PBS Evolution A Critical Review
Viewers Guide

PBS’s Evolution Spikes Contrary Scientific Evidence, Promotes Its Own Brand of Religion

This executive summary introduces the more extensive Viewer’s Guide. It is intended for those who are unable to read the entire guide, but it should not be considered a complete summary.

Accuracy and objectivity are what we should be able to expect in a television documentary — especially in a science documentary on a publicly-funded network. But the PBS series Evolution distorts the scientific evidence and promotes a biased religious agenda, thereby betraying our expectations and violating PBS’s own official policies.

There are many problems with the Evolution series. Although some segments are interesting, others just drag, and many are strangely irrelevant to the educational case they purport to be making. The series almost totally ignores the growing body of scientists who contend that Darwinism is in trouble with the evidence, and it repeatedly dismisses all critics of Darwinism as biblical literalists. This is not an objective documentary, but a one-sided piece of advocacy, unworthy of a publicly funded broadcast network.

Major shortcomings of Evolution include:

  • Its failure to present accurately and fairly the scientific problems with the evidence for Darwinian evolution.
  • Its systematic omission of disagreements among evolutionary biologists themselves about central claims in the series, and its complete failure to report the views of scientists who dispute Darwinism at its roots.
  • Its excessive and biased focus on religion, despite its insistence to be about science rather than “the religious realm.”
  • Its inappropriate use by PBS, a government-funded agency, to organize and promote a controversial political action agenda.

A. Scientific Inaccuracy

  • The failure to present accurately and fairly the scientific problems with the evidence for Darwinian evolution.

“Evolution affects almost every aspect of human life,” claim the series producers, “from medicine to agriculture to a person’s choice of mate.” The seven episodes supposedly present “the underlying evidence” for this contention, yet some of the evidence presented in the series is known to be false, and the remaining evidence provides surprisingly little support for Darwin’s theory.

We are told that “powerful evidence” for the common ancestry of all living things is the universality of the genetic code. The genetic code is the way DNA specifies the sequence of proteins in living cells, and Evolution tells us that the code is the same in all living things. But the series is badly out of date. Biologists have been finding exceptions to the universality of the genetic code since 1979, and more exceptions are turning up all the time. In its eagerness to present the “underlying evidence” for Darwin’s theory, Evolution ignores this awkward — and potentially falsifying — fact.

Evolution also claims that all animals inherited the same set of body-forming genes from their common ancestor, and that this “tiny handful of powerful genes” is now known to be the “engine of evolution.” The principal evidence we are shown for this is a mutant fruit fly with legs growing out of its head. But the fly is obviously a hopeless cripple — not the forerunner of a new and better race of insects. And embryologists have known for years that the basic form of an animal’s body is established before these genes do anything at all. In fact, the similarity of these genes in all types of animals is a problem for Darwinian theory: If flies and humans have the very same set of body-forming genes, why don’t flies give birth to humans? The Evolution series doesn’t breathe a word about this well-known paradox.

Most of the remaining evidence in Evolution shows minor changes in existing species — such as the development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria. Antibiotic resistance is indeed an important medical problem, but changes in existing species don’t really help Darwin’s theory. Such changes had been observed in domestic breeding for centuries before Darwin, but they had never led to new species. Darwin’s theory was that the natural counterpart of this process produced not only new species, but also fundamentally new forms of organisms. Evolution has lots of interesting stories about scientists studying changes within existing species, but it provides no evidence that such changes lead to new species, much less to new forms of organisms. Nevertheless, it manages to give the false impression that Darwin’s theory has been confirmed.

More details on problems with the evidence for evolution presented in this series — including citations to the relevant scientific literature — can be found in the Viewer’s Guide and its accompanying educational activities.

B. Omission of Disagreement

  • The systematic omission of disagreements among evolutionary biologists themselves about central claims in the series, and the complete failure to report the views of scientists who dispute Darwinism at its roots.

“For all of us, the future of religion, science and science education are at stake in the creation-evolution debate,” the series’ narrator declares. But if the “debate” is so important, why is there such an effort to allow only one scientific point of view to be heard in the series itself? Evolution starts right off by giving us the false impression that the only opposition to Darwinian evolution in the nineteenth century was religiously motivated. In fact, much of the opposition to it came from scientists. While most scientists became persuaded that some kind of evolution occurred, many of them disputed Darwin’s claim that it was driven by an unguided process of natural selection acting on random variations. Instead, leading scientists advocated a type of guided evolution that flatly contradicted Darwin’s core thesis. Because of such scientific criticism, according to historian Peter Bowler, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection “had slipped in popularity to such an extent that by 1900 its opponents were convinced it would never recover.” The makers of Evolution have ignored this rich and fascinating history.

Much of the remainder of the series consists — not of evidence — but of interviews with evolutionary theorists giving us their interpretations of a few ambiguous facts. And surprisingly, the series completely ignores biologists who — though strongly committed to Darwinian evolution — are also strongly critical of the interpretations being presented.

