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Monday, April 14, 2008

Stein Goes to Bat for Intelligent Design

"I am floored by what a response it got," Ben Stein, the actor, author, and former White House speechwriter for President Nixon, said in his signature monotone on the phone from Chicago. Mr. Stein was referring to the effusive feedback that he and producers Logan Craft, Walt Ruloff, and John Sullivan have received from advance screenings of a new feature-length documentary hosted by Mr. Stein entitled "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed."

In "Expelled," which opens April 18, the iconically blasé teacher from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and the host of "Win Ben Stein's Money" has been recast as the driving personality and first-person narrator of a Michael Moore-style documentary confronting a contemporary scientific status quo that harbors a zero-tolerance policy for the theory of intelligent design in scientific research and American classrooms. According to the film's Web site, "educators and scientists are being ridiculed, denied tenure, and even fired for the 'crime' of merely believing that there might be evidence of 'design' in nature, and that perhaps life is not just the result of accidental, random chance."

The film's producers define intelligent design, somewhat tautologically, as "a theory that attempts to empirically detect if the apparent design in nature acknowledged by virtually all biologists is genuine design or the product of an intelligent cause." On the other hand, Richard Dawkins, the Oxford evolutionary biologist, avowed atheist, and author of "The God Delusion," describes intelligent design as "creationism in a cheap tuxedo," and he spars with Mr. Stein onscreen in "Expelled." In a recent Web log entry, Mr. Dawkins dismissed "Expelled," a screening of which he attended in somewhat contentious fashion at the Mall of America this past Good Friday (his fellow on-screen commentator, P.Z. Myers, was ejected from the same screening), as "dull, artless, amateurish, too long, poorly constructed, and utterly devoid of any style, wit, or subtlety." The conservative contrarian Rush Limbaugh saw the same film with different eyes. "It is powerful. It is fabulous," he declared on his syndicated radio show.

Mr. Stein became involved with the film when he was approached by Messrs. Ruloff and Sullivan during pre-production. "They sent me an absolute torrent of information, some of which I read, some of which frankly I did not read," Mr. Stein said. Intrigued by what he did absorb and by a segment of computer animation commissioned by the producers that depicts life at a cellular level in its nearly infinite complexity, Mr. Stein signed on. "It just became a gigantically bigger project than I even had the slightest clue it was going to be," he said.

In the time- and box-office-tested stylistic tradition of Mr. Moore, "Expelled" is a globe-trotting journey during which Mr. Stein interviews and confronts various victims of what the film portrays as an intellectual embargo against intelligent design, and those who dismiss it or question its place in the scientific and academic communities. The first stop, the Capitol Mall in Washington, sets the tone for the rest of the film. In the shadow of the institute that fired him, the biologist Richard Sternberg describes his dismissal from his research fellowship at the Smithsonian for publishing a paper that defended intelligent design. "You're a bad boy," Mr. Stein says as the two men stroll among the cherry trees. "You questioned the powers that be."

The fact that Mr. Stein's drolleries are intercut with a montage that includes clips of Soviet Bloc delegates to the United Nations pounding tables, Communist thugs slapping prisoners, and close-ups of a guillotine should give you some idea of the intensity of the agitprop on display. It's a tribute to Mr. Stein's mischievous gravitas (he possesses an uncanny on-screen knack for getting his interview subjects to speculate themselves into a corner) that the whole thing doesn't go completely off the rails.

Like its narrative, "Expelled" is tonally and emotionally all over the map. Visits to Nazi concentration camps and a gruesome tour of a Third Reich psychiatric hospital in which the handicapped were euthanized as much, the movie contends, in Darwin's name as in Hitler's, vie for space with cartoons and 3-D animation. There's even a token scene of Mr. Stein and his crew being awkwardly refused unscheduled entrance to the Smithsonian by the museum's security staff. As is the case when suffering through similar moments in Mr. Moore's films, my heart went out to the guys provoked into having to do the arm grabbing. Someday, a filmmaker will turn the tables and shoot footage of harried spokespeople and rent-a-cops trying to gain entrance to Michael Moore's offices or those of Premise Media Corporation, the makers of "Expelled."

"Expelled" will likely appeal to those whose minds are made up in favor of intelligent design and infuriate those who, like Mr. Dawkins, oppose mixing God with biology. For those with little stake in either side of the controversy, there is the amusing spectacle of Mr. Stein skewering brilliant scientific minds as they are caught off guard by the lights, camera, and action. Mr. Dawkins becomes so flustered at one point that he even posits a creation theory of his own that fits the parameters of the film's working definition of intelligent design. After all the speculation on display in "Expelled," I couldn't help but envision the possibility that if the pro-intelligent design forces had their way, the current, inflexible Darwinian dogma would just swap positions with an equally inflexible intelligent design party line. Mr. Stein put me at ease. "I have no suggestions whatsoever what to replace [Darwinism] with. None at all. Period," he said. "I just would like the floodgates of discussion to be opened."

Though Mr. Stein shares writing credits (with Kevin Miller), "I didn't really write much of it," he said, taking credit only for a speech that bookends the film and calling the rest of the split credit "pretty much entirely a gift on [the producers'] part." Nevertheless, in conversation, the former attorney was arguably more persuasive than the film he hosts. According to Mr. Stein, Darwin himself came out on the side of a free exchange of ideas on the origin of life in a letter to a colleague.

"He said that this whole subject of evolution and where life came from and how it evolved is so complicated that for a human being with our paltry intelligence to try to answer it is like a dog trying to understand Newton's physics," Mr. Stein said. Darwin's sole suggestion for future generations, he said, was that "we keep discussing it more or less indefinitely and let each man think and hope as he wishes. I think that's pretty good advice."

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