Monthly Archives: March 2009

All wrong: A thematic review of Ben Stein’s “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” part I

Part I: Darwin and the science of “social engineering”

This documentary film bears two central themes: First, as the title suggests, it charges that American professors are being punished for sympathizing openly with Intelligent Design theory (ID), a spruced up version of Creationism. Second, it wants to place some blame upon Darwinism for inspiring ugly historical movements like eugenics and the Holocaust. This critique is likewise placed within the context of an extended pro-ID argument.

This part of my review deals with the second theme.

ben-stein-airy-suggestibilistBen Stein: Airy suggestibilist

Wrong from the start: Stein’s fatal error

Eugenics is the effort to “fitten up” the human species by breeding the strongest members, while sterilizing or otherwise preventing reproduction by those deemed weaker. The Holocaust, of course, aimed at the same effect by killing off the weaker ones directly. (I refer to these efforts collectively as “social engineering.”)

Stein not at all specific as to why these sins should be laid at Darwin’s door—but more on that later. For now, one obvious problem with any attempt by ID advocates to blame Darwinism for “social engineering” is that the part of Darwinism that (allegedly) licenses these acts is the very part which ID theorists themselves accept.

Proponents of ID, including those interviewed by Stein (e.g. William Dembski), are fond of saying that Darwin’s mistake was misapplication. He started with a sound idea—natural selection—but simply tried to explain too much with it. All ID theorists accept that natural selection explains “microevolution,” or changes within the same species over time. But they deny that it explains the differences between species; that is, they disagree with “macroevolution” whereby one species evolves into a completely different one. It is at this line of speciation that ID folks part ways with Darwin.

Fair enough, let’s assume. But it is not any particular application of natural selection that inspires the “social engineers”—but rather, natural selection plain and simple. If Darwin’s theory, as Expelled contends, contains the “seeds of horror,” then so does the very ID theory the film endorses. I see this inconsistency as nothing less than fatal for the entire project.[1]

What precisely is the claim here?

But let us dig deeper.

Again, Stein never bothers to say just how Darwin is supposed to be connected to Nazism and eugenics. The film throws up a lot of insinuations and “feelings” on the matter, none of which are really explored.

For a few of the documentary’s claims:

* The eugenicists and Nazi architects were “inspired” by natural selection. But so what? Sometimes inspiration is “taken” rather than “given.” Thirty years ago, John Hinckley, Jr. was “inspired by” Jody Foster to shoot President Reagan. Foster was the inspiration, but her influence was completely passive, and completely excusable.

* Many leading Nazis, and almost all eugenicists, “were fanatical Darwinists.” Maybe, but they were mammals and Westerners and a lot of other things, too. Most all of them had noses,  I expect. Correlation is not causality.

* “The Nazis relied on…Darwin.” This is more specific but fares no better. For they also “relied on” bacteriology and neurology. A ton of real science was involved in the torture of and experimentation upon the “unfit.” (Hell, they relied on mundane things like trucks, wool and tinned meats, too.)

Of course, what Stein really means to say is that the Nazis claimed to be relying on Darwin. As such,

* Mein Kampf cites a “correspondence between” Darwinist ideas and Nazi ideas. But even if some ugly movements claimed to be Darwinist, it doesn’t follow that Darwinism is to blame for them. It is not enough that someone claim to be inspired by a belief to perform some horrible act; in order to blame the theory, it must be shown that it has not been misinterpreted. It must be shown that the perpetrators were correct to draw the inference.

* Darwinism is “a necessary condition” for the rise of Nazism (though not a sufficient one). This is more specific yet. But just as correlation is not causality, causality is not culpability. Perfectly benign entities such as oxygen, gravity, the nation-state, British and American citizens, and Jews, are “necessary conditions” for Nazism as we knew it. Of course, that doesn’t make those things bad. Hitler’s grandmother could have been a lovely human being, but she was a “necessary condition” for Hitler(ism).

