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60-Second Science

Never You Mine: Ben Stein's Selective Quoting of Darwin

One of the many egregious moments in the new Ben Stein anti-evolution film "Expelled" is the truncation of a quote from Charles Darwin so that it makes him appear to give philosophical ammunition to the Nazis. Steve Mirsky reports.

Podcast Transcript: This is Scientific American’s 60-Second Science.  Hi, Steve Mirsky here.  I’m going over our usual one minute.  By now, you’ve probably heard of Expelled, the new Ben Stein anti-evolution crockumentary.  It officially opens today as I speak, that’s April 18th.  Because of my job, I’ve had the misfortune of sitting through this film twice now.  As least I was getting paid.  The film tries very hard to connect Darwin with the Holocaust.

Toward the end, Stein reads the following quote from the book Descent of Man: “With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination. We build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick. Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. Hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.”

That’s the end of the quote.  And when he finishes reading the quote, Ben Stein intones the guilty verdict by naming the source: Charles Darwin.  Oh my, it sounds like Darwin actually did provide a rationale to the horrific practices of the Nazis.

Well, I’ve been covering the anti-evolution crowd for over 20 years.  So I immediately suspected that the propaganda-makers had engaged in what’s called quote-mining—you examine the writings of somebody you want to smear and then selectively quote those portions that appear to make your point.  I bet that whatever came immediately after the quoted portion would be something that Stein wouldn’t want you to hear.  My research took all of about three minutes.  I went to a full text of Descent of Man online and found the quoted passage.  And then found the sentences that come right after where Stein stopped quoting.

So here’s Charles Darwin again, from Descent of Man: “The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil.

Leads to kind of the very opposite impression of Darwin that the filmmakers want you to take away.  Mind you, none of this has anything to do with whether or not Darwin’s scientific findings were correct.  They were.  But Ben Stein and his cronies, in their selective use of passages written by a great man merely showed themselves to be so very small.

We have a package of coverage about Expelled and its misinformation at our website, sciam.com.  Also check out a resource page put together by the National Center for Science Education, www. expelledexposed.com.  For Scientific American’s 60 Second Science, I’m Steve Mirsky.

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