September 3, 2001
Airing September 24 - 27 (check local listings)
The seven-part series "Evolution" is billed as educational. Its high-minded
goals are to "heighten understanding of evolution," to "dispel common
misunderstandings," to "illuminate" evolution's relevance, "improve
its teaching," and "encourage a national dialogue." But it comes across
as propaganda for Charles Darwin and his cause. Evolution (no "theory"
here) is the proud galleon, sailing forth under the banner of Science.
The lesser barques and rowboats that move about in the background are
those of Religion. But they are rather quaint and old fashioned and
reactionary and of course cannot impede the stately progress of Science.
One of the small craft, captained by Ken Ham, fundamentalist, has a
supporting crew in choir robes.
The first installment dramatizes scenes from Charles Darwin's life.
We learn that the budding scientist, who once planned to be a parson,
has discovered this "incredibly powerful idea." Indeed, it is "the single
best idea anybody ever had," says Tufts professor Daniel Dennett; so
powerful that it puts Darwin "ahead of Newton, ahead of Einstein." But
it is "dangerous" as well, and Darwin is shown as modest, cautious,
retiring. It actually makes him sick to his stomach to realize how his
idea will upset his wife and family, the Anglican Church, the Established
Order. What was this marvelous discovery? Natural selection. It supposedly
shows how "purposeless, meaningless matter in motion," to quote Dennett
again, could whirl itself into bees, butterflies and bears, without
any need for a designer. Less admiringly, the philosopher Bertrand Russell
years ago called natural selection "the application of laissez faire
economics to the animal and vegetable kingdoms." Remarkably, both Darwin
and Alfred Russel Wallace thought of natural selection independently
at the same time, both having read the same book by the free market
economist, Thomas Malthus.
By analogy, Darwin imputed competition, or "the struggle for existence,"
to nature. It is said of Darwin that he was under the impression he
had found the evidence for evolution in the Galapagos Islands but actually
"saw" it in the smoking chimneys of the Victorian era. We are duly shown
the finches of the Galapagos Islands, and beaks are ostentatiously measured
for our edification. These famed finches are not mentioned in Darwin's
Origin of Species and played little or no role in the formulation of
evolutionary theory. But the PBS authors manage to extrapolate from
unequal beaks to a unified Tree of Life, in which the common descent
of all life from a single starting point is alleged. PBS supplies the
missing evidence with an on-screen animation. This is ideology masquerading
Pacifying Religious Folk
Natural selection doesn't explain the origin of species, because we
need self-reproducing organisms for selection to get started at all.
Darwin never explains that.
In the first segment, Harvard's Stephen Jay Gould says of selection:
"The survivors are those whose variation fortuitously adapt them to
better changing local environments, and then, because they pass on those
traits to their offspring, the population changes. That's natural selection.
It's all it is." This amounts to the claim that nature produces variations,
some of which survive and leave offspring, and others of which do not.
As an explanation for the existence of creatures so complex that we
cannot begin to make the slightest parts of them in our highest-tech
labs, this leaves something to be desired.
It is a triumph, however, for those whose mission in life is to get
rid of a designer. Darwin himself became a bitter antagonist of Christianity.
"He didn't desire to cast disparagement on anyone's religious convictions,"
Gould says here. "He regarded it as a private matter." But in his autobiography
Darwin wrote that Christianity, if true, was a "damnable doctrine,"
because it consigned his non-believing father and grandfather to the
flames. Only prudent editing by his family kept this passage from the
public gaze, until 1958.
Ken Miller of Brown University, biologist -- good Darwinian, and author
of Finding Darwin's God -- is shown attending Mass, receiving communion
and preaching Darwinism. He is one of the talking heads for the PBS
series, which is eager to reassure us that "belief in evolution does
not challenge religious beliefs." Religion and science "can coexist
side by side," an internal PBS memo on the series says. "But they speak
to entirely different questions: one to the How?, the other to the Why?"
This is misleading, surely. If design can occur "from the bottom up,"
as Daniel Dennett says here--and of course evolution as a blind, mechanical
process is intended to demonstrate just that--then we can understand
why evolution is "unsettling" or "disturbing." Reassuring us that the
blind evolution of all life can co-exist with a designer strikes me
as an attempt to pacify religious folk. In his 1996 book Darwin's Dangerous
Idea, Dennett more provocatively said that Darwinism was a "universal
acid," eating through "just about every traditional concept," and leaving
in its wake "a revolutionized worldview."
If Darwinism is true, this is correct, surely. What need is there for
a designer if molecules in motion can do the designing on their own?
If the answer to the "how" question is: "by a blind mechanical process,"
the "why" question becomes meaningless. Dennett understands this, but
the PBS producers evidently wanted something more fuzzy. Nothing so
unsettling as his "universal acid" comment is included.
The important question is whether Darwinism is true, not whether it
can coexist with other worldviews. The key defect of the series--and
this is where it resembles propaganda--is that no scientific doubts
are raised at all. A smokescreen of DNA talk, fossils, microscopes,
and Indiana Jones specimen-hunters in the field masks the truth that
virtually no scientific evidence for evolution exists. Yet those who
appear on the screen either treat it as uncontroversially true; or,
if they are disbelievers, are isolated in the disreputable camp of Fundamentalism.
Ken Ham's followers sing their arguments--with guitars. Those who criticize
evolution from a scientific perspective are not included. The PBS memo
dismisses the Intelligent Design movement, which includes many scientists,
as "a belief system, not a field of scientific inquiry."
In the final episode ("What About God?") we are shown students confronting
"troubling questions." Most of these students attend Wheaton College,
which is "committed to exposing its students to the discoveries of science,"
we are told. Some of these students evidently feel "threatened" when
they "confront ways of thinking without precedent in the world from
which they came."
We are reminded, often, that religion is okay, as long as it stays in
its place, but that place is not the science classroom. What this series
demonstrates, however, is that the students studying evolution are being
indoctrinated every bit as much as they were at home. One authoritarian
system is being replaced by another. Evolutionist dogma is clothed in
the terminology of science but lacks its substance. Science, of course,
is not supposed to be authoritarian. It is about repeatable experiments
and falsifiable theories, and skepticism is of its essence. But when
we look at these reconstructed life histories (consisting of guesses),
these omnipresent genes (unobserved), and the deus ex machina of natural
selection (said to "favor" whatever outcome is observed), we realize
that every conceivable outcome in nature is "explained" in a way that
sounds scientific but is in fact vacuous.
Teachers who say that religion does not belong in science class are
right. But if they, and PBS, really wish to improve the teaching of
evolution, they should distinguish between what we really know about
it (which is practically nothing) and what are guesses.
Some years ago, the prominent paleontologist Colin Patterson gave a
talk at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He said
that he had been studying evolution for many years, and had finally
come to the conclusion that there was "not one thing" he knew about
it. So he started asking prominent evolutionists if there was anything
they knew, "and the only answer I got was silence." Students who feel
"threatened" by the new authoritarianism should ask their teachers the
Tom Bethell is a senior editor at The American Spectator.