For example, several episodes deal with human origins. We are treated to lots of wildlife photography of apes, and numerous dramatizations featuring human actors in “missing link” costumes, seen from afar — like shots of “Bigfoot” — while we listen to stories told by people who apparently think a very little evidence can go a very long way. But Henry Gee, chief science writer for Nature (and an evolutionist), has pointed out that all the evidence for human evolution between about 10 and 5 million years ago “can be fitted into a small box.” According to Gee, the conventional picture of human evolution as lines of ancestry and descent is “a completely human invention created after the fact, shaped to accord with human prejudices.” Putting it even more bluntly, Gee wrote in 1999: “To take a line of fossils and claim that they represent a lineage is not a scientific hypothesis that can be tested, but an assertion that carries the same validity as a bedtime story — amusing, perhaps even instructive, but not scientific.”

The makers of Evolution ignore such in-house critics, preferring to leave viewers with the misleading impression that the evidence for human evolution is much stronger than it really is.

Similar censorship of in-house controversies marks Episodes Five and Six, which deal with the role of sex and the evolution of mind. These episodes rely primarily on interviews with proponents of a controversial new field called “evolutionary psychology.” But Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, has written that “evolutionary psychologists routinely confuse theory and speculation” — forget about evidence! Coyne compares evolutionary psychology to now-discredited Freudian psychology: “By judicious manipulation, every possible observation of human behavior could be (and was) fitted into a Freudian framework. The same trick is now being perpetrated by the evolutionary psychologists. They, too, deal with their own dogmas, and not in propositions of science.”

So the makers of Evolution have effectively censored important controversies within the field of evolutionary biology. They have thereby missed a golden opportunity to make science more interesting for the general public. They have also left viewers with a one-sided and misleading view of what evolutionary biology means to its own practitioners.

But the sin of omission goes much deeper. The series also completely ignores the growing number of scientists who think that Darwinian theory at its root is inconsistent with the latest developments in biochemistry, paleontology, embryology, genetics, information theory, and other fields. According to these scientists, Darwin’s unguided process of random variation and natural selection is insufficient to account for the highly ordered complexity found in biological systems, which show evidence of directed development or “intelligent design.” (Contrary to the Darwinist claim, intelligent design theorists do not claim that science can show us the identity of a designer.)

Scientists advocating a design approach include professors at a number of colleges and universities. The producers of Evolution are very aware of this large and growing movement. This is clear from the background materials distributed to PBS affiliates, which include answers to anticipated challenges from intelligent design scholars.

Early efforts to persuade the producers to include scientific critics of Darwinism in the body of the series were rebuffed. Instead, the producers invited some of these critics to come on camera to tell their “personal faith stories” for the last program (Episode Seven), “What About God?” In this way, all critics of Darwinian evolution could be portrayed as religiously motivated. Scientists who criticize Darwinism from an intelligent design perspective did not want to contribute to this misleading stereotype, and so refused to be interviewed for this episode.

By suppressing real disagreements among evolutionary biologists, and by ignoring scientists who think that Darwin’s theory is fundamentally flawed, the makers of Evolution present viewers with a picture that is more like propaganda than honest journalism. Instead of reporting about evolution, which would include coverage of the theory’s problems and critics, the producers of the series present a one-sided advocacy of Darwinism, treating their Darwinian brand of evolutionary theory like an infallible religious dogma. Indeed, they refuse to grant that even a single fact exists that might not corroborate Darwin’s theory, insisting that “all known scientific evidence supports evolution.” This dogmatic attitude is completely at odds with the spirit of scientific inquiry. By treating Darwin’s theory as something that is beyond criticism or contrary evidence, Evolution leaves viewers with a shallow and misleading understanding of how science is supposed to work.

C. Religious Bias

  • The excessive and biased focus on religion, despite the series’ insistence to be about science rather than “the religious realm.”

According to the producers, “the Evolution project presents facts and the accumulated results of scientific inquiry; which means understanding the underlying evidence behind claims of fact and proposed theories. . . . In keeping with solid science journalism we examine empirically-testable explanations for ‘what happened,’ but don’t speak to the ultimate cause of ‘who done it’ — the religious realm.”

Yet the series speaks to the religious realm from start to finish. Episode One is organized around a fictionalized account of Darwin’s life, which begins with a scene pitting Charles Darwin, the enlightened scientist, against Captain Robert FitzRoy, the supposed religious fundamentalist. In fact, however, the two men shared similar views when Darwin sailed with FitzRoy aboard the HMS Beagle, because Darwin at that time in his life was more religious and FitzRoy was more scientific than this scene implies. Distorting the historical facts, this scene serves to set the stage for all that follows by casting everything in the stereotype of scientist versus religious fundamentalist.

This first episode takes its name, “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,” from a book by philosopher Daniel Dennett. Dennett regards Darwinism as a “universal acid” that eats through virtually all traditional beliefs — especially Christianity — and he tells us that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was “the single best idea anybody ever had.” People “used to think of meaning coming from on high and being ordained from the top down,” Dennett says, but we must now “replace the traditional idea of God the creator with the idea of the process of natural selection doing the creating.”

