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[TV reviews]

PBSís dangerous idea?
Evolution takes Darwin to the nation

BY JEFFREY GANTZ

You might think that watching a PBS mega-movie called Evolution would put last weekís hijacking disaster in perspective. Co-produced by the WGBH/NOVA Science Unit and Clear Blue Sky Productions, this seven-part, eight-hour series (it will air on WGBH this coming Monday through Thursday, in two-hour segments each night) journeys back to the beginnings of life on earth, and when you consider that consensus puts the age of our earth at 4.6 billion years, the lives of 5000 or even 10,000 persons might not seem such a big deal. But in fact it was the " Assault on America, " and the human faces behind those ranks of candles, that put Evolution in perspective.

The series ó hyped as " the most comprehensive and far-reaching examination of evolution to date " ó is nonetheless a milestone for WGBH and for public television. Itís also risky business, since in the wake of the 1999 decision by the Kansas Board of Education to let local school boards teach creationist alternatives (it was reversed last year), itís clear that not every PBS station will be clamoring to air Evolution. And the project isnít just a TV series. Thereís a companion book, Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, written by science journalist Carl Zimmer and published by HarperCollins. Thereís a hands-on Web site (pbs.org/evolution). Thereís an extensive program ó and this may be PBSís most dangerous idea ó of resources for teachers and students: a Web Evolution Library; case studies streamed on-line about how evolution is taught around the country; an on-line course for teachers that discusses obstacles to teaching evolution; and on-line lessons for students. Anticipating opposition, the project has lined up as national spokespeople not just prominent scientists like primatologist Jane Goodall and Harvard palæontogist Stephen Jay Gould but also biologist and Roman Catholic Kenneth Miller, biochemist and Anglican priest Arthur Peacocke, and minister Arnold Isidore Thomas.

Whatís more, the series kicks off with a two-hour installment, " Darwinís Dangerous Idea, " that puts a human, even kindly, face on evolution. Even before the opening title rolls, weíre plunged into Darwinís explorations: itís 1833, and the Beagle has brought Charles (played by Chris Larkin) and Captain Robert FitzRoy (Ian Shaw) to the west coast of South America, where Darwin is trying to buy a large skull fossil from the local residents. " Why do creatures like this no longer exist? " he asks. " Perhaps the ark was too small to allow them entry, and they perished in the flood, " Captain FitzRoy replies ó and when Darwin laughs, heís offended. " What sort of clergyman will you be, Mr. Darwin? " " Dreadful! " Darwin replies with a smile. " Dreadful! "

But as " Darwinís Dangerous Idea " moves on, it becomes clear that Charles has a much better handle on creation than the stuffy, self-righteous likes of Captain FitzRoy and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce (Anthony Carrik) and anatomist Richard Owen (Matthew Radford). While they insist that " to destroy manís unique status is to open the floodgates to anarchy, " Darwin cheerfully continues to investigate and examine. Along the way, we get thoughtful observations from Stephen Jay Gould, Tufts professor Daniel C. Dennett, and Darwin biographer James Moore. BU professor Chris Schneider goes to the rain forest to explore how changing environments can trigger new species. Back in Staffordshire, Charles woos and wins his first cousin Emma (Jane Cunliffe), whoís more interested in Jane Austen and Chopin than in the origin of species. Moving forward to the present again, we learn how viruses like HIV evolve to resist eradication, and how science can use that information to help patients. The evolution of the eye ó something that worried Darwin ó is demonstrated. But he suffers a personal tragedy: the death of his daughter Annie (Eleanor Ogbourne), James Moore tells us, " destroyed Christianity in Darwin. " Can evolution and God co-exist? Kenneth Miller, describing himself as an " orthodox Catholic and orthodox Darwinist, " says yes; Daniel Dennett disagrees, arguing that existence emerged " from the bottom up, " no God required. Meanwhile, Darwin, spurred on by competition from Alfred Russell Wallace, finally publishes (and has a nightmare in which heís hanged for heresy); Richard Owen calls it nihilism. Darwin dies in 1882; his friends see to it that heís interred in Westminster Abbey. " Darwinís vision of nature was, I believe, fundamentally a religious vision, " James Moore concludes, and he reads from the end of The Origin of Species in support.

