In an over-the-top “review” of the film Expelled, bioethicist and MSNBC columnist Arthur Caplan has made the preposterous claim that Ben Stein is a Holocaust denier. Caplan’s so-called review is so inaccurate that one can’t help but wonder whether Caplan even watched the film he denounced. If he did, he obviously didn’t pay attention. For the record, here’s a catalog of Caplan’s most egregious errors:
The movie seeks to explain why, as a matter of freedom of speech, intelligent design should be taught in America’s science classrooms and presented in America’s publicly funded science museums.
Actually, it doesn’t. The film does not focus on what “should be taught” in public school classrooms or museums. Instead, it simply defends the academic freedom of individual scientists and college professors to research, write, and speak publicly about their intelligent design views.
what is really on display in this film is … a very repugnant form of Holocaust denial from the monotone big mouth Ben Stein.
Given that Expelled explicitly discusses the horrors of the Holocaust (and Stein visits Nazi killing centers at Hadamar and Dachau), the charge of Holocaust-denial is patently absurd. Caplan obviously doesn’t like Stein’s exploration of the intellectual roots of Nazi ideology. But it is dishonest—indeed, ethically contemptible—for him to claim that Stein somehow denies the Holocaust.
We get a long running start toward irresponsibility early in the film in the form of case studies of persons supposedly fired from their jobs for subscribing to a belief in intelligent design. The movie implies that this is just the tip of a McCarthyesque cleansing of the faculty ranks by jack-booted Darwinians. In fact, in the few cases presented in the movie, the removal of faculty members seems more closely tied to their either wandering away from the subjects they were hired to teach or getting into subject areas outside their area of expertise. At most universities that I am familiar with, a belief in intelligent design would make you the object of gossip but hardly the target of dismissal.
At the same time he demonizes anyone who believes in intelligent design, Caplan feigns disbelief that they would face any persecution in academia. How reassuring! If you want to know the real story about what can happen if you challenge Darwin or embrace intelligent design as a scientist, start here.
we get deep, sincere ruminations mainly from some monumentally pompous thinker no one has ever heard of who is nevertheless stylishly attired and living in a gorgeous apartment in Paris.
The speaker Caplan thinks “no one has ever heard of” is mathematician and writer David Berlinski, a Discovery Institute Fellow whose current book The Devil’s Delusion was #226 on the Amazon sales list this morning, and whose previous books include A Tour of the Calculus (Pantheon 1996), The Advent of the Algorithm (2000, Harcourt Brace), Newton’s Gift (The Free Press 2000), The Secrets of the Vaulted Sky (Harcourt, 2003), and Infinite Ascent: A Short History of Mathematics for the Modern Library series at Random House (2004). In the words of The Chicago Tribune, “David Berlinski plus any topic equals an extraordinary book.” If Caplan doesn’t know who Berlinski is, he simply displays his own parochialism. As for who is “monumentally pompous,” Caplan might try looking in the mirror.
Then, and most culpably in terms of the downright immorality of the movie and everyone associated with it, we are presented with what will happen if we keep teaching Darwinism in our schools. The logical consequence of Darwinism is Nazi eugenics: the state directed murder of the handicapped, mentally ill, political dissidents and racial “inferiors”! …
Stein finishes this sequence by bravely visiting a statue of Darwin where he stares the long deceased now marbleized evil-doer down while making it clear who is directly to blame for Hitler, the sterilization of tens of thousands of German children, the death of 6 million Jews and the deaths of countless other millions of victims of Nazism and those who died fighting the Nazi regime.
This is called attacking a straw man. The film nowhere claims that Darwin “is directly to blame for Hitler.” In fact, the experts interviewed in the film such as David Berlinski and Richard Weikart make clear that Darwinism in and of itself is not sufficient to produce Nazism. What they do claim is that Darwinism played a key role in Nazi ideology, and despite Caplan’s protestations to the contrary, that point is substantiated by a mountain of evidence. For the evidence, go here.
