Quick! What is intelligent design? Anyone? Anyone?
Unfortunately, the new documentary "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," which purports to be about how intelligent design (ID) proponents are being blacklisted, does little to deepen understanding of the issue.
Instead, actor-activist Ben Stein spends 90 minutes linking evolution with atheism and playing up the martyrdom of the ID community. Stein, a former Nixon speechwriter as well as game show host, plays up "academic freedom" issues and all but ignores the meatier angle of where ID and evolution proponents agree and disagree.
A definition for ID (the study of patterns in nature that can be best explained by intelligence) does manage to slip into the documentary, but any real dialogue about this is quickly abandoned.
Stein's central conceit, and a clever one at that, is that the scientific community has built a sort of intellectual Berlin Wall to keep good ideas (i.e. evolution) on one side and bad ideas (i.e. intelligent design) on the other. Stein and director Nathan Frankowski set up this notion in the opening credits, elaborate on it throughout the film and really hammer it home in the last act by featuring Ronald Reagan saying, "The wall cannot withstand freedom."
"Expelled," now in theaters nationwide, is chiefly disappointing because it constitutes part of our national problem, whereas it might have been part of a solution. Time and again, the documentary chooses to draw a line in the sand, with conspiratorial music bedding our consciousness all the while.
Stein begins by briefly highlighting several cases in which members of the academy (Richard Sternberg, Caroline Crocker, Robert Marks at Baylor) lost their jobs or encountered other hardships allegedly because of their association with ID theory.
Stein, as the champion of academic freedom, says this is unconscionable and vows to get to the bottom of things. His quest takes him to numerous ID proponents (e.g., Stephen Meyer, William Dembski) and opponents, including a favorite whipping boy for Christians, the Oxford scientist--and atheist--Richard Dawkins.
Always interviewed in shadow, Dawkins functions as the erstwhile villain, with "Expelled" trying to build to a climactic confrontation between Stein and the best-selling author of The God Delusion.
Stein plays their meeting for a few laughs, as he does a few times with other interviewees like David Berlinski, who calls Dawkins "a reptile." The doc's main humor comes less from Stein and more from the Michael Moore-ish presentation itself, with consistent cutaways to historical and educational films representing any given idea. So, if a scientist mentions that life in our universe might have been seeded by another civilization, that's the logical place to insert a clip from the 1951 alien classic, "The Day the Earth Stood Still."
It's a shame the filmmakers didn't make more room for actual discussion about evolution and intelligent design. At one point, Stein allows an interviewee to point out that the word "evolution" means different things to different people. To some, it simply means change over time. To others, it carries with it the assertion that all life mutated from a single organism.
"Expelled" and its viewers would have benefited from more segments like this. However, it's not difficult to understand why the filmmakers passed on real substance.
For example, ID opponents say the theory is a front for creationism. Bruce Chapman, head of the ID-backing Discovery Institute, denies the assertion. But since Stein went to all the trouble of tracking down the ID minds, why not ask them for us how old they think the earth is?
To have done so would have been a Catch-22 for the filmmakers and their target audience. If the interviewees were to say 6,000 years old--aha, creationists! If 5 billion, there goes the base.
And Stein knows not to agitate the base, hence the decision to make sure all the evolutionists interviewed were essentially anti-religion. These scientists variously say they lost their faith once they embraced evolution, or they hope one day science will completely obliterate religion, or … you get the idea.
"Expelled" investigates neither Christians and evolution nor the separation of church and state. Stein is content to work his Berlin Wall metaphor, playing the angle of idea checkpoints, gatekeepers and watchdogs.
And though the project can't seem to find the time to explore the merits and problems with either ID or evolution, it does devote considerable attention to how Darwinism was "necessary but not sufficient" for Nazism. Others have decried what they consider to be a misappropriation of the Holocaust here by Stein, who is Jewish.
Mainly what's misappropriated here is the time. Ben Stein has a following and a platform, an issue and an intellect. And instead of embracing the various sides of what one interviewee termed a "religious war," he settled for a misguided missile.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic material, some disturbing images, brief smoking.
Director: Nathan Frankowski
Writers: Kevin Miller and Ben Stein
Cast: Ben Stein;
The movie's official Web site is here.