What follows, however, is a tough, uncomforting look at the evolutionary nitty-gritty. Asking how did whales wind up in water, " Great Transformations " takes us to Pakistan, the Sahara (looking for a basilosaurus with legs), Pennsylvania (a 370-million-year-old tetrapod), and Greenland, revealing that some fish had fingers. We go from large to small: fruit flies, genetic instructions, and the Nobel PrizeĖwinning discovery that a mouseís eye gene can produce a normal eye in a fruit fly. " Extinction! " tells us that 95 to 99 percent of species die out in the normal order of things. We look at the sudden end of the Permian, 230 million years ago, when sea levels dropped and temperatures rose (a comet?), and then at the end of the Cretaceous, 65 million years ago, when the dinosaurs disappeared (an asteroid?). Even more sobering is the evidence that weíve become one of lifeís major extinguishers ó not just by destroying habitat in places like Thailand, but in the way our mobile way of life transports pests like the zebra mussel (which costs us $4 billion a year). In the concluding segment, weíre reminded that pests have their own natural enemies: Midwestern farmers start to get control of leafy spurge (which infests pastures) by bringing in beetles from Russia.

" The Evolutionary Arms Race " shows how the improper and indiscriminate use of antibiotics has left us newly vulnerable to diseases like tuberculosis, which is spreading though Russian prisons in a multi-resistant form and is easily communicated when inmates are released. We see how an epidemic could erupt in New York City. Yet we also see how cholera might be made less toxic, how wild cats survive feline immune deficiency, and how bacteria can be beneficial as well as harmful once we learn how to shape evolution. " Why Sex? " explains that the genetic variety that sex creates keeps attackers from homing in on the genetic formula (thereís a warning about cloning in there). We get an amusing animated segment where two primordial strangers exchange genes in the night; then we see a Mae Westy egg (finicky because eggs are a big investment in energy) hip-checking an amorous sperm. But thereís not much romance in this account of how men compete and women choose, how as many as 40 percent of songbirds cheat on their mates to get better genes.

On to the caves of France and the plains of East Africa to learn, in " The Mindís Big Bang, " why early humans spent thousands of hours making beads that helped express social relationships, and how brain came to be more important than brawn. Deaf children in Nicaragua create their own sign language ó and itís not a simple one; English Darwinist Richard Dawkins suggests that weíre experiencing a cultural evolution in which memes ó units of information ó self-replicate like genes. Could this lead to a revolt against biological evolution?

Evolution is a dizzying tour that takes us all over the world and packs its engaging episodes with food for thought. Itís an Achievement. But even eight hours canít do more than scratch the surface when it comes to explaining " the change over time of all living things. " Evolution espouses the neo-Darwinist synthetic (that is, Darwinism combined with Mendelian genetics) view thatís been orthodox among biologists throughout the past century. It doesnít ask whether Darwinism might encompass more than Jacques Monodís " necessity and blind chance " ; it doesnít mention mavericks like Richard Milton and Rupert Sheldrake. In part, thatís because Western culture, which historically balanced between Aristotelean nominalism (objects as the only reality) and Platonic idealism (ideas as the only reality), has become wholly nominalist ó and of all the sciences, biology is the most materialistic and least holistic. In that regard, itís ironic that Richard Dawkins should be talking about the rise of memes: isnít this the triumph of ideas (non-religious, of course) over genes?

And maybe thatís why the last installment of Evolution, " What About God? " , is a minor disappointment. Liam Neeson begins by asking whether " the majesty of our earth " and " the beauty of life " are " the result of a natural process called evolution or the work of a divine creator? " Why is this an either/or question? The hour focuses on an evangelical church in Canton, Ohio ( " I donít believe in evolution/I know creation is true, " goes one hymn), a conservative Christian college ó Wheaton ó in Illinois, and a high school in Lafayette, Indiana, where the students want creationism taught along with evolution. In the end, the high-school board says no, and at least some of the Wheaton students manage to reconcile science and Genesis ( " God is bigger than the box I put him in, " says one), but the entire installment is given over to the concerns of evangelical Christianity; thereís nothing here for non-evangelical Christians, Jews, or any other faith, no mention of the writings of Kenneth Miller (Finding Darwinís God) or John F. Haught (God After Darwin) or Beatrice Bruteau (Godís Ecstasy). Itís true that science and religion have gone their very different ways in America ó still, even with just one hour, Evolution might have done more to bring them together. PBS and WGBH have given us a must-see introduction to Darwin, but the journey is just beginning.

Issue Date: September 20 - 27, 2001