I meet a whole lot of creationists in my job, as one might expect. Some are confrontational or even rude; most are civil; a few are cordial — sometimes a bit too cordial, like the fellow who offered to take me out for dinner and dancing the next time I happened to be in his town. It is all part of the routine. But when they flat-out lie to me about what they are doing, I get angry.
In early 2007, I received a request from a representative of Rampant Films, asking to interview me for a documentary entitled Crossroads: The Intersection of Science and Religion. Judging from the producer’s description, its approach was going to be objective and reportorial. I agreed to the request, and spent several phone calls, e-mails, and the better part of a day chatting on camera about the creationism/evolution controversy.
I thought nothing more about it until the summer, when NCSE received a tip about a forthcoming creationist movie, called Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. The movie was reported to be arguing that a dogmatic scientific establishment was fiercely suppressing the evidence for “intelligent design” and ruthlessly punishing — “expelling” — those who dared to challenge the orthodoxy.
Standard creationist fare, of course. But big money was evidently behind the effort. Expelled was going to have a major theatrical release — unheard of for a creationist film — and its production company, Premise Media, enlisted Motive Marketing, the company that successfully used viral marketing techniques to promote The Passion of the Christ to fundamentalist Christians.
So we were prepared to take Expelled seriously. Imagine my surprise, though, when we discovered that I was already involved! Rampant Films turned out to be a front for Premise Media, and the person who interviewed me was in fact the associate producer of Expelled. I had been lied to. And so had a lot of people who were interviewed, including my friends Michael Shermer, PZ Myers, and Richard Dawkins.
As I told The New York Times (2007 Sep 27), which ran a story about the interviews, “I have certainly been taped by people and appeared in productions where people’s views are different than mine, and that’s fine.” I added that I probably would have appeared in the film anyway, even if the producers had been candid about their intentions: “I just expect people to be honest with me, and they weren’t.”
Perhaps just as revealing as who was interviewed is who was not. Myers and Dawkins were interviewed because, in addition to being lucid expositors of evolution, they are also both outspoken atheists. A spokesperson for Expelled later divulged to Scientific American that people of faith who accept evolution, such as NCSE Supporter Kenneth R Miller, were not interviewed for the movie because they “would have confused the film unnecessarily.”
What kind of film is it that is confused by telling the truth? That’s right: a propaganda film. There are only two ways of dealing with propaganda: ignoring it and refuting it. Because of the potential influence of Expelled over a mass audience, we decided that it was not safe for NCSE to ignore its claims. Instead, we took on the massive task of debunking it — carefully, thoroughly, and authoritatively.
As we prepared, we identified four central points likely to form the core message of Expelled: that “intelligent design” is a scientifically credible alternative to evolution, that proponents of “intelligent design” have been persecuted by the scientific establishment, that evolution is intrinsically atheistic, and — most outrageously — that acceptance of evolution was responsible for historical atrocities such as the Holocaust.
We decided to devote a separate website, Expelled Exposed (), to debunking Expelled. NCSE’s staff, especially Carrie Sager and Josh Rosenau, labored long and hard at designing the website and writing its content. We even commissioned four short videos to accompany — and draw traffic to — the website, on such topics as the forced resignation of Chris Comer (see RNCSE 2008 Jan/Feb; 28 : 4–7) and the evolution of complex structures such as the eye.
It was a lot of hard work. But it was worth it. When Expelled opened — in over one thousand theaters across the country — our website was already live, receiving tens of thousands of visitors every day. NCSE’s allies in the scientific, educational, and civil liberties communities updated their websites to link to it. Reviewers, journalists, and bloggers availed themselves of its resources, too.
At the end of the day, Expelled was a critical failure — “a conspiracy-theory rant masquerading as investigative inquiry ... an unprincipled propaganda piece that insults believers and nonbelievers alike,” wrote the reviewer for The New York Times (2008 Apr 18). And despite a seemingly impressive box office tally, it is likely to have lost money for its producers and failed to reach beyond a small audience (see p 15 and 17).
NCSE’s efforts were not the only cause of Expelled’s failure. The ignorance, arrogance, and incompetence of the film, its producers, and its spokesperson, actor and pundit Ben Stein, were invaluable assets — to our side (see p 21). And Scientific American, the Skeptics Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Dawkins, Myers, Shermer, and a host of bloggers all played their parts.
I think that it is fair to say, however, that NCSE’s contribution to the response to Expelled was indispensable. As the only national organization focused exclusively on defending the teaching of evolution, NCSE was in a unique position to coordinate, as well as provide the bulk of, the response, both through Expelled Exposed and through one-on-one communications with reporters, reviewers, and bloggers.
But Expelled is not going away. It was released on DVD on October 21, 2008, and creationists are sure to be screening it from now till kingdom come. For that reason, we decided to devote a special issue of RNCSE to Expelled. Much of the content comes directly from Expelled Exposed, although we took the opportunity to correct and update a few details where necessary.
The limitations of our discussion should be acknowledged. For some topics, such as why Guillermo Gonzalez was not granted tenure at Iowa State University (see p 34), or whether Premise Media was guilty of plagiarism in developing the animations of the cell it used (see p 19), it is impossible for us to know exactly what happened and why — although it is still possible to tell that Expelled and its producers are not reliable guides to the events in question.
