PBS Evolution A Critical Review

‘Evolution’ Series Ignores Scientific Disagreements over Human Origins


SEATTLE–Trying to piece together the evolutionary history of the human race is one the most speculative–and disputed–endeavors in evolutionary biology, but viewers would never guess that fact by watching the WGBH/Clear Blue Sky’s miniseries “Evolution.”

“‘Evolution’ fails to inform viewers of the disagreements that exist among scientists trying to account for human origins,” says biologist Jonathan Wells, a Discovery Institute Senior Fellow who holds a Ph.D. in molecular and cell biology from the University of California at Berkeley. “Instead, ‘Evolution’ uncritically presents speculative ideas as if they were uncontroverted science, and does not bother to interview those with conflicting scientific viewpoints.”

According to Wells, an example of “Evolution’s” one-sided approach comes in episode two (“Great Transformations”), which purports to tell viewers the story of the “crucial turning-point” in human evolution that is supposed to have taken place “about seven million years ago, when our ancestors left the trees and began to walk on two legs.” The episode suggests that human beings evolved from lemur-type animals and presents the speculative ideas of paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson about how the ancestors of human beings began to walk on two legs.

“These ideas are presented uncritically,” says Wells, “without alerting the viewer to how little evidence lies behind them, and without acknowledging their highly subjective character. The truth is that committed evolutionists disagree sharply over how to interpret the meager evidence for human origins, and many of them admit that the entire field of paleoanthropology suffers from a tendency toward myth-making.”

For example, paleoanthropologist Misia Landau has claimed that many writings in her field are “determined as much by traditional narrative frameworks as by material evidence.” According to Landau’s book “Narratives of Human Evolution” (Yale University Press, 1991), “themes found in recent paleoanthropological writing… far exceed what can be inferred from the study of fossils alone and in fact place a heavy burden of interpretation on the fossil record — a burden which is relieved by placing fossils into preexisting narrative structures.”

Likewise, Arizona State University anthropologist Geoffrey Clark stated in 1997 that “we select among alternative sets of research conclusions in accordance with our biases and preconceptions–a process that is, at once, both political and subjective.” Clark suggested “that paleoanthropology has the form but not the substance of a science.” (G. A. Clark and C. M. Willermet, eds., “Conceptual Issues in Modern Human Origins Research”, Aldine de Gruyter, 1997).

Evolutionist Henry Gee, chief science writer for “Nature”, has pointed out that limited fossil evidence for human origins poses severe problems for anyone trying to piece together the real story of human ancestry. Writing in his recent book “In Search of Deep Time” (Free Press, 1999), Gee points out that all the evidence for human evolution “between about 10 and 5 million years ago-several thousand generations of living creatures-can be fitted into a small box.” As a result, conventional theories of the origin and development of human beings are “a completely human invention created after the fact, shaped to accord with human prejudices.” Indeed, such theories carry “the same validity as a bedtime story — amusing, perhaps even instructive, but not scientific.”

“‘Evolution’ claims to educate the public about science,” says Stephen Meyer, director of Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture. “But good science education includes presenting disagreements among scientists over how to interpret conflicting data. It doesn’t just offer speculative ideas by a couple of scientists as fact. Evolution’s one-sided approach fails to meet even the most basic standard of professionalism.”

Founded in 1990, Discovery Institute is a non-profit, non-partisan public policy center for national and international affairs. Its programs deal with a range of issues, including science, technology, regional development, environment, and defense. More information about the Institute and its activities can be found at www.discovery.org.

Discovery Institute

Discovery Institute promotes thoughtful analysis and effective action on local, regional, national and international issues. The Institute is home to an inter-disciplinary community of scholars and policy advocates dedicated to the reinvigoration of traditional Western principles and institutions and the worldview from which they issued.