May 04, 2008

Ben Stein’s movie Expelled has generated lots of commentary, most of it negative.  Many have claimed that it is obscurantist and hostile to science, a veritable first shot in a wider war against knowledge.  Despite employing the same type of techniques that garnered Michael Moore an Oscar (and much critical acclaim), it has a 9% positive rating at, the sort of rating generally earned only by slasher films and the like.  Curious about a movie that has generated such hostility, I went and saw it, and discovered an effective polemic that, while propagandistic and one-sided, also provided food for thought.  In fact, the movie focused far more on the problem posed to science by the rise of obstreperous atheists like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers than on critiques of evolution.

The notion that Stein’s movie poses a threat to science is vastly overblown.  Although Stein and his confreres do not accept one result of scientific thinking, Darwin’s theory of natural selection, there is no suggestion in the movie—notwithstanding some of the outlandish comments Stein has made in interviews—that there is anything wrong with science per se.  And the claim that Darwin is central to the modern scientific enterprise is far-fetched.  A friend who is a research scientist with a Ph.D. in Fluid and Thermal Science wrote me after we discussed the movie that whatever might be true for biologists and paleontologists, “Even a dim knowledge of the theory of evolution is completely unnecessary to the study of most of the other physical sciences (not to mention most of all other fields).”  Darwin is quite superfluous to physics, chemistry, astronomy, medicine, and engineering, not to mention economics and politics.   In fact, the best president of my lifetime, Ronald Reagan, was critical of Darwinism, as was the best presidential candidate since Reagan, Pat Buchanan.   Concluding that people who reject Darwin because of their reading of Christianity are stupid, as Stein’s detractors tend to do, is itself rather dumb.

It is equally misguided to conclude that skepticism of Darwin means skepticism of science in general.  One can be both skeptical of Darwin and grateful to Pasteur.   Indeed, no one is making movies critical of Avogadro’s number, Planck’s constant, the Krebs cycle, the first law of thermodynamics, or any other scientific concept one can think of.  Americans think highly of scientists and science, on which they lavish billions of their tax dollars each year without demurral.

What worries many Americans about Darwin is not a generalized worry about science, but a concern that Darwinism entails atheism and worries over its social and political implications.  Of course, this first concern is being exacerbated by the likes of Dawkins and Myers, who show up in Stein’s movie denouncing religion as a “primitve superstition” and saying that religion should occupy a position comparable to knitting, as a hobby enjoyed by a few but having no impact on society or culture.  So much for Bach and Michelangelo.  In the movie, both men also advocate using science to combat religion, a subject that regularly excites them to paroxysms of hatred, as with Dawkins’ claim that religious education of children is a form of “child abuse” and Myers’ recent denunciation of Benedict XVI as a “sanctimonious monster.”  Quite a contrast to the agnostic Charles Murray, who concluded after his exhaustive study of human accomplishment that “it was the transmutation of [the classical] intellectual foundation by Christianity that gave modern Europe its impetus and that pushed European accomplishment so far ahead of all other cultures around the world” and who told Reason magazine in an interview about his book that “the most foolish of all religious beliefs is confident atheism.”

And there is no doubt that what Dawkins and Myers are peddling is an alternative religion.  In the movie, Dawkins says he does not know what caused life to first come forth (though he speculates that aliens may have seeded life throughout the cosmos), but he is certain God had nothing to do with it.  Myers has attacked Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller, who has defended Darwinism in court but has also explained why Darwin is consistent with his Catholicism, as a “creationist.”  This isn’t science, it’s a dogmatic insistence that no scientist may ever state that he sees evidence of God in nature.   And a foolish dogmatism, if the goal of Dawkins and Myers is to advance Darwinism.  As Steve Sailer observed in his seminal article “Darwin’s Enemies on the Right,” “Darwin seems to lose out with the public primarily when his supporters force him into a mano-a-mano Thunderdome death match against the Almighty.  Most people seem willing to accept Darwinism so long as they don’t have to believe in nothing but Darwinism.”  Those eager to defend Darwin from Stein would be well advised to save some of their ammunition for Dawkins and Myers and the like, who are doing more damage to Darwin than Stein ever could. 

Public reluctance to believe in “nothing but Darwinism” is also understandable.  One of the academics featured in Expelled is a Cornell university professor who tells Stein that when he came to believe in Darwin, he lost his belief in God, morality, and free will, and that he intended to blow his brains out if his brain tumor (which was in remission) came back.  It is very easy to see how people who embrace nihilism end up advocating violence, and there probably is no more controversial section of Stein’s movie than the portion focusing on Nazism.   Unfortunately for Stein’s critics, it was Rudolf Hess, not Ben Stein, who declared that “National Socialism is nothing but applied biology.”  The book upon which Stein based this section of the movie, historian Richard Weikart’s From Darwin to Hitler,  was well-reviewed by historians at such fundamentalist hotbeds as Cambridge and Yale.  Indeed, as Edward T. Oakes S. J. argued in his review of Wiekart’s book,  it is not hard to see a similarity between Darwin’s pronouncement in Descent of Man that “At some future period…the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races” and Hitler’s pronouncement in Mein Kampf that “A stronger race will supplant the weaker, since the drive for life in its final form will decimate every ridiculous fetter of the so-called ‘humaneness’ of individuals, in order to make place for the true ‘humaneness of nature,’ which destroys the weak to make place for the strong.”  Even Richard Dawkins has expressed skepticism of the social implications of Darwinism, telling Austria’s Die Presse on July 30, 2005 that “No decent person wants to live in a society that works according to Darwinian laws….A Darwinian society would be a fascist state.”

Of course, none of this makes Darwinism false.  And the notion that a belief in Darwin necessarily leads to Nazism is absurd.  But it does help explain the public’s reluctance to believe in “nothing but Darwinism.”  Many distinguished conservatives have argued that the atrocities of the 20th century show the need for religion.  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn concluded that the horror that befell Russia came about because “men have forgotten God.”  Walker Percy, whose last novel The Thanatos Syndrome explored the connection between the Nazi eugenics program and the euthanasia and abortion of today, stated that “I tried to show how, while truth should prevail, it is a disaster when only one kind of truth prevails at the expense of another.  If only one kind of truth prevails—the abstract and technical truth of science—then nothing stands in the way of a demeaning of and a destruction of human life for what appears to be reasonable short term goals.”

Stein’s movie falls far short of the wisdom of Solzhenitsyn and Percy.  Aside from a brief interview with Anglican priest and scientist John Polkinghorne, there is little in the movie dealing with how science and religion complement each other.  I am persuaded of the wisdom of scientists such as Kenneth Miller, who see no contradiction between Christianity and Darwin.  (Indeed, a survery of scientists in my native Ohio showed that 84% saw no contradiction between God and Darwin).  In fact, I agree with Steve Sailer that Darwinism can buttress conservatism by showing that there is a human nature, and that utopian programs which don’t take human nature into account are doomed to failure.  But Darwin alone is not enough.  The American public is not willing to believe in Darwin alone, and Darwin alone can lead to a dangerous nihilism.   What is needed is a recognition that both science and religion have been indispensable to the rise of the West, and the West cannot survive without one or the other.  As the Polish cosmologist and priest Michael Heller declared after winning this year’s Templeton Prize, “Science gives us Knowledge, and religion gives us Meaning.  Both are prerequisites of the decent existence.”  To which I can only add, “Amen.”








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