For other topics, such as Expelled’s charges that evolution instigated the Holocaust (see p 50) or that evolution is incapable of accounting for complexity in nature (see p 43), a complete discussion would have been neither feasible nor, given the attention span of the typical internet browser, desirable. Here, too, we do not pretend to have done more than highlight the more obvious ways in which Expelled misleads, errs, and flatly lies.
More than one critic of Expelled took note of the ironic suitability of its subtitle, No Intelligence Allowed: Arthur Caplan wrote, for example, “There is not a shred of intelligence on display in this just released ‘documentary’ purporting to be a careful examination of the fight over teaching creationism and evolution in America” (MSNBC 2008 Apr 23). I am sure that you will agree that the same cannot be said of NCSE’s rebuttal.
Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed had one of the best opening weekends of any documentary, according to data on the Box Office Mojo website (http://www.boxofficemojo.com/). But Ben Stein’s attack on science and evolution faltered fairly quickly and was out of theaters after a brief run of 56 days (eight weeks). The total gross reported by Box Office Mojo was $7 690 545 — almost 40% of it obtained during that highly successful opening weekend.
Expelled opened in 1052 theaters, opening on more theaters than any other documentary on Box Office Mojo’s list of the top 100 documentaries. Most documentaries start out in a handful of theaters, and as word of mouth spreads, the number of theaters increases. The number two documentary, March of the Penguins, for example, opened on only four screens, but eventually was shown on 2506 screens (grossing $77 437 223). The top–grossing documentary, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, perhaps because of Moore’s drawing power, opened on a whopping 868 screens and topped out at 2011 theaters (grossing $119 194 771). Part of the reason for most documentaries’ beginning their runs in a more modest number of theaters is the expense of producing and distributing films to theaters: each print costs upward of $1500–$2000 (according to
Expelled’s producers apparently were willing to gamble on a big opening weekend because they believed they had a successful strategy for box office success (p 15). Motive Entertainment, the marketer for Expelled, claims credit for building up interest in Mel Gibson’s 2004 Hollywood movie The Passion of the Christ through “viral” word-of-mouth marketing, including private screenings in churches and parish halls, among other promotions. Similarly, for several months before its theater release, Expelled was shown to religious conservatives in churches and rented theaters, and heavily promoted on-line. The intent in the marketing of both films was to excite conservative Christians about the movies and to encourage them to show up on the opening weekend. Large crowds on opening weekend create a buzz for a movie that can carry it through several weeks’ tenure in the theaters, increasing the box office and — for a documentary with a mission, like Expelled — ensure it a wide audience. The plan worked very well for The Passion of the Christ, which opened on Ash Wednesday on 3006 screens and collected more than $125 000 000 by the end of the following weekend. Walt Ruloff, Expelled’s executive producer, clearly placed a great deal of confidence in this strategy; he suggested to the Los Angeles Times (2008 Apr 18) that the movie might top Fahrenheit 9/11’s opening weekend of $23.9 million!
Things did not go quite that well for Expelled, although the movie had a very successful opening weekend, April 18–20, 2008. Patrons at those 1052 theaters contributed $2 970 848 to the total gross, which was enough to put Expelled into the top ten grossing movies opening that week. For a documentary, those numbers were stunning. I must say, we at NCSE were dismayed at this successful beginning, but we hypothesized that the audiences probably were composed primarily of conservative Christians who had seen the movie or heard of it through their churches, and that the general public might be less enthusiastic about it in future weeks.
Our hypothesis appeared to be confirmed: after scathing reviews (see p 24) and apparent public indifference beyond its conservative Christian base, Expelled quickly sank from the top ten; by its second weekend in the theaters, it had dropped to 13th. By the third weekend, only 656 theaters were carrying the film — about a 40% drop. By the fourth weekend, only 402 theaters were still showing the film, and the average gross/theater had dropped from a high on opening day of $1149 to a dismal $300. Within a few more days, the average gross/theater had dropped to around $100; by the end of May, the producer had ceased reporting statistics to Box Office Mojo (personal communication from website staff). The reported close date for Expelled was August 7, 2007. The total reported gross from Expelled’s theatrical release is $7 690 545. The successful opening weekend accounted for 38% of this gross, suggesting a lack of “legs” for this film.
A good point of comparison is the Bill Maher documentary Religulous, which is sharply critical of the Abrahamic religions and opened October 1, 2008. The production budget of Religulous was roughly $2.5 million, 30–40% lower than that of Expelled, and it opened in less than half as many theaters. Yet it grossed $3 409 643 on its opening weekend, about 15% higher than Expelled’s opening weekend gross of $2 970 848. Whereas the number of theaters showing Expelled had steadily and rapidly decreased from its opening weekend, Religulous was actually shown in more theaters in its second and third week (568 and 540, respectively) than its first (502). By its seventh week, according to the website The Numbers (http://www.the-numbers.com/), Religulous was still showing in 238 theaters, with a gross per theater of $968. Box Office Mojo’s most recent numbers show its total gross at $12 572 995 — 61% higher than that of Expelled’s entire theatrical run! Despite Expelled’s higher production budget and wider distribution, Religulous has surpassed it by virtually every measure of box office success. Expelled’s website continues to call it the “#1 documentary of 2008”, but that is clearly no longer the case.
