PBS Evolution A Critical Review
Viewers Guide


The show’s over. What did we learn from it?

A. Underlying Evidence for Evolution?

The producers promised to provide us with “underlying evidence behind claims of fact and proposed theories.” We saw lots of data, but how much of it was evidence for Darwin’s theory?

We saw lots of data from the fossil record. We saw fossils of some of the first animals (from the Cambrian explosion). We saw fossils of early land animals, dinosaurs, early mammals, whales, ape-like creatures, and humans. Clearly, the composition of the Earth’s biosphere has changed over time. Some things that used to inhabit the Earth are no longer with us, and some things we see around us were not always here.

But the fossil record does not — and cannot — show us ancestry and descent. Maybe some of the fossils we saw were ancestral to others, and maybe they weren’t. As Henry Gee, chief science writer for Nature, wrote in 1999, “the intervals of time that separate fossils are so huge that we cannot say anything definite about their possible connection through ancestry and descent.” According to Gee: “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.”1

Every time someone refers to fossils as ancestors, that person is assuming that Darwin’s theory of common ancestry is true, and then stringing fossils together in chains of ancestry and descent. But how do we know that Darwin’s theory is true?

We saw similarities and differences among fossils, and between fossils and living species, and among living species. But many of these were known to Darwin’s predecessors, who attributed them to designed construction rather than to unguided evolution. In particular, we saw lots of similarities and differences between humans and chimpanzees; by themselves, however, such features tell us nothing about our ancestry.

How can we know that similarities are due to common ancestry rather than common design? Only by showing that natural processes can produce them. Otherwise, the possibility remains that — like automobiles — living things were constructed by design.

If we could observe the process of descent with modification, that would settle the matter; but we can’t. So an evolutionary biologist begins by assuming that Darwin was right, and interprets similarities and differences from that perspective. But how do we know that Darwin was right?

We saw data showing that some organisms — mainly viruses and bacteria — change over time. But the changes we saw were all within species. If we started with HIV, we finished with HIV. The TB in an Egyptian mummy was the same species found in New York City. Changes within species were well known to Darwin’s predecessors, but they do not provide evidence for his theory about the origin of new species.

Once more, if we simply assume the truth of Darwin’s theory, then it’s easy to imagine one species changing into another. But why should we assume — in the absence of evidence — that Darwin’s theory is true?

It may seem uncharitable to persist in questioning the truth of Darwin’s theory, and to keep insisting that Evolution show us evidence that actually supports it. But that’s what we were promised. And that’s what science is all about.

So the data we have reviewed so far are not the kind that supports Darwin’s theory. We were also shown another kind of data in Evolution — the kind that appears to support the theory, but isn’t true.

B. Distortions of Scientific and Historical Facts

We were told that the genetic code — the “language” by which DNA specifies protein sequences — is the same in all living things, and that this “is powerful evidence that they all evolved on a single tree of life.” But molecular biologists have known for years that the genetic code is not the same in all living things. What we were told is false.

Then we were told that HIV takes only “minutes to hours to move from one species to another.” This could provide some of the evidence that Darwin’s theory needs. But no new species formed. The claim is false.

Then we were told that a tiny handful of powerful genes such as Antennapedia — which when mutated causes flies to sprout legs from their heads — are the “architects of the body” and the “genetic engine of evolution.” But these genes don’t exert their effects until after an animal’s body is formed, so something else must be the body’s architect. And the fact that they are similar in radically different animals, and that mutations in them never make animals more fit, shows that such genes cannot explain the evolution of one kind of animal from another.

Finally, we were told about “people” who lived millions of years ago — though we were also told that people (as we normally use the word) first appeared about fifty thousand years ago. Evolution called the genetic code universal when it isn’t, said HIV moved to a new species when it didn’t, claimed genes like Antennapedia make animal bodies when they can’t, and called ape-like creatures people when they weren’t. In other words, Evolution systematically misrepresented the evidence to make it look as though it supports Darwin’s theory — when it doesn’t.

Evolution also distorted historical facts as well as scientific ones. It mischaracterized the details of Darwin’s life to promote the scientist-vs.-fundamentalist stereotype that runs throughout the series. In fact, much of the opposition to Darwin’s theory during his lifetime came from scientists, not theologians. And among the theologians, criticism was aimed primarily at Darwin’s rejection of design, not his challenge to biblical literalism.

The situation is similar today. Although Evolution would have us believe that all of the opposition to Darwin’s theory comes from biblical literalists like Ken Ham, only about 10% of Americans accept Darwinian evolution in full. The vast majority of Americans — not just biblical literalists — have a problem with Darwin’s claim that living things are undesigned products of an unguided process.

Even worse, Evolution completely ignored or misrepresented the growing number of highly qualified scientists who criticize or reject Darwin’s theory. For example, the series dismissed intelligent design theorists as biblical literalists, even though articles by mainstream journalists in The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times have pointed out that this is false.

