To put the [recent] seven-part PBS series “Evolution” in perspective, think
fat. Dietary fat.
For decades folks in white coats have confidently assured the public that
shunning fatty foodsbacon and eggs, butter, steakwould make for
longer, healthier lives. Well, guess what? In “The Soft Science of Dietary
Fat,” published in the March 30 issue of the leading journal Science,
science writer Gary Taubes recounts a situation eerily suggestive of Woody
Allen’s movie Sleeper. In one scene of the 1970s film, a doctor of the
future is incredulous when told that 20th-century medicine considered fatty
foods and other dietary taboos to be unhealthy. “Precisely the opposite of
what we now know to be true,” he muses.
Not exactly the opposite, but certainly different. Taubes reports that
several very large studies designed to nail down the link between leaner
cuisine and longer life have given ambiguous results. Worse, the link never
was strong in the first place. Rather, through the combined influence of
some zealous scientists and crusading bureaucrats, as well as the ascendancy
of a less-is-more philosophy, in the 1970s, cholesterola substance found
naturally in every cell in your bodywas labeled “bad for you.” The
message, sclerosed into dogma, was taught to school children and consumers
throughout the land.
Whatever future work on nutrition may find, here are two questions to keep
in mind while watching “Evolution”:
- If it’s so difficult to pinpoint the causes of a single, very specific biological processheart disease in modern humanswhere you can study living specimens who walk into your laboratory, then why shouldn’t we expect to have considerably more trouble identifying the causes of the general development of life in the distant past?
- If, in the teeth of uncertain or contradictory data, social forces in science and society manufactured a consensus about what constitutes a good diet, why shouldn’t we expect much more pressure to impose an artificial consensus about who we are and where we come from?
The PBS series is oblivious to the first question and is part of the problem
with the second. Natural selection, we are serenely and frequently assured,
must behas to bethe cause of evolution. But the evidence we are shown
is as thin as a fat-free meal. We learn that the premier evidence that
natural selection built all of biology is HIVthe virus that causes AIDS.
You see, HIV mutates and becomes resistant to drugs, so evolution happens!
What need for further questions? No one involved with the series seems to
have noticed that, after repeated mutation, fierce competition and natural
selection of an enormous number of viral particles in many millions of
sufferers, we still have HIVnot a discernibly different virus. So does
this actually demonstrate the limits to natural selection, rather than
unlimited possibilities? And can we really extrapolate the results of simple
drug-resistance in a virus to the development of enormously complex
biological traits in every phylum throughout time? The film doesn’t go
there. “Evolution” entertains no doubts.
The essential mark of an unbiased presentation is whether it addresses
opposing views accurately, in their strongest forms. Propaganda, on the
other hand, ignores or caricatures its opponents, or gives weak,
watered-down renditions of their arguments. “Evolution” trumpets not just
evolution (descent with modification) in general, but Darwinism (random
mutation and natural selection) in particular. Yet the show can’t even bring
itself to mention that some scientists and academicsplus the vast
majority of the publicare profoundly skeptical of natural selection as
the driver of evolution. For example, consider Stuart Kauffman. Kauffman is
one of the leading lights in a group of scientists exploring complexity
theoryroughly, the idea that complex systems can organize themselvesexplicitly as an alternative to natural selection. His work has been widely
discussed both in scientific and popular periodicals. But no mention is made
of Kauffman or his colleagues in the seven-hour series. On the screen, the
only people who doubt Darwinism are biblical literalists.
And that’s the take-home message. While ostensibly about science, it’s plain
that the overriding purpose of the seriesfinanced in its entirety by
Microsoft billionaire Paul Allenis to change people’s religious beliefs.
The series wallows in religionfrom the fictional opening scene, where
Robert FitzRoy, captain of the H.M.S. Beagle, banters with Charles Darwin
about Noah’s Ark, through the choice of Handel’s Messiah as a supposed
example of human creativity driven by sexual selection, to the closing
program “What About God?” Through many, many unsubtle clues, we learn there
is good religionincarnated in a down-the-line Darwinist professor shown
receiving communionand bad religionrepresented by fundamentalist Ken
Ham, whose supporters are shot in choir robes and sing their objections to
evolution. Good religion cheerfully accommodates Darwinism. Bad religion
Early in the series, Boston University biologist Chris Schneider remarks
that the sweep of evolution “stirs the soul.” (But the souls of traditional
believers are shaken, not stirred.) My advice is, beware of scientists with
stirred souls! If they can go off half-cocked to give you a healthy diet,
they surely will do so to give you a healthy soul. The best reaction to such
overweening concern might be to enjoy the many beautiful nature scenes in
“Evolution” while eating a cheeseburger.
Michael J. Behe is professor of Biological Sciences at Lehigh University in
Pennsylvania. He received his Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of
Pennsylvania in 1978. His current research involves delineation of design
and natural selection in discrete subsystems of DNA replication. In addition
to publishing over 35 articles in refereed biochemical journals he has also
written editorial features in The New York Times, Boston Review, the
American Spectator and National Review. His book, “Darwin’s Black Box” (The
Free Press, 1996) discusses the implications for Neo-Darwinism of what he
calls “irreducibly complex” biochemical systems. The book, which went
through twelve printings before being issued in paperback, has been cited
and reviewed internationally in over one hundred publications, and was
recently named by National Review and World magazine as one of the one
hundred most important books of the 20th century. He has presented and
debated his work at various conferences, including at the State University
of New York, Stony Brook, the University of Notre Dame, Princeton
University, University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Cambridge University.
Besides many radio and television interviews, in 1997, he was featured on
two episodes of the PBS program Technopolitics.
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