From Ferris Bueller to fulminating Bible-thumpers, Ben Stein keeps some pretty interesting company. The author, actor and occasional game-show host came to Toronto last week to promote his new movie, Expelled: No Intelligence Required, which purports to expose a global conspiracy among scientists to keep "intelligent design" out of the mainstream.
Accompanied by his producer, Walt Ruloff, Stein sat down with me at the Royal York for a conversation distinguished by its cordiality: None of us budged from our essential position, but we managed to do it without shouting. And I'm pretty sure he did it as a diversionary tactic, but I must admit to feeling a certain thrill when the guy who wrote speeches for Richard Nixon called me "a smart motherfucker."
To defuse any possible charges of misrepresentation or taking quotes out of context from Expelled's defenders, the following is the complete, unedited transcript of our conversation – right down to every last stammer. This should also give you an idea of how much editorial smoothening is required to make anyone, interviewer or subject, seem coherent on the page, let alone eloquent.
The film presents you as the amiable host who’s sort of stumbled onto something, but obviously it’s not that simple – stuff had to be brought to your attention.
BS: It’s a little bit like that. I mean, I didn’t know much about it to start with, and I was quite skeptical about intelligent design, and quite skeptical about the idea that Darwinists didn’t have all of the answers. I would have assumed they had pretty much all the answers. I didn’t assume they had every single answer, but I thought they had pretty much all the answers. And I didn’t realize how many giant lacunae or gaps – I shouldn’t say gaps. Lacunae, holes. Giant areas, undiscovered continents of experience there were in Darwinists and neo-Darwinists. I didn’t realize that Darwinists had no explanation for gravity, no explanation for thermodynamics, no explanation for the laws of fluid motion. I didn’t realize that Darwin himself had thought there was design in a large part of the creation of the universe
Darwin acknowledged God, sure.
BS: But even towards the end of his life, he acknowledged design, and I did not realize that Darwin had said that the whole subject was so complicated that it couldn’t be understood by human beings. I didn’t realize a lot of those things.
So, before I get to the next question there, how did you guys get together? I mean, how did --
BS: Walt just called me, or e-mailed me, and said he wanted to talk to me about working on a documentary about Darwinism, so would I meet him the next time I was up in his neck of the woods? And I was up there quite soon after, just by chance, for another event. And we met, and I was compelled by the things he showed me and told me.
Okay. And how far along were you in the process when you contacted Ben?
WR: We were very – we were pretty on. We decided to make a documentary on this issue because we were all very intrigued with the debate. And once we figured out that the documentary was the best way to do it, we put together a kind of a list of who would be the best person to represent this film. There really was only one person. So we had Ben Stein waaaay up there, saying that – he’s the – we’d love to do something with Ben. We had some other people who were second and third, but they were just a distant second and third. So we were very happy, obviously, and pleased when Ben said that he was intellectually intrigued, and I think also on many levels intrigued, to deal with this issue.
So the process of the film seems to be structured ... the thing that I have to admit got my back up was that the terminology sort of slides very slowly over the course of the film from “the scientific community” to “the Darwinists” to ... wait, I think there’s a third term in there as well. We start off with “the scientific community”, then there was – is there a reference to “a Darwinist bloc” right around the time that someone mentions that “evil can sometimes be rationalized as science.” Is it necessary to be so ... “confrontational” is the wrong word, but is it necessary to be so black and white on a subject that no one has the answers on?
BS: Well, actually, we completely take your point, and we thought we were making that exact point. In fact, if you asked me to say what the movie was about, I couldn’t have done it better than what you just said. We’d like to say in the movie that we don’t think it is black and white, that it’s not just a matter of believing that it’s either Creationism or total accident, chance, random mutation, natural selection – that we think there’s some of everything going on there. What Darwin said – some natural selection, some accident and some design. We thought we were saying that. If we didn’t say it clearly enough, I apologize.
WR: Also, just to add to that, I think there’s a journey that Ben goes on. First of all, he’s looking into this so-called suppression, and if there is suppression within the academy (sic), specifically around intelligent design. That’s really the first phase of it. Then he starts to investigate the current state of these, I would say, very aggressive atheists, and their position on talking about this so-called utopia world if we just got rid of religion. And that’s the next phase, and there’s a different way to approach that, because people like Richard Dawkins, we believe, are standing on the soapbox of Big Science and saying, “see, we’ve proven that you’re all a bunch of idiots, you should come to our side.” And then ultimately we go to a place where we look at, if Richard Dawkins and all these other types are purporting this type of position that completely eliminates any type of divine, has there been consequences on a historical basis? And we think that it is extremely well-documented that the Nazis used the Darwinist position, specifically eugenics, as a reference point to justify their acts, to basically breed the human species.
