PBS Evolution A Critical Review

Hagiography for Moderns

Originally published at Christianity Today

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 as science.

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 same question.

Tom Bethell

Tom Bethell graduated from Oxford University and is a long-time journalist who has served as Washington editor for Harper’s, a contributing editor to Washington Monthly, and a senior editor at The American Spectator. He has written articles for many magazines, including Fortune, the New York Times Magazine, and The Atlantic Monthly. Praised by Tom Wolfe as “one of our most brilliant essayists,” Bethell is the previous author of The Noblest Triumph: Property through the Ages, Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher, and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science. He resides in Washington, DC.