24 April 2008


I saw the film Expelled on Sunday (Apr. 20) afternoon. When I walked into the theater, only one other person was in the audience. She left partway through the film. Another man arrived more than halfway through, but I was the only person in the theater for the whole movie.

The film is thoroughly critiqued elsewhere, so I will only make two observations.

First, the film does not address the most important scientific question regarding Intelligent Design: If ID is a scientific hypothesis, what testable predictions does it make?

Second, as part of a cliche attempt to connect biological evolution to the Holocaust, Ben Stein quotes a passage from Darwin's Descent of Man (1871).

With savages, the weak in body and mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of everyone to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed (Part I, Ch.5).
As I have written before, this views that Darwin expressed in this passage do not affect the true history of life on Earth or the rigorous testing and verification that evolutionary biology has undergone in the past 150 years. This entire section of the film is irrelevant to any discussion of the veracity of evolution.

However, I think we should be fair to Darwin and continue reading the passage.
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 diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, if so urged by hard reasons, 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 a certain and great present evil.
Darwin watched his daughter Annie die in childhood, possibly of tuberculosis. That should influence our reading of Darwin's medical examples in this passage.

As we can read, Darwin did not support the practice of eugenics. Even if we take the first section of this passage out of context to support eugenics, we encounter a problem. Who determines which members of society are "weak" or "worst?" Any number of measures could be suggested, but how the do we decide which one to use? Answering these questions takes us beyond the realm of science and, as history teaches us, into a "great present evil."


Dave Burkum said...

I saw the movie tonight. I don't think it's really about science as much as it is about academic bias and systematic dishonesty. The movie has problems, but it does raise some valid questions. The open hostility toward faith should be a concern to you!

Darius said...

I haven't seen it yet, but everything I've read is that it is NOT about science, but about academic bias and suppression of opposing ideas.