Expelled’s successful opening weekend at least provided bragging rights. According to Box Office Mojo, Expelled is the fifth most successful political documentary (after three Michael Moore films and An Inconvenient Truth), the twelfth most successful documentary (between Hoop Dreams and Tupac: Resurrection), and the twelfth most successful Christian film (between Facing the Giants and Megiddo: The Omega Code II). But those rights did not come cheap: Premise Media’s Logan Craft told the Dallas Morning News (2008 Apr 27) that nearly $4 million was spent on producing the movie and “a multiple of that” in distribution and marketing so far. So it is unlikely that the producers have recouped their investment.
Not all viewers will have paid for a ticket to see Expelled. Its producers were encouraging visitors to book a theater and rent the movie for a special showing, and it is not known whether they got many takers. Additionally, the producers have released the movie in DVD form on October 21, 2008. We can anticipate that Expelled will have a future in living rooms and in church basements, even if it had a short life on the big screen. NCSE and its allies will have to remain vigilant to ensure that the movie or segments from it are not taught in public schools because of its religious message. Even without the religious message, however, the anti-science message of Expelled is sufficient to keep it from classroom use (see p 27).
Update on DVD sales
As of July 2009, data from The Numbers indicate that consumers have bought approximately 109 000 Expelled DVDs, spending just under $2 million to do so. Sales have leveled off at roughly 250–400 DVDs per week for the last three months.
By comparison, An Inconvenient Truth has sold 1.66 million DVDs, Michael Moore's Sicko has sold 1.03 million, and Religulous — which was released on DVD roughly four months after Expelled — has sold 372 000. (All data are for standard-format DVDs only; The Numbers does not track sales of HD or Blu-Ray DVDs.)
It appears that Expelled has been no more successful in the home market than at the box office, and it remains unlikely that the producers have recouped their expenses. However, if DVD sales remain steady for some time in the future, even at this modest level, Expelled may eventually turn a profit.
The creationist propaganda movie Expelled was anything but a critical favorite, with the Rotten Tomatoes movie review website reporting that only 10% of reviews (4 of 40) were favorable and summarizing the critical consensus as “Full of patronizing, poorly structured arguments, Expelled is a cynical political stunt in the guise of a documentary” (www.rottentomatoes.com/ m/expelled_no_intelligence_allowed/).
Not surprisingly, reviewers who were already familiar with, or took the time to investigate, the “intelligent design” movement and its claims saw through Expelled. Reviewers who took the film on its own merits were generally unimpressed, although they sometimes worried that there might be a grain of truth in the complaints of the “martyrs” featured in the movie. And, of course, reviewers who were predisposed to accept the claims of Expelled were effusive in their praise.
A summary of the reviews would be lengthy and repetitive, but there are a few reviews that deserve special notice — because they were particularly informative and complete, or because they appeared in particularly influential publications, or because they were particularly fine examples of the same rhetorical excess in which Expelled indulged. (Not included here are organizational statements about or reactions to Expelled, whether favorable or unfavorable; for these, see p 52).
Dan Whipple was perhaps the first journalist to review Expelled, having been invited (“probably by mistake,” he wrote) to a preliminary screening. His preliminary review appeared in Colorado Confidential (2007 Dec 16; available on-line via www.coloradoconfidential.com/tag.do?tag=Expelled), and he continued to keep his eye on Expelled, publishing a detailed review in Skeptical Inquirer (2008 May/Jun; 32 : 52–3).
After attending a preliminary screening in Minneapolis, Richard Dawkins, who was himself interviewed for Expelled under false pretenses (see p 24), discussed the screening and the film in a post on his website (2008 Mar 23; available on-line at richarddawkins. net/article,2394,Lying-for-Jesus,Richard-Dawkins) with his characteristic brio: “Quite apart from anything else, it is drearily boring, the tedium exacerbated by the grating monotony of Stein’s voice.”
Most extensive, and most impressive, was Scientific American’s package of reviews and commentary (available on-line at www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=sciam-reviews-expelled). At its center was a lengthy review by Michael Shermer, who like Dawkins was interviewed for Expelled under false pretenses. Also included were a review by Scientific American’s editor John Rennie and a lengthy, and revealing, discussion with Expelled’s associate producer Mark Mathis.
Lauri Lebo, a journalist who covered Kitzmiller v Dover for the York Daily Record and then wrote a book, The Devil in Dover (New York: The New Press, 2008), about the trial, reviewed Expelled for AlterNet (2008 Apr 24; available on-line at www.alternet.org/movies/83427/), writing that it is “a slick misleading piece of shrill propaganda. ... It exploits both the concept of democracy and the victims of the Holocaust.”
Time’s reviewer Jeffrey Kluger (2008 Apr 10; available on-line at www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1729703,00.html) was intrigued by the tales of martrydom (“if there’s anything to it at all, it’s a matter well worth exposing”) and critical of evolutionary biologists espousing “sneering, finger-in-the-eye atheism,” but dismissive of the movie’s scientific claims and even more so of its attempt to link Darwin to euthanasia, abortion, eugenics, and Nazism.
