Evolution on Television - October 2001

The PBS Evolution Series

It wasn't about science. It was an attempt to use evolutionary pseudo-science to support certain philosophical ideas.

Last month, PBS presented a seven-part, eight-hour series of programs entitled “Evolution”. The first installment was two hours long. The remaining six installments were one hour each.

It is difficult for us to comment on this series because we like to discuss the theory of evolution from a scientific point of view. The PBS series was primarily devoted to advancing certain religious and political ideas. There wasn’t very much science in it. Evolution was assumed to be true, and was presented as proof for the validity of particular religious and political opinions.

One of the questions we sometimes get in the mail is, “If science is against evolution, why don’t all scientists reject it?” This PBS series illustrated the answer to that question. Scientists are people, and people have opinions about religious and political issues. The theory of evolution supports certain religious and political ideas. Rejection of evolution would place those philosophical ideals in jeopardy. Therefore, evolution is accepted despite its lack of scientific support because it is in harmony with cherished philosophical beliefs.

It is not our intention to debate the merits of the religious and political ideas espoused by the PBS Evolution series. We merely want to point out specific examples of how this television program was not a scientific review of the evidence for and against the theory of evolution. Instead, it was an attempt to use evolutionary pseudo-science to support philosophical opinions.

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea

Clearly, one main objective for this series was to try to convince people that evolution is compatible with Christianity. The first two-hour segment was about “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.” It focused primarily on Darwin himself. It talked about Darwin’s religious training. It ended by pointing out that Darwin was such a great Christian that he was buried in Westminster Abby. Like all the other installments in this series, they tried very hard to diffuse opposition to the theory of evolution by saying that it really is compatible with mainstream Christianity.

Our corporate position is that any argument as to whether or not evolution is compatible with Christianity is irrelevant from a scientific point of view. The National Center for Science Education says that evolution is compatible with a belief in the Bible. Answers In Genesis says it isn’t. Regardless of which side you take, it is a religious opinion, not a scientific fact. Buddhists and Hindus probably don’t care if evolution agrees with the Bible or not. Our position is that the theory of evolution should be evaluated by how well it agrees with experimental science, not with any particular religious belief.

Some stories are repeated so often that people come to accept them as fact, without proof. The first installment of the Evolution series served up a steady diet of false statements, expecting them to be swallowed without question. For example, they said that a changing environment triggers evolution, but they gave no evidence to support the statement. In fact, they showed in the subsequent “Extinction” episode that environmental destruction hadn’t produced any new species.

PBS said that, “Given enough time and innumerable small changes, anything can take place.” They claimed that fossils show that humans and apes have a common ancestor, but they didn’t substantiate the claim (because they can’t).

Mostly, they talked about microevolution in the first episode. PBS used hummingbirds as an example. Creationists and evolutionists agree that there are varieties of hummingbirds with longer and shorter beaks, as PBS showed in the broadcast.

The difference is that creationists would say that hummingbirds were created with enough genetic variability that they can adapt to their environment. Creationists offer experiments involving the selective breeding of dogs, horses, pigeons, and agricultural crops, as proof that genetic combination can result in great, but limited, variety. Creationists can’t, however, prove that the genes were originally created by God. That must be accepted by faith.

Evolutionists, on the other hand, say that hummingbirds evolved from dinosaurs in reaction to a changing environment. They merely stated, without proof, that since all living things have DNA, all must have had a common ancestor. That is an assertion that must be accepted by faith.

Great Transformations

This led naturally to the second installment, which was titled, “Great Transformations.” Ironically, they spent most of this hour talking out of both sides of their mouths. In one breath they would argue that the remarkable similarity of species indicates a common ancestor. Then, in the next breath, they would talk about how remarkably different species are, which indicates how powerful evolution must be. So, similarity is proof of evolution, and difference is proof of evolution. No wonder they see everything as proof of evolution.

They tried to claim that there is fossil evidence for whale evolution. They showed a couple of fossil fragments, and told the marvelous story about how something like a wolf evolved into a whale, admitting that it was a “real puzzle” how it happened. They didn’t go into nearly as much detail as we did in our August, 1999, essay titled, “In a Whale of Trouble”. If they had, viewers would have realized how flimsy the evidence really is.

Before watching this episode we knew that evolution is the creation myth of atheism. What we didn’t know was that evolution is at the foundation of the New Age movement. In this episode, PBS introduced the idea that since we all have a common ancestor, we are all related. People are no more “highly evolved” than our brothers and sisters, the animals and plants. We are just differently evolved. We should celebrate our diversity, and respect all animals and plants as our equals.