Evolution‘s most egregious distortions of history, however, involve the 1925 Scopes trial and its aftermath. First, it misrepresented William Jennings Bryan as a biblical literalist in order to promote the scientist-vs.-fundamentalist stereotype. Second, it made the preposterous claim that U.S. science education was “neglected” in the decades following the trial — the same decades when America produced more Nobel laureates than the rest of the world combined. And finally, it portrayed modern evolutionists as the victims of Scopes-style censorship, when in fact the situation is now exactly the reverse, with Darwinists censoring their critics.

So Evolution presented us with some data that didn’t really support Darwin’s theory, and some data that appeared to support the theory but turned out to be false. The series also distorted history to discredit Darwin’s critics. Perhaps even more surprising, however, was the way Evolution ignored scientists who accept Darwin’s theory but who disagree with many of the things this series said about it.

C. Shallow and Lopsided Coverage of Scientific Controversies

According to its producers, one of Evolution‘s goals was to report on “areas where the science is sound.” Yet many of the areas covered by the series are far from being sound — in fact, they are highly controversial even among evolutionary biologists.

We were told that sexual reproduction exists because it generates genetic variability. This supposedly enables members of sexually reproducing species to resist parasites and adapt to changing environments. Although many biologists believe this, the evidence is inconclusive, and the issue remains highly controversial. As Science reported in 1998, biologists “haven’t solved the mystery of sex yet,” partly because of “extremely lousy experimental data.” So “how sex began and why it thrived remain a mystery.”

We watched a long interview with evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, who thinks that the human brain is like a peacock’s tail. Both, he thinks, are products of sexual selection. Miller also regards all of human culture as a by-product of sexual choices. But many biologists regard evolutionary psychology as a non-science. According to University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, evolutionary psychologists “deal in their own dogmas, and not in propositions of science.” And American Museum of Natural History paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall wrote of Miller’s work: “In the end we are looking here at a product of the storyteller’s art, not of science.”

Finally, we heard a lot about memes from Richard Dawkins and Susan Blackmore — but not a word from the many biologists who consider the concept hopelessly vague and unscientific. Stephen Jay Gould, whom we met in Episode One, considers it a “meaningless metaphor.” And Jerry Coyne considers memes “but a flashy new wrapping around a parcel of old and conventional ideas.”2

Evolution‘s coverage of these highly controversial areas was completely one-sided. No critical voices were raised, leaving viewers with the misleading impression that these were “areas where the science is sound.” Instead of educating viewers about how science really works, Evolution chose to indoctrinate them in the latest fads.

And two of these — evolutionary psychology and memetic evolution — also served the producers’ goal of convincing us that almost everything revolves around Darwinian evolution.

D. Is Evolution Indispensable to Medicine, Agriculture, and Choice of Mate?

One goal of the series, the producers said, was to show that evolution is important to “almost every aspect of human life,” from “medicine to agriculture to a person’s choice of mate.” Let’s see how well it did.

Episodes One and Four suggested that evolution is important to medicine because it has been instrumental in treating HIV patients. In the first case, patients were taken off of drugs so the HIV in their bodies could lose its drug-resistance. This strategy of interrupting treatment seemed to work, but how much did it owe to evolution? Contrary to what we were told, no new species of HIV emerged. The change that was observed could have been predicted from principles of artificial selection that were known for centuries before Darwin. In Episode Four, the connection between HIV and evolution was even more tenuous, and the discovery of a protective mutation did nothing to help patients.

The story of multi-drug resistance in tuberculosis was interesting and important, but like the HIV story in Episode One it owed nothing to Darwin and did not provide evidence for his theory. And the main lesson from the cholera story was that we should drink clean water — but we already knew that.

The story of insulin in Episode Six was the most far-fetched of all. Effective treatment of diabetes is a triumph of modern medicine, but calling it a “meme” and putting a Darwinian “spin” on it is sheer nonsense. This — like Blackmore’s assertion that memes invented the Internet — sounds suspiciously like the Soviets’ old insistence that they invented the telephone.

The leafy spurge story in Episode Three was Evolution‘s feeble bid to lay claim to agriculture. But using an insect to control an agricultural pest is nothing new. The ancient Chinese and Yemenis did it, with no help from Darwin. The leafy spurge story was interesting, but it neither depended on evolutionary theory nor provided any support for it.

Finally, the advice that Evolution gave us in choosing a mate was perhaps the least useful of all. Choose your mate by smelling his T-shirt, or by selecting his face from a computer line-up, or because he has a bigger brain. Or choose memetic evolution and do whatever you want, without regard for biological consequences.

It seems, then, that Darwinian evolution isn’t really important to medicine, agriculture, or match-making after all. Nevertheless, the producers of the series make it clear that there is one realm where it is absolutely essential: religion.

E. The Religious Realm

In keeping with “solid science journalism,” the producers of Evolution set out to examine “empirically-testable explanations” while avoiding “the religious realm.”