Variety’s review (2008 Apr 11; available on-line at www.variety.com/review/VE1117936783.html?categoryid=31&cs=1) began unpromisingly — “There’s an intelligent case to be made for intelligent design” — but was critical of the film’s style and claims, especially regarding its attempt to link evolution and the Holocaust, which it described as offensive and fatuous. The review added, slangily and punningly, that the film “will be a natural selection for Christian audiences.”
The New York Times’s reviewer Jeanette Catsoulis (2008 Apr 18; available on-line at movies.nytimes.com/2008/04/18/movies/18expe.html) hit the nail on the head: “One of the sleaziest documentaries to arrive in a very long time, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed is a conspiracy-theory rant masquerading as investigative inquiry ... the only expulsion here is of reason itself.”
The Los Angeles Times’s Mark Olsen was dismissive in his review (2008 Apr 18; available on-line at articles.latimes.com/2008/apr/18/entertainment/et-expelled18), recommending that Expelled be viewed as “a tiresome ideological bludgeon, an attempt to deceive audiences into believing it is one thing when it is, in fact, quite another.” “As a work of nonfiction filmmaking it is a sham,” he concluded, “and as agitprop it is too flimsy to strike any serious blows.”
Tom Bethell, a veteran anti-evolutionist, wrote in the American Spectator (2008 Feb; 41 : 54–5; available on-line at www.spectator.org/dsp_article.asp?art_id=12759) that Expelled “is surely the best thing ever done on this issue, in any medium. At moments it brought tears of joy to my eyes. I have written about this controversy for over 30 years and by the movie’s end I felt that those of us who have insisted that Darwinism is a sorry mess and that life surely was designed are going to prevail.”
In World (2008 Apr 5; 23 ; available on-line at www.worldmag.com/articles/13903, Marvin Olasky wrote that Expelled “is perfect for adults and children of middle-school age or above: It should be rated R not for sex or violence but for being reasonable, radical, risible, and right,” and endorsed the claim that “Darwinism bulwark[ed] Hitlerian hatred by providing a scientific rationale for killing those considered less fit in the struggle for survival.”
In the Baptist Witness (2008 Apr 18; available on-line at www.bpnews.net/BPFirstPerson.asp?ID=27872, “intelligent design” proponent William Dembski acknowledged that the scientific establishment is not likely to be convinced by Expelled, but added, “The unwashed masses, in which I place myself, will love the film.” He concluded, “When future intellectual historians describe the key events that led to the fall of ‘Darwin’s Wall,’ Ben Stein’s Expelled will top the list.”
Writing in the California Catholic Daily (2008 Apr 26; available on-line at www.calcatholic.com/news/newsArticle.aspx?id=38c958af-e3dd-4c92-b28b-f8db9ba4c172), Matthew Lickona and Ernie Grimm discussed the film, with Grimm wholeheartedly endorsing its claims and going beyond: “The Darwinists even have their own Gestapo in the National Center for Science Education led by a modern day Heinrich Himmler named Eugenie Scott.”
Adding to the controversies around Expelled were two separate allegations that the film infringed on the copyright of The Inner Life of the Cell (a video produced by XVIVO for Harvard University) and of "Imagine" (the 1971 song by John Lennon). These allegations involve contentious matters both of fact and of law, and it is not easy to ascertain to what extent they are valid, especially because neither was ever fully tested in a court of law. But the allegations certainly contributed to the view that the producers of Expelled were less than scrupulous — although they may also have reinforced the view that Expelled tried so hard to foment, that the proponents of "intelligent design" are the victims of systematic persecution.
In the course of claiming that the complexity of the cell bespeaks design, Expelled uses a segment of computer-generated imagery of various cellular processes. PZ Myers, who obtained a promotional DVD for Expelled at the showing from which he was excluded (see p 15), argued in a March 23, 2008, post on his blog (available on-line at www.scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2008/03/about_that_cell_video_in_expel.php) that the segment on the DVD was clearly derived from "The Inner Life of the Cell":
they both have roughly the same layout and the same elements in view; this is a remarkable, umm, coincidence, since these are highly edited, selected renderings, with many molecules omitted … and curiously, they've both left out the same things.
I previously criticized the Harvard video for a shortcut. That kinesin molecule is illustrated showing a stately march, step by step, straight down the microtubule. Observations of kinesin show it's more complex, jittering back and forth and advancing stochastically. That's a simplification in the Harvard video that is also present in Expelled's version.
Also leveling the charge of plagiarism against Premise Media was Abbie Smith, in a series of rambunctious blog posts at [http://www.endogenousretrovirus.blogspot.com] (she now blogs at www.scienceblogs.com/erv ).
Responding in part to the blogospheric attention to the promotional DVD, David Bolinsky and Michael Astrachan of XVIVO sent a letter (dated April 9, 2008; available here) to the chairman of Premise Media, Logan Craft, stating:
... promotional material for the Expelled film ... clearly shows in the "cell segment" the virtually identical depiction of material from the "Inner Life" video. Among the infringed scenes, we particularly refer to the segment of the Expelled film purporting to show the "walking" models of kinesic activities in cellular mechanisms. The segments depicting these models in your film are clearly based upon, and copied from, material in the "Inner Life" video." ... We have also obtained legal advice that your copying, in virtually identical form, of material in the "[I]nner Life" video clearly meets the legal test of "substantial similarity" between the copied work and our original work.