Extinction

“Great Transformations” was immediately followed by the Extinction episode, which continued the New Age theme. Since all living things are united by a common ancestor, we should save the environment. The fossil record shows that there have been great episodes of mass extinction, but none so potentially devastating as the mass extinction that is being caused by man. Man needs to stop doing so many terrible things to Mother Earth and save the planet.

Biblical creationists say that there has been one great mass extinction, in which only a boatload of creatures survived. Furthermore, they would agree that another great mass extinction is looming on the horizon, and that man is certainly responsible for it.

So, there is the New Age belief in past extinction and coming future extinction caused by man’s evil actions. There is also the Christian belief in past extinction and coming future extinction caused by man’s evil actions. Both beliefs are consistent with the discovery of fossils of many species that now no longer exist. Why did PBS present the New Age belief as fact without mentioning the Christian belief? What makes the New Age belief “scientific,” and the Christian belief “religious?”

This episode failed to address a serious problem for the theory of evolution. At one time, they say, there was only one living thing. That common ancestor evolved into many different species. Therefore, the rate at which new species evolved had to have exceeded the rate at which species went extinct. (The mathematical proof is left as an exercise for the reader.) Now, however, the rate of evolution of new species is apparently zero, and has been for all of recorded history. Yet species are going extinct rapidly. What changed? They claimed that changes in the environment trigger evolution, but what evidence do they have to support that claim? Certainly the changes we see in the environment today result in extinction of species, not creation of new ones.

Ironically, much of this episode was devoted to a census of animals in a remote part of the world. The scientists set up hidden motion-sensing cameras that took pictures of shy animals. It turned out that the cameras not only took pictures of shy animals, they also took pictures of shy poachers. The cameras that weren’t as well hidden were taken by the poachers. But, they did get some pictures of endangered animals, and were reassured that they weren’t extinct yet. They did not get any pictures of newly evolved animals. Despite this, their joyful conclusion was, “evolution is going on around us.” Actually, the correct conclusion is that extinction is not going on as rapidly as they feared.

The Arms Race

The next episode talked about a certain poisonous newt. This newt, they said, is far more poisonous than it needs to be. (The implication is that an intelligent creator would not have made it so poisonous.) They wondered why such a potent poison would evolve. Then they discovered that garter snakes eat them and don’t die from the poison. So, apparently, the newts aren’t really poisonous enough.

Their explanation is that newts evolved a mild poison, and snakes evolved a resistance to the mild poison. So, the newts evolved more toxic poison, and snakes evolved more resistance. They said this “arms race” has continued to the present day.

It is an interesting story, but what is the evidence for it? Do they have samples of poison taken from newts 500 years ago? Have they compared the toxicity of those old samples with the toxicity of poisons from modern newts? If so, they didn’t mention it, and we haven’t heard about it. It is merely an assumption resulting from circular reasoning. Certainly the common ancestor wasn’t poisonous. Poison this toxic could not have evolved all at once. Therefore, it must have evolved slowly over time. Then PBS used the fact that newts evolved poison slowly as evidence for evolution.

This was used as a springboard for the advancement of yet another fear-based political agenda. The evil, greedy drug companies charge too much money for drugs that fight tuberculosis and HIV. If we don’t send free drugs to Russian prisons, then TB will spread to the United States, and we will all be wiped out.

Their explanation of how TB evolves in this episode (and the explanation of how AIDS evolved in the first episode) really showed that bacteria doesn’t evolve. Populations of bacteria evolve, but new kinds of bacteria don’t. This was clearly shown by their example.

They showed a petri dish representing some TB bacteria. There were several varieties of the bacteria, shown in different colors. Drugs killed all but the green ones. So, in the end, they had a strain of TB consisting entirely of the green, drug-resistant variety. The population changed from multicolored to monochrome, but no new colors evolved. They merely caused some existing forms to go extinct without replacing them with anything new.

Their example of drug interruption therapy for HIV illustrates an important point that PBS chose to ignore. It has been noted by some people that the “super bugs” (the most drug resistant bacteria), tend to exist primarily in hospitals. There is an explanation for this observation which is consistent with the facts.

According to this explanation, ordinary bacteria don’t survive well in the antiseptic environment of a hospital. Only the antiseptic-resistant varieties are able to survive there. The reason why they survive is that they don’t absorb antibiotics very well. The reason why they don’t absorb antibiotics very well is that they don’t absorb anything well, including nutrients. Outside the hospital environment, they have to compete with other bacteria that do absorb nutrients well. Consequently, the super bugs starve to death when they have to compete with ordinary bacteria because they are less fit for survival under normal circumstances.

