Ben Stein can’t get anything right

One of the frustrating things about reading creationist claptrap for a living is that they get so very much wrong. They get their facts wrong, they draw conclusions from those erroneous claims which would not be valid even if their factual claims were correct, and then they weave it all together by citing people in support of their factual claims or inferences who actually refute both. It gets tiring

Our pals at denialism did an admirable job disassembling the abstract layers of Ben Stein’s half-baked attempt to tar evolution with the sins of imperial Britain. Stein is pimping his forthcoming movie, a fantasy flick about a world in which creationists are blocked from doing science by an evil atheist conspiracy.

While it’s hardly worth responding to Stein’s argument in more detail than Hoofnagle does, there are two points worth making. First, if evolution is to be treated as suspect for having emerged during the racist milieu of 19th century European imperialism, shouldn’t physics be similarly criticized over the anti-Catholic “Glorious Revolution” under way as Newton wrote the Principia?

Second, Stein ponders:

Darwinism [bogus definition omitted to spare your sanity] ? is a perfect example of the age from which it came: the age of Imperialism. When Darwin wrote, it was received wisdom that the white, northern European man was destined to rule the world. This could have been rationalized as ? a form of amusement of the upper classes and a place for them to realize their martial fantasies. (Was it Shaw who called Imperialism ??outdoor relief for the upper classes??)

No, it was not Shaw. It is commonly attributed to two people: James Mill, anti-imperialist philosopher and father of John Stuart Mill and to John Bright, a radical member of Parliament, who stated in an 1858 speech “This excessive love for the balance of power is neither more nor less than a gigantic system of outdoor relief for the aristocracy of Great Britain.” Citations crediting Mill generally cite John Hobson’s Imperialism, a Study as a source. Mill’s take on imperialism can be found in an article he wrote for the 1824 supplement to the Encyclopedia Britannia. Shaw was 2 years old when Bright delivered the line, and Bright may have borrowed it from Mill.

Two things about this are worth noting. First, that Stein was wrong, and too lazy to check simple facts. Second, even during the era when the British Empire was expanding rapidly, there were people speaking out against colonialism, imperialism, and the bestiality of man towards man. Indeed, Darwin was such a man, as was Alfred Russel Wallace (independent co-discoverer of natural selection). Wallace wrote:

Our conduct towards the Boers and Zulus in South Africa, the Burmese, and many of the hill tribes on our Indian frontier, and the Chinese in our wars growing out of the opium trade, has been certainly not better than what the Americans have done or are likely to do in Cuba and the Philippines. But many of us have always protested against our own unfair dealings with those inferior races, and have denounced the conduct of our Governments as unworthy of a civilised and professedly Christian people.

(Letter to the Editor, Daily Chronicle (London), 1899).

If any of this mattered to the scientific validity of evolutionary biology (and it doesn’t), surely that would be relevant. And if one intends to drag historical claims into an argument, they ought to be accurate.

But, as denialism points out very clearly, Stein’s point would be wrong even if he got all of his facts right. A scientific idea can be valid even if produced by a truly awful person, or in a truly awful era. Newton was a repressed introvert and a failure as a member of Parliament (his only recorded utterance in the House of Commons was “The window needs closing”). For some reason, you don’t see Ben Stein prating about the horrors of Newtonism, though. For that, you have to turn to the real cranks.


  1. #1 TomS
    November 12, 2007

    As far as the horrors of Newtonism, take a look at some of the writings of Bishop George Berkeley against differential calculus. Wikipedia has a few comments:

    George Berkeley: The Analyst controversy

    “Berkeley regarded his criticism of calculus as part of his broader campaign against the religious implications of Newtonian mechanics …”

  2. #2 Colugo
    November 12, 2007

    In the era of racist pseudoscience, social Darwinism, eugenics, and undemocratic biopolitics from the late 19th c. to early 20th c., disappointingly few major figures were on the right side. Alfred Russell Wallace was one of those. Franz Boas was another.

  3. #3 Art
    November 12, 2007

    I propose that every mention of “Expelled” be attached to a link to Ben Stein’s TV show – “America’s Most Smartest Model”.

    The analogy/parallel between the models on Stein’s TV show and the ID vanguard are just too, um, accurate.

  4. #4 Dale Austin
    November 13, 2007

    Darwin Youth:

    And how would any of that (if true-and mostly it’s not) invalidate the science?

  5. #5 Alex
    November 13, 2007

    Click through to its dire “humour” site if you dare; why can’t right-wing people be funny, for fuck’s sake?

New comments have been disabled.