And they warned that they would pursue legal action if the segment was not removed from Expelled before its scheduled commercial release and if all copies of the "Inner Life" video were not returned to XVIVO.
Premise Media responded first with a note denying the charge posted on the Expelled blog on April 11, 2008, and then with a lawsuit filed on April 14, 2008, in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas. In the filing, Premise Media asserted that the promotional DVD contains a different segment than is contained in the final version of Expelled, that both segments were created independently of the XVIVO video, and that even if the segments relied in part on the XVIVO video, the reliance would have been permissible as fair use, as a de minimis use, and as implicitly permitted by XVIVO's making the video available on-line for educational use. Premise Media thus sought a declaratory judgment that neither Expelled nor the promotional DVD "infringe any copyright or other claimed intellectual property rights XVIVO may have, if any, in the Inner Life Video or otherwise." The lawsuit ended uneventfully on June 23, 2008, when the parties agreed to dismiss the case with prejudice (meaning that a lawsuit on the same charges cannot be filed); as part of the settlement, XVIVO agreed not to file suit over the alleged copyright infringement.
Interestingly, a leading light of the "intelligent design" movement was previously accused of misusing "The Inner Life of the Cell". After William Dembski spoke at the University of Oklahoma on September 17, 2007 (see RNCSE 2007 Sep–Dec; [5–6]: 7–8), Abbie Smith noted that his presentation featured portions of The Inner Life of the Cell. She later wrote in a November 20, 2007, post at the Panda's Thumb blog (available on-line at www.pandasthumb.org/archives/2007/11/diexpelled-for.html) that in the version shown by Dembski in Oklahoma:
Harvard/XVIVO[']s narration, all of the science, is whisked away and replaced with a "surrealistic [L]illiputian realm" — "robots", "manufacturing", "circuitry", "nano motors", "UPS labels". Maybe they think it is "okay" because they turned all of Harvard's science into "Magic"! ... From my point of view, as a virologist and former teaching assistant, this isn't just copyright infringement. This is theft and plagiarism.
Smith alerted XVIVO and Harvard University about the possibility of copyright infringement on Dembski's part, and apparently they took action, for in a November 26, 2007, post at his blog (available on-line at www.uncommondescent.com/molecular-animations/news-release-harvards-xvivo-video/, Dembski announced that he was no longer going to use the film in his presentations, although he admitted no wrongdoing.
A snippet — about fifteen seconds — from John Lennon's 1971 song "Imagine" is on the soundtrack of Expelled, playing as images of Joseph Stalin and the Chinese Red Army are shown along with a verse from the song: "Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too." Writing on the Huffington Post blog (2008 Apr 14, available on-line at www.huffingtonpost.com/james-boyce/yoko-ono-sells-out-john-1_b_96527.html), James Boyce sharply criticized Lennon's widow for allowing Expelled to use the song: "I guess that the $20 million plus the estate earns every year isn't enough for Yoko Ono." Boyce was forced to retract his criticism on learning that in fact Ono had not given her permission; the Wall Street Journal (2008 Apr 16) reported, "Ms Ono's lawyer ... said in an interview Wednesday: 'It was not licensed.' With respect to the filmmakers, he says: 'We are exploring all options.' It is not clear what remedies if any may be available to Ms Ono." In a written statement, the producers of Expelled admitted that they failed to seek permission, but they called the snippet used "momentary" and claimed that the usage was "protected under the fair use doctrine of free speech."
On April 23, 2008, Yoko Ono, Sean Lennon, Julian Lennon, and EMI Blackwood Music — who own the song "Imagine" — filed a lawsuit against Premise Media in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. Noting that Expelled's producers sought permission for other music used in the film, the filing contended that "Defendants have intentionally and willfully used the Song without authorization because they knew that they would likely be unable to secure permission from Plaintiffs and/or because they wished to avoid the costs associated with lawfully licensing these works and paying royalties" and that "Defendants have also intentionally and willfully used the Song in a fashion that suggests to the public that such use was authorized, endorsed or sponsored by the Plaintiffs." EMI Records and Capital Records — which own the recording of "Imagine" used in Expelled — also filed a lawsuit against Premise Media in the New York state court system. Assisting Premise Media in its legal defense was the Stanford Center for Internet and Society's Fair Use Project, which seeks "to provide legal support to a range of projects designed to clarify, and extend, the boundaries of 'fair use' in order to enhance creative freedom."