WR: So we go through that process, and that’s why it takes those different twists and turns. They’re all individual different arguments, and we’re basically trying to pull together a story that says if you have suppression within the academy, if you have people like Richard Dawkins, and we see what has happened historically – really, this is a dangerous time, and we need to allow our scientific community to speak openly about these issues. If there are findings within cellular mechanisms that basically contradict Darwinian mechanisms, have metaphysical implications, our position is so be it, let them speak.
Well, but doesn’t that ..? Who gets to decide they have metaphysical implications? The scientists –
BS: No, no – no, no – we think – that – well. There, you’re raising a very good question, because if you were to follow the views of a Dawkins, or his friends in America, you would think to yourself, on the one hand we have all the scientists saying it’s all Darwinism and neo-Darwinism, and on the other hand we have these few lunatic Bible-thumpers questioning that. But in fact, we produced many scientists, including some very distinguished scientists, in Europe and the United States, who said “we totally think that Darwinism is not the story, and that Darwin doesn’t explain everything.” So flaw number one in the neo-Darwinist and Darwinist position is that there is unanimity within the scientific community. That isn’t even remotely true.
The sense I got from the quotes provided in the film was that – not so much that there’s unanimity in the scientific community, but there’s a consensus that it would be better to continue to do the – to make these investigations into evolutionary biology without bringing religion into it. I mean, isn’t the whole idea ...
BS: We’re not bringing – we don’t want to bring religion into it. We, we – nobody’s saying we should bring religion into it. What we’d like to say is, follow the evidence where it leads. If you have a cell that has, say, roughly – very roughly – a million moving parts, all of which have to move, work together perfectly, please, Mr. Dawkins, please, Mr. PZ Myers, please explain to us how this happens by accident.
But you’ve rejected other potential explanations.
BS: We have not rejected, we have not rejected –
I mean, the film mocks panspermia pretty aggressively
BS: We have not rejected, we have not rejected – we, yeah, we, we do, we do make fun of that, there’s no doubt about it, we make fun of that.
And you even hang Dawkins, in the end, for acknowledging that (panspermia) it’s a more likely possibility than ...
BS: We make fun of, we make fun of that, but I will tell you if, if – we would like all avenues to be traveled, and if all, if there’s evidence that leads us down that avenue, that’s fine. I’d be happy to follow that evidence. We want to follow every evidence, every avenue, that has some useful data.
WR: If Dawkins – our point there is if Dawkins can say, “yes, panspermia is a viable way that life could be seeded on Earth,” and if he also said that, “yes, God could have been” – or a designer, or a divine – and he left the table open, we wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t have made the movie.
BS: And if in general, the scientific community had said, “we are” – well, let’s say, the powers that be in the scientific community had said “there’s debate and discussion within this issue, about this issue within our midst,” we wouldn’t have made the issue – the movie. If Mr. Dawkins and his friends had said, “look, 70% of us think” or “80% of us think it’s absolutely Darwinism that explains everything, but a very intelligent 20% from whom we want to hear more in the future have a different view,” there would have been no movie.
Yeah, well, I don’t want to defend Dawkins – he’s like Michael Moore, I want him to stay off my side – but, but (coughs) excuse me – what I can’t quite understand is the, is the – it’s the – it comes back to who picks what’s a legitimate sense. You know, the idea that Bush’s response in 2002, I think, was that we should teach the controversy. But what if there is no controversy on a subject? Not necessarily this, but on anything – and to get people’s attention, you simply have to create a controversy?
BS: Well, we don’t know about that, but there is a controversy.
WR: We think that the academy should choose that. But the academy needs to be open and free in its process of debate, and that’s our whole point, it’s not.
BS: We think, there clearly is a controversy, even if the only data point you had was our movie, there’s a controversy. We’ve got big-time scientists at Oxford and Cambridge, big-time scientists from Poland, big-time scientists from the United States, saying intelligent design has much to offer and we should follow that route where it leads. There’s a controversy.
