(A personal reflection on the PBS Press Conference for the Evolution Project, held July 26, 2001 at the Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, California)
It includes a card game, interactive software, a high-tech web site, and a seven-part television series. It is earnest. Very, very earnest. Today, I got to go to the public birth of PBS Evolution. Richard Hutton, the producer, crows that the films are “Masterpiece Theater meets Nova.”
That seems about right. Viewers should look forward to the artistic pretentiousness of the worst of Masterpiece Theater combined with the thrilling drama of a science program on the life of the artichoke. At least if the press conference is any indication.
Imagine video done by the sort of humorless people who know how Important their Project is. The very Future of the Planet depends on their Mission. But it will not be simple. The Project has enemies. Bad or misinformed people have been deceived about Science. The Producers of this video are courageously going to take a stand. Offensive? Perhaps. It might cost PBS all its cachet at Liberty University, but they are not going to take it any more.
Gripping television, this is not.
So why not ignore it? Sadly, like many sincere and good people they are spiteful, in a petty way. It is open season on religious people who do not fit their definition of “good religion.” Their opponents are all simple minded, confused, young, or wicked. They sell the program on the controversy that exists. The press conference implied there is controversy only because some people are ill informed.
This might be the one virtue of the series as television. It is easy to be offensive. It is easy to be dull. This series manages the much more difficult task of being both offensive and dull.
The press conference did have a surfeit of one element found in both of its video ancestors: it was sincere. However, this is also its chief video draw back. Sincere cannot be irreverent and this is the Age of Irreverence. The Great Pumpkin might pick their video pumpkin patch, but is hard to imagine the average post-modern student sitting through a series controlled by nineteen fifties “gee whiz” scientism.
The press conference seemed vaguely aware of this problem. The room in which the press conference was held was decorated with large plush apes and “Survivor-style” vines and ropes. We got a copy of the Origin, a card game, and lots of color. Golly. Anyone who ever endured a class with a teacher who wanted to show that "science is cool" gets the point. This was "naturalism is cool and religion is o.k. too."
Introduced by a former aide to Dick Gephardt, the Evolution project was top bill at the Public Broadcasting press tour. Four activists came to launch their cause on the American public.
And what an American public it must be. Evolution is the “bedrock of all Biology.” It “remains essential to understanding the nature of life on our planet and ourselves, especially in an age when environmental, agricultural, and health issues dominate world headlines.” In fact, “Evolution happens all around us--in our bodies, in our backyards, and on our grocery shelves.” Who could doubt such a thing? Who would want to do so?
Right thinking people believe in evolution. But shockingly, so many people are misinformed. Richard Hutton, the producer of the series, wants to inform people. He is on a mission to help the American public. As Jane Goodall pointed out, American failure to embrace Darwinism may destroy us all. This is not just about science, this is about the survival of the human race.
All of this was done with the sort of straight-faced, pompous, delivery of Captain Kirk reminding the Enterprise crew of why man is in space. Breathlessly, with pauses for effect, the audience was told that everything was on the line.
This is Important Stuff. Sadly, some people are opposed to this idea. They are fearful people. Teachers might have to help confused students. This might cause controversy, but so be it. Some people just do not get it.
Who are these people? Eugenie Scott informed the meeting quickly that they are people who just do not understand science. They are confused, ill informed, or part of small religious groups. In particular, religious protestants, who according to the clip shown at the press conference have funny beards and go to artistically challenged churches, oppose Darwinism. They seem to oppose the “joy” that Jane Goodall finds in being “part of nature” and not separate from it. They sing hymns about their non-belief. It is all too shocking for words, but the series must be fair and show these people and their points of view.
Is this religion bashing? The “right sort” of religious people need not worry. Opponents of Darwinism are not “main-stream” religious. The good religious people long ago “made their peace with Darwinism.” At least that is what Evolution “national spokesperson” Eugenie Scott told the press conference. Scott should know since she runs a political think tank that does nothing, but oppose any point of view different from that found on the series.
More to the point, it seems they are American. Dr. James Moore, a Darwin biographer, claimed several times that in England criticisms of Darwin just do not happen. But then when questioned about his own religious viewpoint, he also pointed out that Brit’s don’t discuss sex and religion in public. He was offended that anyone would ask about his own point of view. Shocking. Colonial. Bad taste.
The questions from the press mostly followed this line. A few were puzzled by the obsession of the series producers with Christians. Where were the other religions? The organizers sighed and pointed out that almost all the benighted were Christians. Goodall plugged Eastern religion and everyone felt much better.
In fact, the room was full of people who accepted the dualism. There are silly people who doubt Darwinism. Public Television should help such people. How could reporters help the helpers? It was confused college students and super-fundamentalist Ken Ham against science and mainstream religion. What press reporter was going to war for Ken Ham?
I finally asked if the series was unfair to critics of Darwinism. Not all critics are religious. Not all are Protestant. What about science? Miller, the most media savvy of the group, sighed again. How could the series be unfair? Miller, himself, is a Catholic. He would never have had anything to do with something unfair to religion. Miller had personally resolved any religion and science problems. In fact, most of Miller’s comments were incarnational in this manner. Behe? Dembski? He just saw them self-destruct at a recent science meeting. “They were not ready for prime time.” How do we know? Because Miller says so!