In both cases, the plaintiffs sought a preliminary injunction prohibiting the continued distribution of the movie, and in both cases, they were unsuccessful. On June 2, 2008, the judge hearing the federal case wrote that the plaintiffs "have not shown a clear likelihood of success on the merits because, on the basis of the current record, defendants are likely to prevail on their affirmative defense of fair use. That doctrine provides that the fair use of a copyrighted work for purposes of criticism and commentary is not an infringement of copyright." (The ruling is available on-line at
Although the plaintiffs appealed the ruling in the federal case, they also showed signs of being ready to abandon the case, filing a motion on September 5, 2008, for the case to be dismissed with prejudice and without costs or attorney fees, primarily on the grounds that the film was already released with "Imagine" included, and secondarily on the grounds that "the Defendants may lack the financial resources to satisfy a potential judgment." Then, in a press release issued on October 6, 2008 (available on-line at cyberlaw.stanford.edu/node/5876, the Fair Use Project announced that "all of the plaintiffs in both cases have now withdrawn their claims and dismissed their cases"; the Wall Street Journal (2008 Oct 8) confirmed with announcement with Yoko Ono's spokesperson and EMI's lawyer. The Fair Use Project lamented, "There should never have been any doubt the filmmakers who were sued here had every right to use a short segment of a song for the purpose of criticizing it and the views it represents. But the right result came far too late." Why? Because "[t]he mere pendency of these cases caused the film's DVD distributor to shy away from releasing the full film — the version that includes the Imagine segment."
Organizations with a stake in the creationism/evolution controversy reacted to Expelled in a variety of ways. Thanks in part to a zealous campaign on the part of the film’s producers, creationist organizations generally lauded and even helped to promote the film — although there was a conspicuous and honorable exception in the old-earth creationist ministry Reasons to Believe. On the other side, it was generally understood among the scientific, educational, and civil liberties organizations with which NCSE works to defend the teaching of evolution in the public schools that NCSE would take the lead in responding to the film: there is no point, it was agreed, in reinventing the wheel. Groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the National Science Teachers Association were thus able to refer enquiries to NCSE and provide links to Expelled Exposed. Additionally, a handful of organizations issued welcome statements of their own denouncing the film.
There was not a major effort to publicize Expelled on the part of the traditional creation science organizations. The Institute for Creation Research featured a piece, “Intelligence expelled” (Acts & Facts 2008; 37 : 9), which uncritically touted the film, and the ICR’s John Morris later invoked Expelled in a complaint about Texas’s denial of certification to its graduate school (“Academic censorship, round two,” Acts & Facts 2008; 37 : 3), writing, “What a strange coincidence for Texas to be caught in the act of censorship and institutional bias just after the blockbuster exposé Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed hit the theaters,” but that seems to have been the extent of its efforts. The Creation Research Society, which focuses on creationist scholarship, seems not to have taken notice of Expelled except for a brief mention in its newsletter Creation Matters, where a footnote refers to the Expelled website for further information about Guillermo Gonzalez (2007 Nov/Dec; 12 : 11–2).
In keeping with its brasher approach to creation evangelism, Answers in Genesis hyped Expelled relentlessly, even while warning that the film emphasized “intelligent design” (which the ministry generally criticizes for not being sufficiently biblical) and neglects its favored version of creationism. According to a March 13, 2008, post on the AiG website (www.answersingenesis.org/articles/2008/03/13/meeting-of-minds), AiG’s Ken Ham met with Expelled’s star Ben Stein at the annual convention of the National Religious Broadcasters, where “Ken pledged AiG’s strong promotional support to Mr Stein, indicating that AiG will use its multiple outlets to spread the word about his excellent film.” The same post described Stein as “actor/economist/lawyer/presidential speechwriter/science observer — a 21st-century Einsteinian figure.” Ham lived up to his promise: AiG published articles lauding Expelled on its website and in its print publications, and encouraged its supporters to attend the film, lobby theater owners to screen it, and spread the word.
Creation Ministries International — formerly the Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa branches of Answers in Genesis, before the 2005 schism (see RNCSE 2006 Nov/Dec; 26 : 4–7) — welcomed Expelled with a February 15, 2008 post on its website (available on-line at creationontheweb.com/content/view/5626): “The controversial movie, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, is a documentary that will expose how the Darwinist hierarchy has closed ranks against the rise of intelligent design, a theory that opposes evolution and says that a Designer is responsible for life.” CMI subsequently featured a discussion with Expelled’s associate producer Mark Mathis and a glowing review of the film by D Russell Humphrey (who commented, “But the movie made me realize that our God-ordained right of free thought and speech is under systematic and increasing attack”) With little presence in the United States, where the bulk of the screenings occurred, however, it seems unlikely that CMI was as influential in promoting Expelled as was AiG.
The Discovery Institute, the de facto institutional home of “intelligent design” creationism, enthusiastically promoted Expelled, even devoting a section of its website (www.discovery.org/expelled/) to doing so. Its enthusiasm was no surprise, since a number of the people featured in the film are associated, in one way or another, with the Discovery Institute. A major project was attempting to rebut criticism of the film, especially on the blog Evolution News & Views (www.evolutionnews.org), which specializes in complaining about negative media coverage of “intelligent design” — “The misreporting of the evolution issue is one key reason for this site,” it explains, apparently oblivious to the unintended reading. But the Discovery Institute also used the film in connection with the so-called academic freedom bills it was promoting in 2008, and it recently was soliciting donations in order to send DVD copies of Expelled to “key policy makers, opinion makers and leaders throughout the country.”
