PBS Evolution A Critical Review
Viewers Guide

Getting the Facts Straight: A Viewer’s Guide to PBS’s Evolution

The controversy over Darwin’s theory of evolution has never been more intense. The American people — and especially America’s students — deserve to know what the fuss is all about. They deserve to know what the evidence shows, what scientists really think, and why — after all these years — there is still widespread opposition to Darwinian evolution.

American public television can and should be used to educate people about this important controversy. The seven-part Evolution series, produced for public television by Clear Blue Sky Productions and the WGBH/NOVA Science Unit, could have been an important contribution in this regard. But Evolution is a work of advocacy, an advertisement not just for Darwinism, but for some of its more extreme manifestations. It distorts the biological evidence, mischaracterizes historical facts, ignores series disagreements among evolutionary biologists themselves, and misrepresents Darwin’s scientific critics in order to convince the American people that evolution is absolutely true and indispensable to our daily lives.

This Viewer’s Guide has been prepared to correct this one-sided presentation. Where Evolution distorts or ignores the facts, this Guide supplies them. Where Evolution ignores or misrepresents its critics, this Guide lets them speak for themselves. Although Evolution promotes the stereotype that all opponents of Darwin’s theory are biblical literalists, this Guide was not written to defend biblical literalism but to defend honest science. It is simply based on the premise that the American people deserve to hear the truth — especially from the television network that they are supporting with their tax money.

A. The Goals of the Evolution Series

According to Evolution‘s producers, their guiding vision has been to convey “the importance of evolution” to a general viewing audience. “Evolution affects almost every aspect of human life,” the producers believe. “From medicine to agriculture to a person’s choice of mate, evolution touches our daily lives in extraordinary ways. Having a grounding in evolution is key to our understanding of so many issues around us.”

The program is billed as straightforward science. “Evolution is a scientific concept, and this is a science series,” the producers explain. “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, and reporting on those areas where the science is sound. We have enlisted the top minds in all of the sciences to help us present the best scientific understanding of the explanation of life on Earth. 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.”1

To summarize, the goals of the Evolution series are:

  1. To show that evolution is important to “almost every aspect of human life,” especially medicine, agriculture, and choice of a mate.
  2. To present “the underlying evidence behind claims of facts and proposed theories.”
  3. To report on “areas where the science is sound.”
  4. In keeping with “solid science journalism,” to examine “empirically-testable explanations” while avoiding “the religious realm.”

It will be helpful to keep these in mind while viewing the episodes, and to compare the contents of each episode with the producers’ announced goals.

B. How To Use This Guide

The best way to use this Guide is to read the chapter about each episode before viewing it — though reading the Guide after an episode will still be useful. For easier reading the chapters are divided into sections, though the sections do not necessarily correspond to actual segments within the episodes.

The series consists of seven episodes. The first is two hours long, while all the others are one hour long, making a total of eight hours. This Guide includes a chapter for each episode, providing a detailed description of its contents — including some verbatim quotations from the narrator or interviewees — and critical comments on how the episode misleads the viewer. Each chapter concludes with notes containing additional information and resources for viewers who want to pursue selected topics in more depth.

For educators who want to use the Evolution series as a teaching tool — especially to teach critical thinking skills — an appendix to this Guide contains several classroom-ready activities. Because the activities and assignments are all fairly involved, and range in difficulty from fairly simple to advanced, the best way to use them is to choose one or two that seem appropriate for a specific group of students. Alternatively, different students could be assigned (or allowed to choose) different activities — though this would require modifying those activities that involve whole-class participation.

This Viewer’s Guide was prepared using a pre-release version of the seven-part series shown to journalists during the summer of 2001. It is possible that some of the material presented here — including specific quotations — may differ slightly from the series aired on public television.


  1. 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. The web site for WGBH is https://www.wgbh.org/

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