Besides, and this was the important point. The series showed some simply wonderful Wheaton College students honestly wrestling with the issue. What could be fairer than that? Miller sighed again. It is plainly hard to be sincere.
“I am not,” he hastened to say, “here because I am a Catholic, but as a textbook author and evolutionist who happens to be Catholic.” He said this a good deal in the period after the formal presentation. He also seemed fairly confused about the purpose of the series. Is it a science show? Is it about culture? Does it address theology and philosophy?
The public relations materials make all sorts of philosophic claims. The press conference made frequent reference to religion, politics, and society. Sometimes, when convenient, the series became all science all the time.
Miller describes the series in the manner convenient to the moment. To one reporter, Miller addressed the concern that many “experts” on the show make frequent, public anti-religious comments. Miller said that the fact that people like Daniel Dennett and Steve Gould were used in the series did not make it anti-religious. Miller himself pointed out that he had denounced such a misuse of science. Scientists should only talk about science. Anything else was outside their area of knowledge.
I asked Dr. Miller about Dennett’s doctorate. What is it in? “Philosophy,” he said. “Then Dennett is not qualified to talk about science. Either he must be talking out of his field or the series is dealing with philosophy. Why doesn’t the series then include philosophers who do not accept Dennett’s very controversial views?” Why not include philosophical critiques of naturalism?
Miller was personally very, very offended. The series was about science. It was not about philosophy. There are no scientific reasons for doubting Darwin. Scientists who seem to hold scientific doubts are not scientists. They do not play by the rules. He began to ramble about Michael Behe, a scientific critic of Darwinism. “Behe does not make his arguments in front of scientists in his discipline.”
This seemed an odd response. Behe must be bad, so Miller is right. It did have the attraction of being consistently centered on Miller’s experience of Behe.
I asked Miller to forget, for a moment, about science. He had philosophers on his program. His own comments were a mix of philosophy and science. Why not include philosophical criticisms of his views? Even if there were no scientific criticisms, there were surely philosophical ones. A reporter from the Washington Post was puzzled by this as well. Where was Huston Smith? Why show Ken Ham and not Huston Smith?
Miller was not happy. The videos were about science. Philosophy was beside the point. The fact that it contained philosophers and dealt with philosophy did not matter.
At this point, Miller entered a strange world of sentence fragments that all centered on his experience. Had the listeners seen his book? It got favorable reviews. He heard Behe talk. He was not persuaded by Behe. Miller was Catholic. In any case, Miller had written a book.
Miller finally conceded the videos dealt with philosophy and theology. The fact that critics the PBS viewpoint were missing did not matter. Philosophic critics of Darwinism were ill informed. I pointed out that Miller was not competent (by his own standards) to make such pronouncements.
Miller now began to sigh in earnest. The video was fair. He would have nothing to do with a project that was not fair. There were those “wrestling” Wheaton College students. That showed how fair everything was. Of course, Miller had written a book on the topic. It dealt with all the theological and philosophical problems. We should all read it. Miller, like the series, lacks much sense of self-irony.
Dr. Scott greeted me. We had a congenial chat. She ritually denounced Dennett, Provine, Dawkins, and Gould for mixing religion and science improperly. I asked if she thought high school students would know who these folk were. She agreed most students would not. I then asked why these people, who got the relationship between religion and science so wrong, were used in the video series as the “designated smart people.” A bright student would view the video and see Dennett doing his thing . . . and that would help Dennett sell the books Dr. Scott was denouncing. Why not bring new voices, better voices to the table? Dr. Scott seemed frustrated with this question. She was led away by her handlers before she had a chance to answer.
Everyone was interested in the only other impertinent question asked. “Where did the money come from?” Josh Gilder, of the Weekly Standard, pressed this question hard. It appears that Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen got to make his own PBS show. Why? Where was all the money going? How did the public in Public Broadcasting get to have input? There were not any answers coming anytime soon.
So the very earnest campaign to save our souls for Darwin has begun. Much money will be spent. Many students will be urged to come to science. There is no sawdust and no tent. But the sincerity is there.
The press conference reminded me of nothing so much as the film Elmer Gantry. This first rate film captures the antics of a small time tent preacher and his friends. The press conference was a high tech tent revival meeting.
The same sort of populist appeal is being made, though this time to a middle-brow audience. There is the same mix of the brilliant and the absurd. Gantry had the Bible, while Miller and company have Darwin. Gantry ran services in circus like tents. PBS put plush apes on our tables and fake vines hanging from the air conditioning vents.
There is the same appeal to the prejudice against “others” we do not know very well. Gantry’s fundamentalist feared communism, while Miller’s middle-brow readers fear religion that might get demanding. Gantry could rail against rum, Miller against the wrong sort of religion.
The casting has been done well. Jane Goodall will act as the devout, sister interested only in the welfare of the lost. Eugenie Scott is the sincere disciple who will do the work. And Miller will do the dirty work of Elmer Gantry in mixing it up with the foes of Darwin. One supposes that like Babbit, poor Paul Allen ends up paying for it all. One wonders what they have on him.
Sadly, Public Television which often imitates television evangelists right down to the pledge drives still does not get it right. Gantry was never dull.
© 2001 John Mark Reynolds. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. File Date: 9.14.01