A refreshing contrast to the general creationist embrace of Expelled was the response from the old-earth creationist ministry Reasons to Believe, headed by Hugh Ross. Asked to endorse or promote Expelled, RTB issued a statement reading, in part, “In Reasons [t]o Believe’s interaction with professional scientists, scientific institutions, universities, and publishers of scientific journals we have encountered no significant evidence of censorship, blackballing, or disrespect. ... Our main concern about Expelled is that it paints a distorted picture. It certainly doesn’t match our experience. Sadly, it may do more to alienate than to engage the scientific community, and that can only harm our mission.” A subsequent clarification expressed sympathy for “the pain and discrimination suffered by those scientists featured in the movie” but stood by the assessment of the film’s inaccuracy. (The statement and clarification are available on-line at www.reasons.org/resources/apologetics/expelled.shtml).
The American Scientific Affiliation, a group of evangelical Christians working in the sciences, commissioned Jeffrey Schloss, a professor of biology at Westmont College, to review Expelled. The result — entitled “The Expelled controversy: Overcoming or raising walls of division?” (available on-line at www.asa3.org/ASA/resources/Schloss200805.html) — runs over 17 000 words, but its conclusion suggests the tone:
Sadly, the film contributes to an approach that has raised rather than lowered walls between Christians and the surrounding culture. Sadly, it raises the already growing walls of suspicion about any scholarly attempts to explore the relationship between science and faith. Sadly, it raises walls that don’t protect but constrain the spiritual growth of our students, if they are driven to believe they must choose between God and evolution. And most sadly, it is raising all these walls unnecessarily, along a border that is never demonstrated to have been accurately surveyed, much less to be in need of defending.
Schloss’s review ought not to be taken as reflecting the ASA’s official position: according to its website, “the ASA does not take a position when there is honest disagreement between Christians on an issue”; in particular, “the ASA has no official position on evolution; its members hold a diversity of views with varying degrees of intensity.” Its official neutrality apparently extends to Expelled: its website (www.asa3.org) contains links to both the Expelled website and NCSE’s Expelled Exposed website, as well as to commentary from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Discovery Institute, and Reasons to Believe. In addition to Schloss’s review, there are also briefer assessments from Randy Isaac, the executive director of the ASA, and Frank Percival, a biology professor at Westmont College. And Richard Weikart, a historian and fellow of the Discovery Institute, attempts to rebut Schloss’s review’s claims about the supposed connection of Darwinism and Nazism.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest general interest scientific society, issued a statement on April 18, 2008 (available on-line at www.aaas.org/news/releases/2008/media/0418aaas_statement.pdf) decrying “the profound dishonesty and lack of civility” of Expelled, which it described as “grossly unfair to millions of scientists in the United States and worldwide who are working to cure disease, solve hunger, improve national security, and otherwise advance science to improve the quality of human life.” The statement also emphasized the efforts of the AAAS and religious leaders to “build a constructive bridge between scientific and religious communities.” Accompanying the statement was a brief film (available on-line at www.youtube.com/watch?v=58UDTq3kaZM) on “Evolution, education, and the integrity of science”, featuring the AAAS’s Alan I Leshner and Jo Ellen Roseman, Francis S Collins, and two biology teachers (Rob Eshbach and Jennifer Miller) from Dover, Pennsylvania.
Focusing on Expelled’s outrageous claims about evolution as a cause of the Holocaust, the Anti-Defamation League issued a press release on April 29, 2008 (available at www.adl.org/PresRele/HolNa_52/5277_52.htm):
The film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed misappropriates the Holocaust and its imagery as a part of its political effort to discredit the scientific community which rejects so-called intelligent design theory. Hitler did not need Darwin to devise his heinous plan to exterminate the Jewish people and Darwin and evolutionary theory cannot explain Hitler’s genocidal madness. Using the Holocaust in order to tarnish those who promote the theory of evolution is outrageous and trivializes the complex factors that led to the mass extermination of European Jewry.
Peter McKnight, a columnist for the Vancouver Sun (2008 Jun 21), later asked Stein for his reaction to the statement; Stein instructively replied, “It’s none of their f—ing business.”
Finally, the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences issued a press release on May 21, 2008 (available on-line at ctns.org/news_050908.html), declaring, “Evolution and Christian Theology are Compatible, Scientists and Theologians Say,” and adding, “Ben Stein’s New Movie Expelled Ignores Years of Constructive Dialogue.” Citing Francisco Ayala, Francis Collins, and Martinez Hewlett as examples of scientists who have affirmed the compatibility of evolution and the Christian faith, the press release also quoted Robert John Russell, the Ian G Barbour Professor of Theology and Science at the Graduate Theology Union, as saying, “The movie Expelled does a disservice to religious believers and scientists alike by failing to offer a constructive alternative to conflict.”
Creationists attack the question of the origin of life because few scientists are sufficiently familiar with the current research to explain it. The movie Expelled further obscured the issue by dishonest reporting.
The contribution of inorganic crystals to the formation of complex organic molecules has been an important part of origin-of-life research for over four decades. When interviewed by Ben Stein, Michael Ruse said that life could have originated by molecules binding to crystals. The scene cuts to an old movie clip of a fortune-teller with a crystal ball, and Stein has a sneering laugh at Ruse’s expense. The derision heaped on the idea that crystals contributed to the origin of life is an excellent example of scientific ignorance’s being exploited by the producers of Expelled.
