizophrenia, manic depression, criminality, rebelliousness, artistic sense, pauperism, racial differences, inherited scholarship (and its converse, feeble-mindedness) were all thought to be determined by one or two genes. Mendelism was "experimental" and quantitative, and its exaggeration outweighed the more cautious biometry operating on smaller variations, not discontinuous leaps. Its advocates boldly claimed that these problems could be done away within a few generations through selection, persisted (although most biologists must have known that defective genes could not be eliminated, even with the most intense forced sterilizations and marriage restrictions due to recessive genes and synergism. Nevertheless, these laws were held until 1970's and were typically changed only when the abortion legislation were released (1973).

So the American laws were pioneering endeavours. In Europe Denmark passed the first sterilization legislation in Europe (1929). Denmark was followed by Switzerland, Germany that had felt to the hands of Hitler and Gobineu, and other Nordic countries: Norway (1934), Sweden (1935), Finland (1935), and Iceland (1938 ) (Haller 1963, pp 21-57; 135-9; Proctor 1988, p. 97; Reilly 1991, p. 109). Seldom is it mentioned in the popular media, that the first outright race biological institution in the world was not established in Germany but in 1921 in Uppsala, Sweden (Hietala 1985, pp. 109). (I am not aware of the ethymology of the 'Up' of the ancient city from Plinius' Ultima Thule, however.) In 1907 the Society for Racial Hygiene in Germany had changed its name to the Internationale Gesellschaft für Rassenhygiene, and in 1910 Swedish Society for Eugenics (Sällskap för Rashygien) had become its first foreign affiliate (Proctor 1988, p. 17). Today, Swedish state church is definitely the most liberal in the face of the world.

Hitler's formulation of the differences between the human races was affected by the brilliant sky-blue eyed Ernst Haeckel (Gasman 1971, p. xxii), praised and raised by Darwin. At the top of the unilinear progression were usually the "Nordics", a tall race of blue-eyed blonds. Haeckel's position on the 'Judenfrage' was assimilation and Expelled-command from their university chairs, not yet an open elimination. But was it different only in degree, rather than kind?

In 1917 the immigration of "defective" groups was forbidden even in the United States by a law. In 1921 the European immigration was diminished to 3% based on the 1910 census. Eventually, in the strategical year of 1924 the finest hour of eugenics had come and the fatal law was passed by Congress. It diminished immigration to 2% of the foreign-born from each country based on the 1890 census in order to preserve the "nordic" balance in population, and was hold through World War II until 1965 (Hietala 1985, p. 132).

Richard Lewontin writes:“The leading American idealogue of the innate mental inferiority of the working class was, however, H.H. Goddard, a pioneer of the mental testing movement, the discoverer of the Kallikak family,
and the administrant of IQ-tests to immigrants that found 83 % of the Jews, 80% of the Hungarians, 79% of the Italians, and 87% of the the Russians to be feebleminded.” (1977, p. 13.) Regarding us Finns, Finnish emmigrants put the cross on the box reserved for the "yellow" group (Kemiläinen 1993, p. 1930), until 1965.

Germany was the most scientifically and culturally advanced nation of the world upon opening the riddles at the close of the nineteenth century. And she went Full Monty.

Today, developmental biologists are anticipating legislation of laws that would define the do’s and dont’s. In England, they are fertilizing human embryos for research purposes and pipetting chimera embryos of humans and monkeys, 'legally'. The legislation should not distract individual researchers from their personal awareness of responsibility. A permissive law merely defines the ethical minimum. The lesson is that a law is no substitute for morals and that dissidents should not be intimidated.

I am suspicious over the burial of the Kampf (Struggle). The idea of competition is innate in the modern society. It is the the opposite view in a 180 degree angle to the Judaeo-Christian ideal of agapee (contra epithumia, eros, filia & storge) (ahava in Hebrew), that I personally cheriss. The latter sees free giving, altruism, benevolence and self sacrificing love as the beginning, motivation, and sustainer of the reality.
Biochemist, drop-out (Master of Sciing)

At 4:07 PM, Blogger Gert said...

"The latter sees free giving, altruism, benevolence and self sacrificing love as the beginning, motivation, and sustainer of the reality."

Pity then that in the name of Monotheism just as much crime, man's inhumanity to man, intolerance, whacky ideas and ideologies and brutal oppression has been committed/instigated/invented/applied as in the name of any other idea, when pushed to its illogical extreme.

As regards Ben Stein, he's a not-too-smart filmmaker, trying to Kashshiiing on the back of the ridiculous American Culture Wars. Nothing more, nothing less...

Strikes me that your knowledge is encyclopaedic, yet lacks an overall narrative and objectivity...

At 6:10 PM, Blogger Gert said...

In fact, looking at the site, it's clear that you are a fringe nut. All families have nutty uncles and in the case of the Finns, you're it.

By the way: it's "lebensraum" (living space), not "lebenstraume" (which would roughly translate as "living dream").

In short: you're a nutter...


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