Ben Stein, best known as the boring teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, is also an economist, lawyer, former presidential speech writer and prolific author. He accepted the producer’s invitation to participate in the controversial movie Expelled because he does not believe that evolution alone can explain life on earth.
This 2008 release argues that the theory of intelligent design (ID) is at least as valid as evolution in explaining our origins. As Dr. Paul Nelson of Biola University explains in the film, “If you define evolution to mean the common descent of all life on earth from a single ancestor via undirected mutation and natural selection—that’s textbook definition of neo-Darwinism—biologists of the first rank have real questions.” Nelson defines ID as “the study of patterns in nature that are best explained as a result of intelligence.” That is, the design points to a Designer.
Although Stein, who is Jewish, interviews many Christians who believe in ID, he is not a Messianic or Jesus-believing Jew. His main thesis is that anyone who tries to introduce ID as a valid scientific theory will be excluded, or “expelled” from the academic world. As biology professor Jeffrey Schloss of Westmont College notes in his essay about the film, that thesis is hard to prove.1 Stein attempts to document cases of professors losing their jobs or being denied tenure because they mentioned ID. Yet those who made those personnel decisions give other explanations.
One of Stein’s stronger cases is that of Guillermo Gonzalez, an astronomy professor, formerly at Iowa State University. Gonzalez published a book, The Privileged Planet, in which he argued that the universe is intelligently designed. Subsequently, Iowa State denied him tenure. Although Department Chair Eli Rosenberg said that Gonzalez’s belief in ID did not play a big part in the university’s decision, Rosenberg stated in a private document that “The fact that Dr. Gonzalez does not understand what constitutes both science and a scientific theory disqualifies him from serving as a science educator.”2
And there is the crux of the matter. Those who oppose the expression of ID in the science classroom claim it is not science because it cannot be tested or empirically validated. But ID theorists say the same about the theory of macroevolution—that no proof has ever been presented that one species has evolved into another.
As Dr. Schloss says in his review, the corresponding question is whether a university has the right to limit the discussion. Biola University, a private, religiously-affiliated university, requires that its professors agree with its doctrinal statement, which includes an acceptance of ID and rejection of the evolutionist claim that “humans share a common physical ancestry with earlier life forms.”3 The difference in the situation at Iowa State University, says Gonzalez, is that a private Christian college like Biola is expected to require adherence to religious doctrines. “[But] public universities claim to protect their faculty’s academic freedom,” he said, “no matter how unpopular their ideas might be among their colleagues.”4
Ironically, Darwin would agree with Dr. Gonzalez. In the introduction to the The Origin of Species, he stated, “For I am well aware that scarcely a single point is discussed in this volume on which facts cannot be adduced, often apparently leading to conclusions directly opposite to those at which I have arrived. A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question.”5 As Stephen Meyer (PhD., History and Philosophy of Science, Cambridge University) claims in the film:
We don’t know what caused life to arise. Did it arise by a purely undirected process? Or did it arise by some kind of intelligent guidance or design? And the rules of science are being applied to actually foreclose one of the two possible answers to that very fundamental and basic and important question.
This leads into what for me was the most fascinating segment of the film—a look under the microscope at the complexity of the cell, which Dr. Nelson describes as “a world that Darwin never could have imagined.” Darwin contended that all living creatures evolved from “simple” organisms, but we now know that the cell, the basic building block of any organism, is far from simple. It is difficult to look at this footage without concluding that the intricate design of the cell is no accident. As professor and theologian Dr. William Albert Dembski affirmed in the movie, “We are finding that there is information within the cell that cannot be accounted for in terms of these undirected material causes. And so there has to be an information source.”
Stein does less well when he argues that Darwinism led to the mentality that fueled the Holocaust. Unpacking that premise could have been an entirely separate documentary. The film does not devote enough time to the subject, nor to the counter-arguments. For example, some of the leading German pre-Hitler proponents of the master race and anti-Semitism either knew little of Darwin’s theories or outright rejected them.6
Stein does do well by including not only the advocates but also the detractors of ID, including such notables as Dr. Will Provine of Cornell University and Richard Dawkins.
Dr. Walter Bradley, briefly mentioned in the film, summarized the debate this way:
Because science deals with so-called secondary causes, all we can do is to infer about whether the universe appears to be one that could have just unfolded on its own, or does it appear to have the kind of a character that would seem to require some kind of intelligent designer. That’s not a proof one way or the other. But I think we can certainly look at the universe and make a judgment.7
That, Ben Stein would say, is all he asks.
- Jeffrey P. Schloss, “The Expelled Controversy: Overcoming or Raising Walls of Division?” Center for Faith, Ethics, and Life Sciences, Westmont College, 2008
- “Secret ISU Faculty E-mails Express Vitriol Towards Intelligent Design, Disregard for Academic Freedom, and Attempts to Hide a Plot to Oust an Outstanding Scientist,” Discovery Institute, December 3, 2007
- Explanatory Note to Biola University’s doctrinal statement, which is preceded, in part, by this statement: “The following explanatory notes indicate the organization’s understanding and teaching position on certain points which could be subject to various interpretations.”
- Jocelyn Green, “ID Tagged,” Christianity Today, January 10, 2008
- Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996) p. 4.
- Schloss, op. cit.
- lecture by Dr. Walter Bradley, “Scientific Evidence for the Existence of God,” Colorado State University, 1996