The role of crystalline minerals in the origin of life was proposed by JD Bernal over forty years ago. Bernal, following Aharon Katchalsky, pointed out that the clay montmorillonite’s surface readily bound simple organic molecules (Bernal 1967). Most clays are plate- or lath-shaped micro-crystals made of silicon, oxygen, and aluminum, interspersed with other elements (commonly iron, calcium, or sodium) which can replace the major elements. These substituted metals alter the electric charge on the crystal’s surface, providing locations where organic molecules can attach. The structure of the clay crystal provides stability and organization essential for the origin of life (for example, Wang and Ferris 2005; Hanczyc and others 2003; Saladino and others 2002).
Leslie Orgel (1973) coined the now famous term “specified complexity” to distinguish between crystals, which are organized but not complex, and life, which is both organized and complex. He was well aware then of the potential role of crystalline minerals in the origin of life. Twenty-five years later, Orgel demonstrated the thermodynamic favorability of polymer formation on grains of the mineral apatite, or hydroxylcalcium phosphate (see Ferris 2002 for a “reader-friendly” account).
Consider for a moment: our teeth contain calcite — a crystal of calcium carbonate. Our bones are made from calcite, and marine shells are made from calcite coupled with aragonite (both crystals). Those bones and our teeth also need another crystal: apatite, or hydroxylcalcium phosphate. Marine shells are made from calcite and aragonite (both crystals). Plants, particularly grasses, need silicon crystals called phytoliths to exist. The bodies of diatoms are mostly crystal silicon. Silicon or calcium crystals are found in nearly all life on earth. Crystals made of iron oxide (magnetite [Fe3O4]) or its sulfide counterpart (griegite [Fe3S4]) are found in many life forms on earth, from bacteria to vertebrates — including humans. These crystals are chemically indistinguishable from those formed abiotically — that is, produced entirely from the normal actions of physical processes on earth without any input by a living organism. Since we must have crystals to live at all, it is only reasonable to ask what role crystals may have played in the origin of life.
Studies of pre-biotic chemistry shows that interactions between mineral crystals and naturally occurring molecules leads to increased complexity, and more abundant yields from abiotic synthesis. Here again we see an important role for the mineral calcite. Robert Hazen has studied the binding of amino acids to surface of calcite crystals and discovered that they are aligned in a way that favors one structural form — the “left-handed” isomer — over others (Hazen 2005; Hazen and others 2001). The isolation of these amino acids was an important step in the origin of life (the “bias” of life for left-handed forms when the laws of physics would predict equal proportions of right- and left-handed forms is a strident creationist objection to most origin-of-life scenarios). Crystals in another group, the borates, stabilize the naturally forming sugar ribose, which is an important molecule needed to form the cellular workhorse RNA (Ricardo and others 2004).
Finally, the most common creationist objections to origin of life research is the insistence that the famous Miller-Urey experiment was a failure. This 1953 experiment was the first to demonstrate that a simple energy source, an electrical spark, could induce the spontaneous formation of amino acids from a mixture of gases. Creationists from the Discovery Institute to the young-earth creationists of Answers in Genesis all claim that the gases used by Miller could not have been found on the early earth. Whether or not this objection is true, Stanley Miller’s last paper (published posthumously in 2008) demonstrated that the presence of the crystal calcite and the iron crystal pyrite in the preparation leads to high yields of amino acids even from neutral gas mixtures (Cleaves and others 2008).
Are there traces of these ancient events found today? Yes, as evolutionary theory suggests that there must be. We see that inorganic crystals common in the ancient earth are part of all living things. First of all, we remember that these “complex” minerals found in living organisms are in fact mostly identical to the inorganic crystals we find in rocks today; biominerals are merely smaller. We also see that all living things — from bacteria to mammals — utilize chemical reactions and pathways that interact with these crystals. There are numerous enzymes and proteins that are part of a cell’s chemistry that operate to build up or break down these crystals.
One example found in all vertebrates is osteocalcin. Recent research related osteocalcin to other vitamin K-dependent proteins that control calcium metabolism, including in bacteria (Berkner 2005). Finding this enzyme in bacteria confirms that the use of dissolved minerals and crystal surfaces was a part of the earliest forms of life on earth — and one that has been maintained and passed along to successive branches in the tree of life.
Is it then silly, or irrational, to think that these essential crystals were part of the origin of life? Not at all! Only the ignorant will be fooled by the derisive scoffing of Stein in his propaganda movie into thinking that Ruse’s comments were just grasping at straws to avoid a theistic solution to life’s origin. While the exact relationship of crystalline minerals to the first complex organic molecules is incompletely understood, it is an active and productive area of scientific research — in stark contrast to the sterility of “intelligent design” creationism.
Berkner KL. 2005. The Vitamin K–dependent carboxylase. Annual Review of Nutrition 25: 127–49.
Bernal JD. 1967. The Origin of Life. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1967.
Cleaves HJ, Chalmers JH, Lazcano A, Miller SL, Bada JL. 2008.A reassessment of prebiotic organic synthesis in neutral planetary atmospheres. Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres 38 (2): 105–15.
Ferris JP. 2002. From building blocks to the polymers of life. In: Schopf JW, editor. Life’s Origin. Berkeley, University of California Press. p 113–39.
Hanczyc MM, Fujikawa SM, Szostak JW. 2003. Experimental models of primitive cellular compartments: encapsulation, growth, and division. Science 302: 618–22.
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