Editor’s note: The following review is written by Josh Gilder about the PBS “Evolution” series, which airs this week.
“It is absolutely safe to say that, if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).”
– Leading Darwinist Richard Dawkins
The wicked and insane will presumably have to fend for themselves, but for the rest of us, PBS has undertaken a massive new “educational” project to promote the “understanding of evolution.”
Apparently there’s a lot of misunderstanding out there, as tech billionaire Paul Allen has ponied up some $15 million for the project (PBS refuses to disclose exactly how much). The centerpiece is an eight-hour documentary series for the week of Sept. 24 through 27, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. Much of Allen’s money is going into a national “outreach” program aimed at our public schools. Cadres of “special teachers” are being trained to prep school boards and biology teachers across the country on how to respond to skeptical students and parents. They will be aided by subsidized teaching materials, videos and a special interactive website devoted to clearing up any “misunderstandings” the public might have.
Having sat through all eight hours of the evo-epic, however, I suspect the biggest problem is going to be keeping the students from lapsing into unconsciousness out of the sheer boredom of it all.
Except for a brief lesbian lovemaking scene in the segment about sexual reproduction, which no doubt the kids will be checking out for extra credit, “Evolution” flows more turgidly than the backwaters of the Amazon basin, meandering listlessly through its subject matter (much of which, it would seem, having little to do with evolution) before finally getting stuck in some stagnant pool of political correctness. (AIDS, feminism, homosexuality, the rain forests, and man’s threat to species diversity, all get airtime.)
How on earth does one make evolution boring? Whatever one thinks of it as science, evolution has all the wonder and fascination of a modern day creation myth. And as anybody knows who’s watched the Discovery Channel, with its seemingly infinite supply of wildlife footage of lions taking down gazelles and whatnot, evolution makes great television.
So what went wrong? One can only make an educated guess, but it seems that the evolutionists were blindsided by their own propaganda. It has become such an article of faith with them that any critique of evolution can only come from “creationists” – and is thus by definition unworthy of their attention – that they were unaware of the growing body of evidence against Darwinism.
Last October, however, U.C. Berkeley Ph.D. biologist Jonathan Wells published his groundbreaking “Icons of Evolution.” By that time, one assumes that most of the pre-production of “Evolution” was complete, including detailed scripts. Probably a fair amount of film was already in the can. And here comes a closely argued, thoroughly documented scientific critique, that basically blows their story out of the primordial soup.
The Darwinian story, after all, has remained relatively unchanged for generations. It’s what most of us learned in biology class, and it’s still taught much as we learned it. There’s the Miller-Urey experiment that created the “building blocs” of life in a test-tube. There are Haeckel’s embryos showing that all vertebrates pass through almost identical stages in development (the source of the famous phrase, “ontology recapitulates phylogeny”). There are the bones of bird wings, horse legs and human hands that appear so similar as to prove common ancestry. There are the peppered moths, the finches’ beaks, and the clear line of ascent in the fossil record from ape to human.
As evidence of Darwinian evolution it was, taken altogether, extremely convincing. It has indeed, convinced generations of lay and science students that Darwin, with some minor modifications, had it right.
The problem is that none of it is true, or is so fraught with inconsistencies, misinterpretation and bad (sometimes fraudulent) data as to be worthless as science. “Icons of Evolution” dismantles these “proofs” one by one. Miller and Urey never came close to creating “life in a tube” and recent discoveries about the true nature of Earth’s early atmosphere make “abiogenesis” – the creation of living organisms from non-organic chemicals – more of a Chimera than ever. Haeckel’s embryos turn out to be an outright forgery, a fact that was known even in Darwin’s day, though they continue to appear in standard biology texts. Early vertebrate embryos, it turns out, are radically different in look, size and manner of development, and, despite what we’re told over and over again, human embryos never, ever have “gill slits,” like little fishes.
“Homology” – the similar structures of some animals – is as good a proof of design (more about that later) as it is of evolution and common descent, especially considering the frequent number of homologous structures that even evolutionists don’t believe developed from a common ancestor (think of the “duck-billed” platypus). The peppered moths had to be glued to tree trunks – where they rarely rest in nature – for that experiment to yield the right (pro-evolutionary) result, and the finches’ beaks, which did grow longer during droughts, reverted to their original size once the drought is over – evidence not of evolution but its opposite, the extraordinary stability of species.
One can’t blame the producers for not knowing this. Most evolutionary “experts” were equally in the dark.
