Making sense of life

NEXT MONDAY, Sept. 24, the Public Broadcasting System "pops out" its new season with a four-night, seven-part documentary called Evolution. Both PBS and the makers of the film, Paul Allen's Blue Sky Productions, had every reason to expect the show to attract a lot of attention, favorable and otherwise.

It's hard, now, to know what people will feel like watching two weeks after the events of Sept. 11. Maybe eight hours' cautious exposition of the mechanisms governing the elaboration of living things through time will seem irrelevant. Just as possibly, people looking for some way of making sense of their world will be drawn to a thorough airing of the central philosophico-scientific issue of our time.

The most memorable PBS documentaries—Clark's Civilization, Bronowski's Ascent of Man, Sagan's Cosmos—have been author driven, with every word, image, and idea reflecting a single shaping mind. Evolution doesn't have that kind of focus: A committee of eminent scientists was asked to determine its agenda, and different writers, directors, and producers were hired to create episodes illustrating the themes selected. Of the three episodes I saw in advance of broadcast, the first and most ambitious is also the weakest: Shot in period-Masterpiece Theatre style, it's a earnest Darwin biopic (lumbered with sub-Cliffs Notes dialogue) interrupted erratically by eminent Darwinians of our own day (most prominent among them Harvard's Stephen Jay Gould, who'll be lecturing in Seattle on Oct. 2, the gods and the FAA willing).

Five of the remaining episodes hew closely to answering a single big question posed and answered by evolutionary science: How does evolution "work"? What role has extinction played in the history of life? What role does competition between organisms play in the process? If evolution is a mindless, random process, where the hell did mind come from?

To judge by the evidence of episode five, these more focused segments work better, both as instruction and entertainment. "Why Sex?" adopts a jokey but, on the whole, sensible and down-to-earth tone in explaining what evolutionary thinking has taught us about why sex exists at all, how it's shaped the history of life on earth, and why men and women see the world differently.

Only in its final hour does the series confront the issue which led to its making in the first place. "What About God?" attempts a sympathetic overview of all the diverse voices asking that question: "creationists"; partisans of "creation science," like Seattle Discovery Institute; and serious scientists who find no conflict between their work and their religious views.

But, as might be expected from a committee-devised treatment of a hot-button issue, the episode lacks bite, concluding (in the words of the series' promotional summary) "that science and religion are compatible, although they play very different roles in assigning order to the universe and a purpose to life." This bland formulation may have some truth to it, but not enough. It ignores the deep, if out-of-fashion, idea espoused by thinkers as different as Marx, Freud, and Shelley that belief in God is a central impediment to human progress. It also ignores those whose confidence that they have a hot line to the Almighty, from the 700 Club's Pat Robertson to the suicide pilots of the jihad, licenses them to cast out of the human community anyone who does not bow to the idols of their particular tribe.

The wishy-washy, why-can't-everybody-just-get-along formulation concluding Evolution obscures the most important concept in the series as a whole: Science, as a human activity, may be neutral when it comes to questions like "Is there a God?" or "What is the meaning of the universe?" It is not neutral on the subject of belief. On the contrary, belief—"the evidence of things not seen," as St. Paul defines it—is the enemy of science, asserting a higher claim to truth than the evidence of one's own eyes as confirmed by the eyes of others.

The national atmosphere right now is so hazy with sanctimony that one has to be grateful for any effort to address reality with candor, and this Evolution does. The attendant education initiative, centered on providing teaching materials based on the series and the book to secondary-school science classes, may, in time, have a deep and lasting influence on the way Americans think about their world. But it will face militant resistance. If they're going to win their argument with the forces of blind faith—if they're even going to hold their own—the apologists of science are going to have to stop apologizing and start fighting.

Additional information:

Nina Shapiro's Seattle Weekly article on the Discovery Institutes patronage of UW astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez:

For the conservative Christians funding the Discovery Institute's Intelligent Design campaign, see Los Angeles Times religion reporter Teresa Watanabe's "Enlisting Science to Find the Fingerprints of a Creator," published March 25, 2001. This article is available free at the Discovery Institute's own website,

For more on Clear Blue Sky Productions and Evolution,

Evolution airs nightly at 8 p.m. Mon.-Thurs., Sept. 24-27 on KCTS 9 Seattle. Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould addresses Seattle Arts and Lectures at Benaroya Hall, 7:30 p.m. Tues., Oct. 2. $18-$15. 621-2230.

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