We subsequently meet biologist Kenneth Miller sitting in a church, where he says: “I’m an orthodox Catholic and I’m an orthodox Darwinist.” He later explains that “if God is working today in concert with the laws of nature, with physical laws and so forth, He probably worked in concert with them in the past. In a sense, in a sense, He’s the guy who made up the rules of the game, and He manages to act within those rules.” Yet we are given no hint of the great range of religious views between that of the Bible-thumping FitzRoy and the evolution-friendly Miller. The episode concludes with historian James Moore, who tells us that “Darwin’s vision of nature was, I believe, fundamentally a religious vision.”

Subsequent episodes include religious imagery such as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting of God touching Adam (while the narrator informs us that our origin, despite the painting, was really not special), and religious music such as the kyrie eleison from an African mass (while we watch actors presumably playing our ancestors walk across an African plain). And if we had any doubts that the message of Evolution is fundamentally about religion, those doubts are dispelled in the final episode, “What About God?”

“The majesty of our Earth, the beauty of life,” Episode Seven begins, “are they the result of a natural process called evolution, or the work of a divine creator?” We are taught that ignorant biblical literalists are the only people who reject Darwinian evolution, and that people who want to sneak religion into the science classroom often intimidate or censor Darwinists. Nothing is said about the many critics of Darwinian evolution who are not even Christians, much less biblical literalists. And nothing is said about the growing number of cases in America in which advocates of Darwinism intimidate and censor their scientific critics.

We are also told in this episode that U.S. science education was “neglected” between the 1925 Scopes trial and the 1957 launch of Sputnik, because evolution was “locked out of America’s public schools” during those decades. We are supposed to believe that religious opponents of Darwinism stunted scientific progress. Yet American schools during those supposedly benighted decades produced twice as many Nobel Prize-winners in physiology and medicine as all other countries in the world put together.

Although the producers of Evolution promised not to speak to the religious realm, they speak to it forcefully and repeatedly. The take-home lesson of the series is unmistakably clear: Religion that fully accepts Darwinian evolution is good. Religion that doesn’t is bad. Now, the producers of Evolution are entitled to their opinion. In America, everyone is. But why is this opinion presented as science, on publicly supported television?

D. Promoting a Political Agenda

  • The inappropriate use of the series by PBS, a government-funded agency, to promote a controversial political agenda.

PBS is funded in part by American taxpayers. As a government-funded agency, it is supposed to be held to high standards of fairness. It is absolutely inappropriate for PBS to engage in activities designed to influence the political process by promoting one viewpoint at the expense of others. Yet an internal document prepared by the Evolution Project/WGBH Boston shows that those behind the series are trying to do just that. Sent to PBS affiliates during the summer of 2001, the document outlines the overall goals for the PBS series and describes its marketing strategy.

According to the document, one of the goals is to “co-opt existing local dialogue about teaching evolution in schools.” Another goal is to “promote participation,” including “getting involved with local school boards.” Moreover, “government officials” are identified as one of the target audiences for the series, and the publicity campaign accompanying the series will include the writing of op-eds and “guerilla/viral marketing.” Clearly, one purpose of Evolution is to influence Congress and school boards and to promote political action regarding how evolution is taught in public schools.

The political agenda behind Evolution is made even more explicit by its enlistment of Eugenie Scott as one of the official spokespersons for the project. Scott runs the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), an advocacy group that by its own description is dedicated to “defending the teaching of evolution in the public schools.” As a crucial propaganda tool, the NCSE routinely lumps together all critics of Darwinism as “creationists.” According to the group’s web site, the NCSE provides “expert testimony for school board hearings,” supplies citizens with “advice on how to organize” when “faced with local creationist challenges,” and assists legal organizations that litigate “evolution/creation cases.” It is a single-issue group that takes only one side in the political debate over evolution in public education. It is therefore completely inappropriate for PBS to enlist NCSE’s executive director as an official spokesperson on this project — while excluding other views.

Imagine, for a moment, that PBS created a seven-part series on abortion that was designed to “co-opt existing local dialogue” about abortion legislation, and to influence national and local government officials regarding abortion legislation. Imagine further that PBS defended only one viewpoint in the abortion debate, and enlisted as an official spokesperson the head of a major lobbying group promoting that viewpoint. Would anyone think this was either appropriate or fair?

E. Summary

In summary, the PBS Evolution series distorts the scientific evidence, omits scientific objections to Darwin’s theory, mischaracterizes scientific critics of Darwinism, promotes a biased view of religion, and takes a partisan position in a controversial political debate. By doing this, PBS has forsaken objectivity, violated journalistic ethics, and betrayed the public trust. It is for these reasons that we have prepared Getting the Facts Straight: A Viewer’s Guide to PBS’s “Evolution.”

Note: Quotations from the producers about their goals are taken from “The Evolution Controversy: Use It Or Lose It” — a document prepared by Evolution Project/WGBH Boston and distributed to PBS affiliates on June 15, 2001. The document concludes by suggesting that “any further questions” should be directed to WGBH at https://www.wgbh.org/. The quotation from Peter Bowler is from his book Evolution: The History of an Idea (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989). Quotations from Henry Gee are from his book, In Search of Deep Time (New York: The Free Press, 1999). Quotations from Jerry Coyne are from his book review, “Of Vice and Men,” from The New Republic (April 3, 2000).