But isn’t that – I mean, there’s a quote in the film, and I hope that I wrote it down on this page as well, because my handwriting is really terrible the other way – dammit, maybe it’s on the first page. The quote is essentially about – dammit, why don’t I have it, I’m sorry.
BS: I know what your question’s going to be: If there’s a controversy, than there’s no suppression.
No, no, that’s not it.
BS: The point is that there is – well, that’s a good point, though. (laughter) The point is that there is suppression, because once the side that is, the intelligent design side tries to be heard, they get slammed down into their hole.
And that’s reasonable, in terms of the response of an entrenched – I, I can understand that, not necessarily that it’s right or wrong –
BS: Well, that – we don’t think that anything in our movie is not understandable. We understand why the apparatchiks of the failing Soviet Community party were desperate to keep their jobs, and we sort of think that’s sort of what’s going on here.
Now, the line that I actually wanted to ask you about was – the quote is, someone else says it: “I don’t know how you get from mud to a live cell”. But then the, it’s immediately followed by the point that the trick is not to fit facts into a, an existing vision, or world-view --
BS: Right, that’s right. The facts dictate the world-view.
But doesn’t the nature of – I mean, doesn’t the nature of the intelligent design movement mean that science – isn’t it inherently anti-science?
BS: No, not at all. Not at all. We are – we are not –
But there’s no testable hypothesis, there’s not –
BS: We are not – yes, there is. Because it’s a hypothes – if the oth – if the science that says there is not possibly intelligent design cannot prove its point of view, that by itself is the hypothesis and a test of their hypothesis. If you have a hypothesis that says there cannot possibly be a designer, and X, Y and Z have to be the explanations, and X, Y and Z are very clearly not the explanations, then what about looking at all the other possibilities? It’s like what Sherlock Holmes said. I mean, Sherlock Holmes was not a geneticist, but it’s a very famous quote, which is “once you have exhausted all the possible explanations, whatever explanation remains is worth pursuing.” I’m paraphrasing.
Yeah, no, “Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable – ”
WR: To be very specific about the actual scientific method, we interviewed probably two dozen of the leading genomic researchers. Now, most of those said, I want to be blacked out, I don’t want my name or my position known, because I get all my funding from the NIH, for example. And all of them said the same thing: We are discovering, and have discovered, mechanisms in direct contraction to the Darwinian mechanism, which is random mutation with natural selection.
Right, and ...
WR: Please let me finish. These mechanisms, by their very nature, have metaphysical implications. They have massive implications of the design hypothesis. Our process is, the need within our process to be able to collaborate about these new mechanisms. We can’t. We have to retrofit our findings back into a Darwinist orthodoxy because of the current political environment. That’s not science, that’s politics. What they want to do is science. That’s really what our movie is, is, wants to get at. My background is in computer science. We were able to think outside the box continually, and we had to. We had to. We had to question the paradigm. In this environment, we can’t do that.
BS: We, we think, if I may say so, we are the scientists, because we would like to have open, free discussion and inquiry. The other side are the anti-scientists.
What I was going to ask was, isn’t it – my issue, I guess, with Darwinian biology was that it’s 150 years, well, 140 years old, and obviously predates the electron microscope and predates other things. But does that mean that science shouldn’t continue to look for a specifically mechanical cause ..?
BS: Look for anything you want.
WR: Totally. It has to look for a mechanical ...
BS: Look for anything you want. Just let everybody look for anything he wants – as long as there’s, as there’s something there, by all means keep looking.
WR: The issue is, science would not be science if it stopped looking at the actual data, and the actual mechanism that drive these things forward. But if it’s not random mutation, for example – if it’s neural-net decision making, and epigenetics has a foothold, and we can move forward on so-called programmable adaptive capabilities, that is in direct contradiction to random mutation, well, let’s do the computer modeling about that, and let’s start talking about it in our universities –
Right, but –
WR: -- rather than trying to retrofit it back into some position. That’s not science.
But aren’t you – and I can see how the computer programming would actually kind of create a, um, maybe like a false positive, because doesn’t that frame your thinking towards design anyway, since there’s nothing in a computer that can exist without it?
WR: Now, now, we’re in a place now where we have to look at nanotechnology as a good reference place for what’s happening within cellular mechanisms –
BS: But we don’t look at it as the only reference.
WR: Exactly, exactly.
BS: God, you’re a smart motherfucker. (laughter)
BS: You really are smart. Where – what’s your educational background?
Film. Film and journalism.
I read a lot.
