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PBS series on evolution tiptoes over tough issues, ignores others

Sunday, September 23, 2001

By Pamela R. Winnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The PBS series "Evolution" opens with Darwin's great epiphany. Just back from his five-year voyage aboard the H.M.S. Beagle, Charles Darwin suddenly realizes that the 13 varieties of finches he'd brought back from the Galapagos Islands derived from a common ancestor, a type of finch found off the Pacific coast of South America.



When: 9 p.m. tomorrow through Thursday on WQED/WQEX.

Narrator: Liam Neeson.


Each of the 13 varieties of the original finch has a highly characteristic beak shape, depending upon the type of food it has encountered in its habitat. Some eat insects, some eat seeds; the size and the shape of their beaks enable them to best catch their prey and thus survive.

Thus does Darwin arrive at the theory of "natural selection," infuriating the Bible-thumping Victorians who insist that God, and not chance, created life and all its forms.

Darwin's great discovery -- his "dangerous idea" -- is this: Life is created not by God, as set forth in the Bible, but by a process known as natural selection. As species reproduce, some of their offspring benefit from mutations which give them -- as was the case with the finches -- a competitive edge in the quest for survival. Because they beat out their competitors, the mutated forms eventually predominate; over time, this results in entirely new species.

As tediously re-enacted in the first episode -- dubbed "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" -- Victorian England did not take kindly to Darwin's theory, which he held off disclosing to the general public until 1859, when he published "Origin of Species." As a Bible-thumping colleague tells him, God alone creates and designs the different species of animal as well as man himself.

"It's like confessing to a murder," Darwin told a friend.

In yet another tedious re-enactment, we're shown the eventual demise of Darwin's own religious faith. Having flunked out of medical school, he had flirted briefly with joining the clergy -- but eventually he loses all belief in God.

We witness this when Darwin's daughter dies at age 10. Others in the grieving family go to church, but Darwin lingers behind and -- in what is supposed to be a portentous moment -- cannot bring himself to follow the others into church. What causes his atheism? Did it spring from his own theories? Or from the sheer cruelty of life?

It took 21 years for Darwin to write "Origin of Species," suggesting that he suffered profound inner turmoil at the implications of his theory and its eventual reception by the public. A genuinely dramatic rendering of Darwin's life would have portrayed this struggle. Instead, we're subjected to banalities and melodrama.

Once having undertaken to show us Darwin's life, the producers had the obligation to give us the whole truth -- a very dangerous terrain into which few care to tread.

But why will no one speak of Darwin's vicious racism, so amply set out in his book "The Descent of Man," in which he plainly states that blacks are inferior to whites? Why not also tell us about the influence he exerted, however unintentionally, on the eugenics movement and on Marx and Hitler?

In yet another act of cowardice, the series tiptoes over the serious religious and philosophical issues posed by Darwinism, not to mention the serious people --scientists included -- who continue to challenge his theories.

In one segment, we're compelled to watch a well-known Darwinist take Holy Communion in the Catholic church, assuring us by word and deed that God could have chosen to create us through the process of natural selection.

I'm no creationist, but as a reasonably intelligent person, I think that if there is a God, and if he's really in charge, he would not have left our creation to a mere toss of the genetic dice. Conversely, if God decreed that natural selection would lead to the creation of man, then the process wasn't random at all.

I didn't really expect any answers to these time-honored questions, but how wonderful it might have been to hear them thrashed about and revel in the continued mysteries of life.

The final segment of the series "What about God?" pretends to do this. Here we see a group of guitar-strumming students insisting the world was created in six days.

What an omission.

The series, which runs for four nights tomorrow through Thursday, completely ignores the Intelligent Design movement, which began about a decade ago when serious scientists -- many with doctorates from prestigious universities -- began to tackle evolution on scientific grounds. Among them is Michael Behe, a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University who has set out to prove that even at the cellular level, life is too complex to come about through natural selection. Behe is hardly alone among scientists who have scientific problems with evolution. But you'd never know this from watching this series.

If the producers were too afraid to tackle the tough issues, then they should have stuck to science and omitted religion and the melodramas of Darwin's life.

Indeed, when it finally gets around to science, the series gets pretty good. Among my favorites are accounts of contemporary scientists digging among the fossils --some right here in Pennsylvania -- painstakingly trying to find the bones of species that have since become extinct. Their endeavors are important as well as interesting, as they seek to find the pieces of the puzzle that Darwin himself (as he admitted) couldn't complete proving, through the fossil evidence, the actual linkage between man and the ancestors we share with the chimpanzees and apes.

Wednesday's episode, "Why Sex?," likely also will be of enormous interest -- scientific and otherwise -- to viewers as we watch the elaborate and sometimes comical mating games played by different animals and the role sexuality plays in all human endeavors.

More than 140 years after publication of "Origin of Species," the theory of evolution remains under attack. In a report released last year by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, 19 states are cited as being seriously remiss in how they teach evolution to students in their public schools. Many states decline to mandate the teaching of evolution at all; others place disclaimers on biology textbooks, advising students that not everything they read in them is true.

We no longer live in Victorian times, yet surveys suggest that a majority of Americans do not accept evolution as the explanation for life.

I wish that PBS, dealing with a controversy that simply will not go away, had had the guts to do more than preach to the choir.

Named as a 2001 fellow by the Phillips Foundation, Pamela R. Winnick is currently on a leave of absence to write about the controversy over the teaching of evolution in the public schools.

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