Yet Evolution dealt with the religious realm from start to finish. It twisted historical facts to make critics of evolution look like biblical literalists. It employed religious symbolism such as Michelangelo’s painting of God touching Adam to convey its message that humans are not special. And it quoted — repeatedly and approvingly — anti-religious statements by a whole parade of Darwinists.

In Episode One, Daniel Dennett told us that after Darwin we no longer have “meaning coming from on high and being ordained from the top down.” Stephen Jay Gould pooh-poohed the idea that “God had several independent lineages and they were all moving in certain pre-ordained directions which pleased His sense of how a uniform and harmonious world ought to be put together.” And James Moore stated the problem Emma Darwin had with her husband’s theory: “Now if nature, by itself, unaided by God, could make an eye, then what else couldn’t nature do? Nature could do anything!”

Kenneth Miller argued that imperfections in the vertebrate eye were “proof” that it was due to evolution rather than God’s design. We visited him in church, and he told us: “I’m an orthodox Catholic and I’m an orthodox Darwinist.” Then he said 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.” Finally, James Moore concluded Episode One by assuring us that “Darwin’s vision of nature was, I believe, fundamentally a religious vision.”

Episode Five taught us that Darwin replaced the idea of God creating ornate feathers with his theory of sexual selection. Geoffrey Miller said “it wasn’t God, it was our ancestors . . . choosing their sexual partners” that accounted for the origin of the human brain. Then Handel’s Messiah was used to illustrate Miller’s claim that all of human culture is a result of our sexual instincts.

Finally, Episode Seven was devoted entirely to religion. We watched biblical literalist Ken Ham lecturing about creation in a church; we witnessed students at Wheaton College struggling with their Christian upbringing; and we saw a local school board deny a student petition to teach creation alongside evolution. Yet we saw and heard nothing from critics of Darwinian evolution — either scientific or religious — who are not biblical literalists. The message was clear: religion is OK in its place, as long as it doesn’t challenge Darwinism.

So Evolution had quite a lot to say about the religious realm. And far from reporting objectively on the wide range of religious viewpoints in America, it singled out only two — one of which it obviously preferred over the other. Now, the producers of Evolution are entitled to their opinion. In America, everyone is. But the government, and other public resources such as PBS, are not supposed to favor one religion over another. What is the justification for broadcasting this series on public television, and distributing it to public schools, when it is so clearly biased, both scientifically and religiously?

F. Evolution and Public Policy

PBS is funded in part by American taxpayers. It is thus supposed to remain neutral in religious matters. It is absolutely inappropriate for PBS to engage in activities that promote one religious view over another.

It is also inappropriate for PBS to attempt to influence the political process. Yet the producers of the Evolution series are trying to do just that. According to the June 15, 2001, document cited in the introduction, one goal of the project 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. Clearly, one purpose of Evolution is to influence 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 an official spokesperson for the project. As we have seen, Scott is the Executive Director 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 we have also seen, 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 promotes 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.3

The American people — and especially America’s students — deserve to be informed about the controversy over Darwin’s theory of evolution. But the PBS Evolution series is not a sincere effort to inform. Instead, it is an effort to make Darwinian evolution seem more scientific than it really is, to promote one religious viewpoint over others, and to influence local school boards to grant exclusive control to a controversial theory. This is not education. This is not good science journalism. This is propaganda.


1. Henry Gee, In Search of Deep Time (New York: The Free Press, 1999), 23, 32, 113-117, 202.

2. The quotations from the 1998 special issue of Science are from Bernice Wuethrich, “Why Sex? Putting Theory to the Test,” Science 281 (1998), 1980-1982. The same issue included the following articles of interest: Pamela Hines & Elizabeth Culotta, “The Evolution of Sex,” Science 281 (1998), 1979; N. H. Barton & B. Charlesworth, “Why Sex and Recombination?” Science 281 (1998), 1986-1990.

The Coyne quotation is from Jerry A. Coyne, “Of Vice and Men: The fairy tales of evolutionary psychology,” a review of Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer’s A Natural History of Rape, in The New Republic (April 3, 2000), last page. The entire review is available at: http://www.thenewrepublic.com/040300/coyne040300.html

The Tattersall quotation is from Ian Tattersall, “Whatever turns you on,” a review of Geoffrey Miller’s book, The Mating Mind, in the New York Times Book Review (June 11, 2000).

Stephen Jay Gould called memes a “meaningless metaphor” on a radio show November 11, 1996. See Susan Blackmore, “Memes, Minds and Selves,” at: http://www.tribunes.com/tribune/art98/blac.htm#b.

The Coyne quotation is from Jerry A. Coyne, “The self-centred meme,” a review of Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine, in Nature (April 29, 1999), 767-768.

3. 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, giving the following information:

The web site for WGBH is https://www.wgbh.org/
Related web sites include:

Other contact information:

125 Western Avenue
Boston, MA 02134
(617) 300-2000
(617) 300-5400

For more information about the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), go to https://ncse.ngo/