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First episode of ‘Evolution’ rewrites history, scholar says

SEATTLE (BP)–In the first episode of its series “Evolution,” PBS “rewrites history to fit a pre-determined religious stereotype,” according to the Seattle-based Discovery Institute public policy center.

The episode, “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,” which aired Sept. 24, errors when it “portrays all of Darwin’s critics during the 19th century as biblical literalists whose objections to Darwin’s theory were motivated by religion rather than science,” according to the Discovery Institute’s www.discovery.org website.

Discovery Institute senior fellow John West, an associate professor of political science at Seattle Pacific University, is quoted on the institute’s website as saying, “In fact, much of the initial controversy over Darwin’s theory focused on the scientific shortcomings of the theory. Since [PBS’] ‘Evolution’ purports to be about science, not religion, it is strange that it virtually ignores the scientific controversy sparked by Darwin and replaces it with a hackneyed story of fundamentalists battling science.”

While most scientists during Darwin’s time eventually became persuaded that evolution occurred, West said many of them sharply disputed Darwin’s claim that evolution was driven by an unguided process of natural selection acting on random variations. “They didn’t see evidence that natural selection acting on random variations could produce all of the intricate complexity we see in the natural world,” West said.

“As a result, leading scientists such as Charles Lyell and St. George Mivart advocated a type of guided evolution that flatly contradicted Darwin’s core thesis,” West said. “Even Alfred Wallace, who shared credit with Darwin for proposing the theory of evolution by natural selection, doubted that natural selection alone could explain the development of the human brain.”

Scientific objections to Darwin’s theory became so severe that by the turn of the century Darwin’s version of evolution was held in disrepute by much of the scientific community, West said. According to historian Peter Bowler, Darwin’s theory “had slipped in popularity to such an extent that by 1900 its opponents were convinced it would never recover,” but was revived after the laws of genetics became more clearly understood in the 20th century.

Stephen Meyer, a Cambridge-trained philosopher of science who directs the Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, said, “The real story doesn’t fit the stereotype of a war between religious fundamentalists and science. But the producers of ‘Evolution’ have chosen to perpetuate the stereotype at the expense of historical accuracy. They clearly want to tell a kind of morality tale. That’s unfortunate, because the real story is a lot richer and more fascinating than the cliché presented by PBS.”

The PBS series blurs the line between fact and fiction by inventing scenes that never actually happened, Meyer added. “For example, the first episode shows Charles Darwin’s brother Erasmus lampooning the classic hymn ‘Rock of Ages’ during a church service. But the scene is a complete fabrication, supported by no evidence whatsoever,” Meyer said. “The same is true of some of the scenes between Darwin and Capt. Robert Fitzroy during the famous voyage of the [H.M.S.] Beagle. PBS should have to explain its resort to fictionalized history.”

Mark Hartwig, science and worldview editor for Focus on the Family, recounted the scene on Focus on the Family’s www.family.org website, in which Darwin purchases a fossil from a South American herdsmen. As Darwin is cleaning it, he muses, “I wonder why these creatures no longer exist?” When Fitzroy speculates that Noah’s ark was perhaps too small to allow them entry, Darwin laughs. In response, Fitzroy asks, “What is there to laugh at?”

“Oh, nothing, nothing,” Darwin replies. An offended Fitzroy retorts, “Do you mock me — or the Bible?”

Hartwig noted: “This makes a good story, but it didn’t happen. At the time, FitzRoy’s views weren’t all that different from Darwin’s. Of course, a scene with Darwin and Fitzroy enthusiastically chatting about the fossils would have ruined the stereotype. So the facts had to go.”
Compiled by Art Toalston.

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