* * *

So nothing like an argument is to be found above. The film leaves it unclear what the “engineers” thought was Darwinist about what they were doing, and what was in fact Darwinist about it. (This is compounded by the fact that when actual “social engineers” speak for themselves, they aren’t much clearer.) But perhaps we can stitch something together.

Helping Stein along

The breeding of human beings was an attempt to make humans more “fit” by purifying the gene pool of disease, deformity, stupidity, and so forth, on the assumption, of course, that these traits have a genetic basis.

If you look for “Darwiny” elements in this, I suppose you can find them. You could say that selective breeding of any kind is a “mimicking” of the natural selective processes Darwin codified. And granted, Darwin drew an analogy between natural selection and animal husbandry, to help readers understand the former on the basis of something with which they were already familiar. I suppose with some leap of the imagination you could read into this an analogy between human natural selection and human “husbandry.” But to suggest—even openly—an analogy between human evolution and human “breeding” is hardly to suggest that humans be bred. It is just to say the two processes are alike in some respect.

Also, why would the “engineers” think they had to artificially produce mechanisms that are already working naturally? If they were true Darwinists, wouldn’t they predict the unfit would simply die out on their own? A strict Darwinism, it would seem, would obviate the need for “engineering” altogether.

Stein hints at an answer: The film rolls a clip from a Nazi propaganda film in which the narrator argues, “We [Germans] have transgressed the law of natural selection in the last decades” by permitting inferior members of the species (ostensibly Jews, the disabled, etc.) to survive and reproduce.

The suggestion is that in “the wild,” these inferior beings would die sooner and reproduce less, and thus not threaten the gene pool significantly. But modern culture has interfered with these “natural” self-correcting processes. Now we coddle and tolerate inferiors. Modern medicine—corrective surgery, wheelchairs—compensates for what nature has denied them. And liberal politics have removed the competitive pressure for resources by universalizing access to health care, education, suffrage, etc. This means we will cease to evolve (and possibly “devolve”) unless we act the role of nature and remove these genes ourselves.

“Social engineering” doesn’t follow from Darwinism

I guess this is the link Stein wants to draw. But there is nothing authentically Darwinist about this story. Here are the main problems I see with trying to hang “social engineering” on the theory of natural selection:

(1) Darwinism offers a description of a natural mechanism. Even if that description is false, and natural selection doesn’t exist, it is unclear how any description alone could license specific human behavior. The claim that natural selection operates upon organisms in no way implies that we should operate in “the same” way, or engineer things to bring about “the same” effects that it would. Likewise, the theory that cancer causes mortality does not license us to mimic this effect by killing cancer patients.

Darwinist “fitness” is not a moral category; it is not “good” or “right”—it just is. Getting from “disabled animals naturally die out, enhancing fitness” to “we should kill disabled people to enhance our fitness” requires a moral link that is not found within Darwinism itself, but which must be imposed from the outside.

(2) There is no such concept as “fitness” per se. An organism is fit only in relation to a specific environment. Someone that is fit in one environment might not be fit in another. So it makes no sense to say that “unfit” humans are being artificially kept alive in a modern environment; this can only mean that the modern environment—with wheelchairs, welfare, etc.—has now made them fit. Similarly, a person with 20/200 vision might be unfit in a hunter-gatherer tribal environment, but is no longer so in an environment with eyeglass technology. The new environment simply does not select these persons as unfit.[2]

Once more, anyone wishing to rectify our “transgression of natural selection” is not only wrong but reaching beyond the clear bounds of what is authentically Darwinist.

(3) Even if Darwinism did license killing “the unfit” among us, who says that the targets of the Holocaust and eugenics are “naturally” less fit than anyone else? The social engineers had crazy ideas about what constituted fitness. For example, eugenics was driven by unscientific, “Dickensian” ideas correlating poverty with genetic-based human weakness and moral degeneracy. Likewise, the Nazis had poor theories about “blood purity” which deemed the Jews as less fit than others.