While the problems with each specific “proof” of evolution might be known to people in that specialized discipline (moth experts, for instance), apparently none of them had bothered to share notes. Thus the college-level biology textbook edited by Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of sciences, to this day presents Haeckel’s forged embryos as factual, and leading biologist and evo-enthusiast Jerry Coyne was shocked to only recently discover the truth about peppered moths.
The response of the Darwinist camp was largely to ignore Wells’ scientific critique (there wasn’t much they could say, after all) or offer only ad hominem attacks. Wells, they claimed, was religiously motivated. Why else would he publish such a book? None seemed particularly concerned that generations of students had been fed misinformation under the guise of science. A few of the textbook writers themselves averred that one had to “simplify” examples to help students’ understanding, which is a bit like teaching them that the sun rotates around the earth because it’s so much simpler to grasp. And then, many of these books were intended for college and post-graduate biology students.
Their final line of defense was that even if all of these proofs of evolution were wrong, it didn’t matter, because there were so many other and better examples out there. The world was just full of them.
Well, judging by eight hours of “Evolution,” apparently not. Clearly the producers had to scramble for material to fill their eight hours, which is why we have long digressions into what appear to be AIDS awareness seminars, great swatches of pre-packaged “save our planet” environmentalism, long speculations about sex from sociobiologists, and enough humping bonobo apes to warm Peter Singer’s, well, cockles.
The rest is rife with error. The Discovery Institute, a non-profit founded by old Reagan-hand Bruce Chapman, and a center for Intelligent Design science (more about this in a moment), has published a 150-page critique of “Evolution” documenting its numerous factual errors, historical distortions, suppositions masquerading as scientific proof and wholly gratuitous condescension toward the religious beliefs of the vast majority of the American people. For those interested, the full “Evolution” errata can be accessed online. (For purposes of full disclosure, this author is also connected with Discovery Institute.)
There are too many errors in “Evolution” to itemize here, but let’s examine what the producers clearly believe to be their strongest example: the development in bacteria of antibiotic resistance. If one wants to demonstrate evolution in action, as the producers claim, bacteria are certainly the best candidates. Some of these microbes reproduce several times an hour, producing thousands and thousands of generations within a single year. “Evolution” thus takes us into a tuberculosis-infested Russian jail, and sure enough, the little pests quickly develop resistance to each new drug the doctors introduce. Case closed.
Well, not quite.
All the producers have demonstrated is the quite unexceptional occurrence of what is called micro-evolution, the small changes within species that we see all around us. The most obvious example – one Darwin himself used – is dog breeding. The thousands of different types of dogs extant today were all created, probably from some common wild ancestor, by selective breeding.
The question is, can these relatively small changes within basic species types be extrapolated to macro-evolution – big changes in body types, such as the evolution of birds from reptiles, say, or humans from apes. The fact is, nothing of the sort has ever been observed. Darwinists counter that when dealing with large animals – even fruit flies – there simply isn’t enough time. The breeding cycles are too long. Fair enough. But what about bacteria?
With selective breeding, one should be able to produce new species within a reasonable time. Yet – and this the producers don’t tell us – it has never been done. As British bacteriologist Alan H. Linton recently remarked, despite multitudes of experiments exposing bacteria to caustic acid baths and intense radiation in order to accelerate mutations, in the “150 years of the science of bacteriology, there is no evidence that one species of bacteria has changed into another.”
The producers of “Evolution” unwittingly give the game away when they remark that the bacteria clearly identifiable as the same as modern TB have been found on a 6,000-year-old Egyptian mummy. Like the Galapagos finch beaks, what we seem to be seeing here is not macro-evolutionary change, but the extraordinary stability of species.
The producers repeat much the same error in a long segment on the HIV virus, which ends with doctors taking their patients off the anti-viral drugs (which appear to do more harm than good) and – voila! – the HIV returns to its original “wild-type.” Once again, we have stasis, not evolution.
On other issues, “Evolution” mostly commits sins of omission (that is, omission of any evidence contrary to the simple story of Darwin’s mechanism and “change over time” which they hammer away at endlessly). The program glosses over problems with the fossil record and sidesteps the challenge of the “Cambrian Explosion,” in which, in direct contradiction to Darwinian theory, all the major animal groups (phyla) of modern animals appeared in a geologic instant, with no plausible precursors. Searching for a more contemporary spin, the program misstates the universality of DNA as evidence of descent from a common ancestor, when important exceptions that undermine this hypothesis have been known for over 20 years. And on and on.