Ben, who calls upon each one of us to rise up in defense of freedom and knock down a few walls in order to get creationism back into the curriculum at Iowa State, Baylor, and other dens of American secular iniquity.
Another straw man. The cases of persecution discussed in the film at Iowa State and Baylor have nothing to do with creationism, and indeed, they aren’t primarily about what should be in the curriculum at those schools. They are about the freedom of scientists to research, write, and speak publicly about their views on intelligent design free of harassment and discrimination.
There were many nations, such as Brazil, where Darwinism led to no political ideology. There were some such as Britain which embraced Darwinism but saw a considerable number of their population killed trying to eliminate Nazism. There were other nations, such as the Soviet Union, where Darwinism was seen as so dangerous and subversive to state sponsored dreams of social engineering that those who espoused it were killed or exiled and a complete biological fairy tale, Lysenkoism, put into classrooms and agricultural policy ultimately leading to the deaths of millions from starvation.
Again, the film makes clear that it is not claiming Darwinism inevitably leads to Nazism. But it does suggest that there is a logical connection between Darwinism and the devaluation of life found in Nazism, and there is. And this link between Darwinism and the devaluation of life can certainly be found in many other countries, including Britain, the Nordic countries, the United States, and Russia. As for the debate between the Mendelians and Lysenkoists in the Soviet Union, Caplan apparently doesn’t understand that BOTH sides of that debate considered themselves Darwinists. For documentation, see chapter six of my book Darwin Day in America.
Ben Stein apparently understands none of this. He flags Darwin but does not bother to go and stare at the busts of Adam Smith, Herbert Spencer, Ernst Haeckel, Thomas Malthus so much beloved by American proponents of survival of the fittest.
If Caplan had watched the film, he would have known that Ben Stein explicitly highlights the role of Thomas Malthus, who according to Darwin himself was the key inspiration for Darwin’s theory of natural selection. When Stein brings up the role of Malthus, it’s the director of the museum at Hadamar who responds that Darwin was more influential on German thought—so the Nazis got the influence of Malthus through Darwin. But the film certainly recognizes the role of Malthus.
And there were some nations where Darwinism was greeted with glee because it seemed so compatible with the prevailing ideology of the day. In particular the United States at the turn of the 20th century where robber-baron capitalists like the Carnegies, Mellons, Sumners, Stanfords and yes, even Jack London, could not stop rattling on about how the “survival of the fittest” justified crushing unions, exploiting immigrant labor or being left unregulated to amass huge fortunes while administering monopolies.
The one place Caplan acknowledges the impact of Social Darwinism, he gets his facts wrong, relying on an outdated caricature of the past supplied by left-wing historians like Richard Hofstadter. As I document in chapter six of Darwin Day in America, few capitalists actually drew on Darwin to promote capitalism. In fact, many of them disliked Darwinism because of its link to Malthus’s pessimistic view of the world. As for Jack London, Caplan apparently doesn’t realize that London was a socialist who supported unions and opposed survival-of-the-fittest policies applied to crush workers. Again, for a discussion of London’s views, see Darwin Day in America.
Worse yet, while frowning at Darwin’s statute in a manly fashion, Stein makes no mention of the key factors driving Nazi ideology — racism, homophobia and hatred of the mentally ill and disabled.
It’s hard to believe that Caplan—a distinguished bioethicist—is quite so breathtakingly ignorant of the roots of Nazi ideology. Racism and hatred for the mentally ill and disabled were certainly key factors in driving Nazi policies. But how did the Nazis justify racism and hatred for the disabled? By appealing to the doctrines of Darwinism, especially natural selection! The same was true for the leaders of the eugenics movement in America, who thought we were sinning against natural selection by trying to care for the poor and the handicapped, and who also believed that natural selection had made blacks inferior to whites. I document this fact extensively in chapter 7 of my book Darwin Day in America. (You can read a free excerpt from this chapter here.)