These theories are just false. It is simply not the case that poverty stems from “weak genes,” nor that without modern, liberal German amenities, the Jews would die “naturally” before reproducing. Nor do these views have any part in Darwinism; they had to be grafted on from outside.

(4) Assuming the effects of natural selection could be mimicked artificially, this would endorse social engineering only on the insane assumption that everything which can be done ought to be.

Still, putting aside the moral question, it is unclear that “mimicking” natural selection is even possible. Who knows whether our idea of fitness is the same one “nature” would select for, were its modern constraints removed? Even if they match, it is unclear that the goal of fitness can be achieved in a non-counterproductive way.

For instance, as virtually every evolutionary biologist believes (and Darwin seems to), empathy and altruism are themselves evolutionary adaptations. They have a useful social function, on which the reproductive success of the group depends. Mimicking natural selection would require abandoning these behaviors, risking our becoming less fit in the longer term. Trying for group fitness is probably a contradiction in terms.


Any attempt to link Darwin to the horrors of social engineering has to overlook that he explicitly and unambiguously argued against the practice himself. In The Descent of Man, Darwin strenuously condemns this on purely moral grounds. (The quote, with emphasis, and the analysis which follows, comes from this article in Scientific American.)

Darwin writes:

“The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil.”

As SA points out, Expelled shadily quotes the passage immediately preceding this one in Descent, alleging its support for social engineering. They ignore the one which contradicts that interpretation entirely—though Stein and the producers had to know of its existence.

[See part 2 of this review, and redux.]


[1] The most Expelled could contend is that both Darwin himself and the “social engineers” misapplied Darwin. Still, this lets Darwin off the hook for anything more than, again, the technical “paper error” of over-explanation. The moral error falls squarely on the heads of the social engineers.

[2] Behind the social engineering theory is an untenable (and un-Darwinian) nature-versus-culture dichotomy. The reason is makes no sense to say we blocked the action of “nature” is because “we” are as much a part of nature ourselves. Indeed, our action changes the environment, and thus the direction of selective pressures on ourselves, but this hardly makes it “unnatural.” All organisms do this very thing. We could change our behavior, and thus the direction of selection, but this wouldn’t be a return to behaving “naturally.” It would just be a different “natural” behavior than the old “natural” one.


On the “pragmatic” argument for special creation

[Job training has distracted me from blogging for several weeks. It appears I might be back.]

[I’ve been on an evolution kick. Read Jerry Coyne’s “Why Evolution is True” if you can. It covers all the angles and reads like a novel.]


We’ve all heard the sentiment that our having evolved from “lower” animals is less ennobling than special creation by deity; that it decreases our special worth or dignity.

Sometimes this sentiment is worked up into an argument—as when Darwin’s contemporaries said that one had only to look at the queen to know she just couldn’t have come from a monkey. This is “pragmatic creationism”-proper.

Today, this idea rarely appears as an explicit plank in the creationist’s case, but the feeling persists that evolution degrades humanity, existentially speaking. And I suspect this feeling motivates the creationists: Among this group, there is a broad spectrum of evolutionary phenomena that is admitted: Young-earthers accept no evolution whatsoever; more liberal types accept micro-evolution; others accept macro-evolution nearly across the board; still others (the “irreducible complexity” folks) accept that species macro-evolve, but deny that biochemical cellular processes do. But every creationist stops short of human (macro) evolution.

Two responses leap to mind:

First, it is simply wrong equate the origins of a thing with the thing itself—or the goodness or badness of the one with the goodness or badness of the other. (This is the logician’s “fallacy of origins.”) To say that B came from A is hardly to say that B is A, or is even like A. Granted, Bs often look like their As, and not by accident; sons are somewhat like their fathers, and so forth. But the quality and degree of this identity, and what worth to attach to it, must be investigated, not merely assumed.