But of course, the 5,000 pound primate in the middle of the room that the Darwinists won’t even mention is what has come to be known as the Intelligent Design movement, or ID for short. In eight hours, I caught only one glancing reference to Intelligent Design in the last episode, and even that was a mischaracterization. For this series, ID is the dog that didn’t bark. And from a purely strategic point of view, they are right to ignore it, because once the theory of Intelligent Design is allowed into the debate, Darwin is destined to follow Freud and Marx onto the ash heap of history.
At this point, perhaps, we need to take a time out for some personal information. It is practically axiomatic among Darwinists that the only people who would question Darwinism are religiously motivated, Bible-thumping fundamentalists from out there in those strange red areas of the map. This is a point, indeed, that is endlessly reiterated in various forms throughout the eight hours of “Evolution.” Everyone else knows – or in the words of Harvard biologist Ernst Mayr, “every educated person” knows – that Darwinian evolution is a “simple fact.”
Well, for the record, evolution never offended my religious sensibilities. It seemed to me that if God wanted to create the natural world through a process of evolution, it wasn’t my place to tell him no. And, in as much as being a conservative often means emphatically not knowing what “everybody knows” – that missile defense will never work, for example, or that Reagan’s tax cuts produced “the worst economy ever” – I long took comfort that, when it came to evolution at least, I was right in line with elite opinion.
The trouble started, as it usually does, when I began to pay attention. In 1996, a molecular biologist at Lehigh University by the name of Michael Behe published a book entitled “Darwin’s Black Box” that raised new and interesting theoretical objections to Darwinism. While the biological details were tough sledding for your average layman (e.g., me), the basic theoretical argument was not. Behe pointed out that the knowledge base in the fields of biochemistry and molecular biology has exploded in size over the last 50 years, leaving Darwinism decades behind on the learning curve. We now know that the cell, for instance, which Darwin thought to be barely more than a lump of protoplasm, is in fact a miracle of nanotechnology, a tiny factory full of miniature machines far more complex than anything human beings could design today.
Behe’s striking insight, however, was not simply that these biological systems are complex, but that they are what he calls irreducibly complex. Like many mechanical devices of our own invention, these biological machines are made up of many interlocking parts, each one of which has to be fully developed and integrated into the whole for the machine to function. If one part is taken away, or is not fully developed, the whole mechanism breaks down. For a biological organism, that means it confers zero added survival value.
And there’s the rub, because Darwinian evolution assumes that these biological machines developed gradually over millions of years by means of random variation and natural selection. (Even Darwinists agree that the chance of such an assemblage happening all at once in one “lucky accident” is beyond the realm of possibility.) Imagine a car engine developing gradually, and one gets a sense of the difficulty here. You might have the engine block, but if you’ve got to wait around another million years for the spark plugs or pistons, you’re not going anywhere.
There have been many thoughtful critiques of Darwinism over the years, but what Behe had done here was raise a conceptual threshold that the Darwinists had to cross for their theory to retain even theoretical plausibility. Given the stakes, you might expect the Darwinists would be quick to come up with a counter-argument. You might, but five years later you’d still be waiting.
Richard Dawkins, of the above quotation, did give a revealing reply when asked about Behe’s book on Ben Wattenberg’s program “Think Tank”:
I’m not the best person equipped to think about it because I’m not a biochemist. … I don’t have that biochemical knowledge. Behe has. Behe should stop being lazy and should get up and think for himself about how the flagellum [one of Behe's examples] evolved. …”
In other words, the truth – Darwinian evolution – is preordained and it’s the scientists’ job to only find the “facts” that fit.
Since that time Dawkins – like the other famous popularizer of Darwin, Stephen Jay Gould – has refused to debate Behe, choosing instead the Darwinists’ preferred tactic: They accused him of religion. Both Gould and Dawkins have repeatedly called him a “creationist,” which is as good as writing him out of the legitimate scientific community, and has the further benefit of making it unnecessary to actually answer his critique of Darwinism.
Behe is indeed religious. He is a Roman Catholic – as are many scientists who call themselves Darwinists – but he was a Catholic through most of his scientific career when, like many of his colleagues, he unquestioningly accepted Darwinism. He’s still a Catholic now that his scientific investigations have led him to reject standard evolutionary theory. Behe doesn’t believe in a literalist interpretation of the Bible, accepts what modern geology tells us about the age of the earth, and even believes in some form of common descent. Hardly what most people mean by “creationist.”