BS: Wow. The question you just asked was about as smart a question as I’ve ever heard anyone ask, and I’ve done a lot of interviews. That was a very, very smart question.
WR: Yeah, it’s very rare that we go to the heart of the issue.
BS: Yeah, that – but, I mean to nail him on his reference points was really, really, really smart.
But I mean, it’s all ultimately about the perspective of the researcher, isn’t it? I mean, whoever you are, and whatever your background is –
BS: Yes! And we thought that – and we’d like – and we think the more perspectives you get thrown into the pot, the more likely you are to come out with the truth.
Okay. So, I just – I have to ask because I think we’re just about wrapping up ...
BS: We’re done. We’re done, yeah.
My last question has to be about the Nazi analogy. Isn’t it like blaming the Wright brothers for 9/11?
BS: Not at all. Not at all. Not at all. Not at all.
Didn’t Hitler reject Darwin? Around 1942 ..?
BS: Not at all. Not at all! My God, not at all. Not at all. I mean, I – it’s funny you’d say that, because I just did the slimy task of reading Mein Kampf, just to see what he said. And he never uses the word “Darwin,” but his explanation of why it’s essential that the Aryans suppress and stamp out the Jew is so clearly Darwinian – and by the way, and lots of the people in his circle, as is well-documented by our friend Richard Weikart, were explicitly Darwinists, and one of the main people at the Wannsee conference, where they decided on their horrible final solution, explicitly invoked Darwin. And the two, the two curators, one at Dachau and one at Hadamar, when asked what was the explanation, what was the scientific rationale for this, both said (snaps fingers), bang right off the bat, Darwinism.
Right, but that said, is it – it’s such an incendiary – the Nazi imagery is such an incendiary thing to use. Is it appropriate to devote that much of –
BS: Yes. I would – if it had been my movie, I would have made the whole movie about that, because the fact that Darwinism is the basis for so much evil in this world is, is not well-known and it’s a very dangerous thing. I don’t blame Darwin for that. I do not blame Darwin for that, although I think Darwin said some things which we quote in the movie which are really quite inflammatory, to continue your praises. But the idea that Darwinism and the Darwinists should escape scot-free from eugenics, racism, ah, how the Holocaust – that’s nonsense. Darwin was a big, big force in rationalizing the Holocaust in the minds of the people who did it. They may well have done it anyway – anti-Semitism long precedes Darwin –
BS: -- but it’s, yeah, that these people could say “Oh, we’re not just old-fashioned, crummy, back-alley anti-Semites, hillbilly Russian village peasant anti-Semites – we’re scientists. This isn’t anti-Semitism just to beat up on the weak guy, this is science.
WR: Eugenics is the ultimate starting point, there, which was –
Absolutely, for the Nazis. Okay, well, I’m good, I guess –
BS: You are a very, very smart guy.
Thank you –
BS: Where did you go to school?
Uh, locally – Ryerson, and – well, York for film, for a year, and then Ryerson for journalism.
WR: Locally. Very nice.
BS: You’re a very smart guy. What’s your father’s occupation, may I ask?
He’s an accountant.
BS: He should be very proud of you.
I think he is, finally.
WR: You asked some great questions. If you’d like to follow up, I’m available.
Thanks. Okay. I appreciate that. I do have one other – there’s a quote that’s just been in a movie called The Happening: “Science will come up with some reason to put in the books, but in the end it’ll just be a theory. We will fail to acknowledge that there are forces at work beyond our understanding.” I mean, does that – that’s not science at all, because it’s an admission of –
BS: I think, I think that – Darwin said, and I think I told you this quote at the beginning of our talk, but if I didn’t – Darwin said, this whole subject is so complex that for a human being to try to understand is like a dog trying to understand Newton’s physics. And I think, if I may say so, there’s an awful lot to that. The human understanding is so weak and frail, compared with the complexity of the universe, that we’re just nibbling along the edges at this point.
WR: I mean, I think a quote would be from us is, allow us to feel a little uncomfortable if we hit something that, uh, that appears to be a dead end, but we’re not saying don’t stop. Continue the scientific process, but don’t try to bridge in some type of overarching explanation that requires more things than typically gather –
BS: The mid-nineteenth century was an era when people were coming out with one ideology after another to explain everything. There was a time when people thought science was going to explain everything. I think, to me, Darwinism is, exactly on the biological side, the equivalent of Marxism – a theory that’s going to explain everything. But it doesn’t.