Second, “wishin’ don’t make it so.” Assuming we would be made “lower” by lowly origins—why should the facts succumb to our feelings about them? Our origins do not become one way because we would be uncomfortable with alternative scenarios. I may be upset at being the product of an alcoholic father, or an incestuous relationship, but this emotion hardly changes the case.

Darwin weighs in

Darwin himself gave a cleverer answer in the conclusion to his The Descent of Man:

“I am aware that the conclusions arrived at in this work will be denounced by some as highly irreligious; but he who denounces them is bound to shew why it is more irreligious to explain the origin of man as a distinct species by descent from some lower form, through the laws of variation and natural selection, than to explain the birth of the individual through the laws of ordinary reproduction.”

In other words, if it is off-putting that our entire species should have emerged from a “lower” form, it should be at least as off-putting that each individual human develops from a lower form in the womb—a form much lower than any adult “ape” (i.e., pre-human hominid). And yet this development is something no creationist would deny, nor feel particularly bad about.

Worse, on the road to “higher” humanity, the human embryo has to escalate through multiple lower forms: We begin as fish do, with gills, a tail, and a fishlike branchial circulatory system. Then we go through an amphibious, then a reptilian stage. Before becoming recognizably human, we have a brief “lower primate” stage, when the fetus becomes entirely covered with a coat of fine hair called “lanugo.” (We shed this before birth, while monkeys retain it.)

* * *

Our embryonic staging is itself evidence for evolution, in the sense that the story makes better sense on an evolutionary view than on a theory of special creation. Per Haeckel’s famous “ontogeny replicates phylogeny” dictum, the sequence of embryonic stages mimics the sequence of major evolutionary stages through which our species evolved. First we were fish, then amphibians, reptiles, etc. (All other evolved organisms show this pattern also.)

Evolution typically proceeds by addition, or accretion; it is easier (that is, more conducive to fitness and survival) if nature “tacks on” a new feature than to remove one and hope that the remaining ones work around the gap. Of course, this means tacking on a new gene which codes for the feature. In the womb, we develop in ways our “lower” ancestors did (or do) because we have inherited strings of their old genes, the ones that code for their development. We don’t keep the reptilian, etc. features because we have acquired other genes which turn the old ones off before birth.

It is weird enough on technical grounds that a creator would place genes for gills, fur, etc., inside us, only to deactivate them before birth. Instead, s/he could have started us as Aristotelean homunculi: tiny, intact humans that do nothing but grow in size.

On moral grounds, it is pointless that a creator would, in a bid to secure our “specialness,” forbid us as a group to develop from lower beings, only to force each of us individually to develop this way.

Conclusion: The aesthetics of descent versus special creation

The main error of the “pragmatic creationists” is to mistake an aesthetic preference for reality. This aside, is it really preferable on aesthetic grounds that we should have been created, rather than to have evolved?

We are the culmination of a vigorous natural epic, billions of years in the making, one that could have gone in a billion other ways, but didn’t, and that will continue beyond us in ways that we help determine. This is simply more interesting than our having been dropped here, without papers, without biography, without a legacy. For all the reasons “God did it” is a scientific non-starter, it also makes for a piss-poor narrative.

Perhaps our being formed by the same processes as hagfish, dung beetles, and leeches decreases our “specialness” among them. But “being the best” is hardly the only value. And it isn’t always that valuable. It’s lonely at the top. To believe ourselves fundamentally, irreducible set apart from the world can be—it should be—profoundly alienating. An evolutionary story recovers for humans a sense of “at-home-ness” in the world. It permits us to belong and identify.

Not to say that our special place totally dissolves. For we among all “beasts” can reflect upon our mutual heritage. We alone can write the story down. (We alone can blog about it.)

Finally, in poetic terms, our evolution represents a kind of achievement. “We” have struggled, and triumphed. Typically, we praise and admire achievements over charity. (For this reason, heirs and contest winners are always resented by those who “earned” it.) To sit atop this long struggle is arguably more “special” than to have been given the damn thing. Again, this could be said of other species, too, but again, only we can appreciate it.