What does carry uncomfortable religious connotations for avowed atheists like Gould and Dawkins, however, is the scientific outgrowth of Behe’s insights, namely the theory of Intelligent Design. This theory simply says that if these biological systems couldn’t have developed through purely natural processes, but had to be assembled all at one time (something, as noted above, that chance is simply incapable of doing) then there is a high probability that they were designed. And our experience of the world tells us, every designed artifact must have an intelligence behind it doing the designing.
Who or what that intelligence is obviously has far reaching philosophical implications, but has little to do with the science of Intelligent Design itself, which is silent of the identity of the designer. It might be the Judeo-Christian God, it might be Shiva, it might be some alien intelligence (not so silly as it sounds: Francis Crick, co-discoverer of DNA believes that life was seeded on this planet from outer space) or it might be what physicist Paul Davies speculates is some, as yet undiscovered, “emergent” property in matter itself. (Neither Crick nor Davies are followers of ID, but their problems with Darwinian explanations of life are emblematic of how shaky Darwinian theory actually is.) Intelligent Design scientists themselves cover the range of religious belief and unbelief.
What the theory does say is that design is an empirically testable hypothesis, and in the past several years, a growing body of scientists – in fields as diverse as biology, genetics, mathematics, physics, cosmology and even computer science – has adopted the theory as a fruitful line of investigation.
Interestingly, the mathematicians, physicists and cosmologists have always been more open to such ideas. As the great astronomer Fred Hoyle once said, “there are so many odd coincidences essential to life that some explanation seems required to account for them.” Nobel prize laureate Arno Penzias said these coincidences suggested a “supernatural plan.” Biology, and the study of how living organisms, including man, came into being, strikes closer to home, however, and this is where the real battleground is today.
Which brings us back to PBS’ epic “Evolution” series and the urgency they feel to – as stated in an internal PBS memorandum – “co-opt [the] existing local dialogue about teaching evolution in schools” with a massive marketing campaign (including “viral” and “guerilla” marketing) aimed at “niche audiences,” particularly “educators” and “public officials.”
In the past, the courts have been their best allies, ruling “creation science” unfit for public schools because of its religious taint. ID, however, is a different animal altogether, and no matter how often they conflate it with “creationism” they won’t be able to beat it back with the “separation of church and state” stick forever. Even the New York Times and Los Angeles Times have run front-page articles on Intelligent Design, acknowledging it as a real scientific endeavor.
But not PBS.
PBS claims there was no stonewall. The producers say that they contacted the Discovery Institute – a center of much of the ID movement – and invited its scientists to participate. Indeed the producers did, but only in the last segment, “What About God,” and only to give their personal testaments of faith. In as much as ID is a scientific movement, and not a religious one, the scientists declined. It was an especially wise decision, since the producer of the “What About God?” episode, Bill Jersey, was well known for a 1992 documentary on religious fundamentalism that more or less equated American evangelicals with Muslim terrorists in the Mideast. As it turns out, Mr. Jersey’s contribution to “Evolution” was very much in character, a condescending and offensive look at antievolution fundamentalists and their beliefs.
At a recent PBS press conference I asked the overall series producer, Richard Hutton, why Intelligent Design’s scientific critique of evolution was completely ignored. He answered that he’d looked into it and decided there was nothing there. That’s one way to decide important scientific disputes – let a TV producer decide.
As it happens, one of the leading ID theorists is University of Chicago-trained mathematician and probability theorist Bill Dembski. He’s got multiple Ph.D.s, has published work in the prestigious Cambridge University press and has done postdoctoral work at Cornell, M.I.T., Chicago and Princeton. He is highly regarded in his field for the contributions he’s made to the rather arcane field of probability theory. In November he will be publishing a book, “No Free Lunch,” which applies his theoretic insights to Darwinian evolution. Already, he’s got enough enthusiastic blurbs from top scientists to cover several book jackets, but one, from leading Darwinist Michael Ruse, is particularly applicable. Even “those of us who do not accept his conclusions,” Ruse writes, “should read this book. … He should not be ignored.”
That, of course, is the voice of someone whose first passion is science – the search for true knowledge, wherever it may lead. But for PBS, science is clearly beside the point. It doesn’t matter with propaganda if your facts are wrong. With 15 or so million dollars of Paul Allen’s money, and a free-ride on America’s public airwaves, not to mention the publicly-funded infrastructure of PBS stations and affiliates, no doubt the producers of this series will, for a time at least, “co-opt” the dialogue on evolution. But only for a time. In science, where there is still some respect for facts after all, the truth does have a way of coming out in the end.