That, according to the theory, is why drug interruption therapy sometimes works for AIDS patients. Stopping the drug treatment for a while allows the non-resistant HIV virus to compete with the drug-resistant HIV virus. The resistant HIV loses the competition to the ordinary HIV. Once the resistant strain has lost the battle of survival, then large doses of the HIV drug are given to wipe out the ordinary variants of HIV.

Drugs do not create new forms of viruses or bacteria. Drugs merely eliminate some variants, allowing existing variants to become more plentiful. It is the relative numbers of the various kinds of critters that change, not the critters themselves.

Why Sex?

This was perhaps the most disappointing episode. We hoped that they would try to explain how asexual creatures evolved into sexual ones. This is one of the most difficult problems for the theory of evolution to address. Someday we will devote a feature article to it.

PBS ducked the question we wanted them to try to answer. They said the “origin of sex is speculative,” and then showed a cartoon of bacteria wearing lipstick exchanging genes with each other.

Instead of answering the question, “Why did Sex Evolve?” they answered the question, “Why is Sex So Good?” The short answer, which creationists embrace as heartily as evolutionists, is that it preserves the diversity and purity of the gene pool. We could expand on that idea at length, but we are saving that discussion for a future essay.

The PBS episode, as usual, spent most of its time on a couple of philosophical discussions. One was the feminist question, “Are men really necessary?” PBS took the position that although men aren’t really necessary, they are often useful.

The second philosophical argument that PBS tried to make is that sex explains the meaning of life. When you get right down to it, people are the means by which human DNA produces more human DNA. In their opinion, the only reason we are on this earth is to create more human DNA.

The Mind Big Bang

The final two episodes of the series were “The Mind Big Bang” and “What About God?”. By this time, they had dropped any pretense of trying to be scientific. These last two episodes were all-out religious offensives. (And many people would consider them to be pretty offensive.)

The premise of “The Mind Big Bang” was that the only reason we even care about religion is because of an evolutionary accident. All the other animals, even our close relatives, the monkeys, never evolved a need for religion. It was just an accidental fluke that our minds thought up art, and music, and religion. Maybe if this hadn’t happened, we would be more in tune with our brothers and sisters the animals, and be nicer to Mother Earth.

What About God?

The final episode asserted, several times in several ways, that the only reason not to believe in evolution is religious prejudice. The only hint that there might be any scientific evidence against evolution was the statement that creationists “use carefully selected scientific evidence to support their claims.” We wondered why they said the evidence was “carefully selected?” Were they trying to distinguish it from the carelessly selected evidence evolutionists use? Do they think there is virtue in selecting data carelessly?

According to PBS, Eugenie C. Scott’s National Center for Science Education is trying to “protect the future of science education.” She, along with an Indiana school board, “preserved the integrity of the Jefferson High science curriculum.” It was absolutely laughable.

PBS video taped a presentation by Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis. Answers in Genesis believes in creation on the basis of the Bible and scientific evidence. Totally ignoring all the scientific evidence Answers in Genesis presented, PBS used misleading excerpts to create the false impression that the only reason Answers in Genesis doesn’t believe in evolution is some silly religious belief.

PBS, in an attempt to defuse public opposition to the teaching of evolution in public schools, kept hammering away at the theme that evolution and Christianity can coexist peacefully. Of course, if they really believed that, they would have no objection to teaching Christian explanations for the origin of species in science classes. But they do object because they know full well that there is a conflict.

The climax of the series consisted of interviews with students and teachers at a liberal Christian college that teaches evolution. Parents of one of the students were ridiculed for being concerned that evolution might destroy their son’s faith.

It was perfectly clear from the Evolution series that PBS wants to disguise political and religious opinions as scientific fact. They want to teach these philosophic ideas without any opposition. From their point of view, that’s what the creation versus evolution controversy is all about.

Reruns

The series will almost certainly be shown again on PBS. Look for it to appear shortly before a school board election in an area where evolution in the public schools is an issue. Watch it with this review in hand. See if what we have said is accurate or not. Look hard for any scientific support for the theory of evolution. What little evidence they cite can just as easily support creation. On the other hand, you won’t have to look hard for the religious and political agenda this series promotes. It isn’t very well disguised.

From their point of view, it isn’t about science at all. It is all about religion. They are fighting to keep their philosophical indoctrination in the public schools.

Despite what they say, evolution isn’t vital to the science curriculum. We didn’t beat the Russians to the moon because we put evolution in our science curriculum, as PBS implied. Evolution isn’t the basis of science. The theory of evolution is a cancerous growth on science that needs to be cut off.

If there had been good scientific evidence favoring evolution, PBS would have shown it. If the theory of evolution had been instrumental in any beneficial advance of science, PBS would have shown it. Instead, PBS showed how the theory of evolution is an essential component of atheism, New Age religion, and certain political causes.

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