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Probe Ministries > Faith and Science > Origins > PBS Evolution Series


PBS Evolution Series Print E-mail

Written by Dr. Ray Bohlin

Darwin's Dangerous Idea

Some evolutionists are definitely worried. Creation, intelligent design and a general dissent concerning Darwinian evolution continue to gain ground--so much so that a deliberate counterattack has been launched. Using scientists from around the world, professional defenders of evolution, beautiful nature photography, computer graphics and simulations, the prestige of the PBS NOVA series and the financial backing of Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, a monumental defense and celebration of evolution has been produced.

The new PBS Evolution Series is a seven part, eight hour documentary originally aired on PBS stations around the country in late September of 2001 and rebroadcast in May and June of 2002. Accompanying the video series is an interactive Web site, 360-page companion book, coordinated teacher training and education, and a determined publicity campaign aimed at getting the series into the nation's high schools.

The explicit goals of the series are to help students understand the critical importance of evolutionary theory in understanding so many scientific and health issues of today--from AIDS to antibiotic resistance to fighting agricultural pests to even how we choose a sexual partner. The producers set out to establish the overwhelming evidence behind evolution and the soundness of the science behind it. They specifically sought to pursue solid science journalism and forego the religious realm.

Essentially, the series has failed on all counts. This beautiful documentary is loaded with speculation, exaggerated evidence and claims, glossing over of legitimate controversy, and a persistent hostility towards any religious perspective deemed incompatible with evolution.

Episode One begins with a dramatization of a conversation between Charles Darwin and Captain Robert Fitzroy of the HMS Beagle in South America as Darwin is purchasing a fossil. The fictitious conversation clearly pokes fun at the Biblical account of the flood. Darwin was nowhere near as skeptical as portrayed, and Fitzroy was nowhere near as literal either. This opening scene lays the groundwork for a continual assault on history and the evidence to make evolution look as positive as possible and opponents of evolution as silly as possible.

This two-hour opening episode crosses paths with religion several more times in discussions of the philosophical meaning of evolution in an interview of Kenneth Miller, a Darwin defender who finds no incompatibility between his Christian faith and Darwinian evolution. In this opening episode the producers present a confusing contradiction. On the one hand Darwin's dangerous idea precludes any true meaning to life and on the other hand, Darwinian evolution is completely compatible with an informed Christian faith. For more detailed analysis of this episode consult the Discovery Institute's free Viewer's guide available on the Internet at www.reviewevolution.com.

"Great Transformations" and "Extinction"

Perhaps the most foundational episode is Episode Two: The Great Transformations. One's expectation would be the presentation of numerous persuasive transitional forms demonstrating without doubt, the common ancestry of all life. Instead we are treated to a certainty based on the usual arguments from authority, selective fragmentary fossil evidence, and speculative molecular mechanisms.

The opening segment presents the mounting evidence for the amazing transition from a terrestrial wolf-like vertebrate to modern aquatic whales. Lots of fossils and reconstructions are paraded before us, unfolding the supposed story of whale evolution. Complete skeletons are pictured with no indication that they are based on very partial fossil finds. The overall transitional series is discussed with certainty despite the fact that evolutionists themselves admit that the known members of the transitional series are not thought to be the actual members of the transitional series but just representative of what the actual transitional species may have looked like.{1} Also missing is the admission that, by the very nature of fossils, it can never really be known if any one fossil was ancestral to another.

Also featured in this episode is the stunning Cambrian explosion of animal life forms featuring Simon Conway Morris. Morris freely admits that "this sudden appearance of the fossils led to this term, the Cambrian explosion. Darwin, as ever, was extremely candid, he said, Look, this is a problem for my theory. How is it that suddenly animals seem to come out of nowhere? And to a certain extent that is still something of a mystery." As the segment develops, no attempt is made to explore or resolve this mystery. The experts make only vague references to evolution tinkering with what already exists. But even tinkering is a design activity, design with a purpose. Natural selection would be better described as a blindfolded man trying to navigate a minefield.

Episode 3 explores the evolutionary significance of extinction. Both the great Permian extinction of 250 million years ago and the KT extinction of dinosaur fame of 65 million years ago are explored and make fascinating stories. Their relation to evolution is obscure, however. Mass extinctions supposedly open up the playing field for new and diverse species to evolve due to less competition. But Darwinian natural selection supposedly thrives on competition. The segments on biological invaders, while important in and of themselves, have little to add to the evolutionary debate. Biological control has been practiced for centuries with no knowledge of evolution.{2} Once again, we witness lots of authoritative posturing but little evidence for evolution.

"The Evolutionary Arms Race" and "Why Sex?"

For many years medical authorities have been warning of the dangers of infectious bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics. The overuse and misuse of antibiotics in western society has led to an increase in the number of strains of bacteria that are resistant to our primary defense against infection. In Episode Four of PBS's Evolution Series titled "The Evolutionary Arms Race," we are told this is evolution in action.

First, this statement leads to the conclusion that knowledge of evolution is essential to designing adequate health care. And second, labeling antibiotic resistance as evolution in action implicitly states that evolution is a fact, since antibiotic resistance is a fact. This is another case of a selective use of evidence. What the producers of Evolution don't say is that the mechanisms for antibiotic resistance have been known for years. Usually the capacity to resist antibiotics has always been in the bacterial population and does not result from mutation. Even when a mutation is responsible, a new function is never evolved, just the damaging of an existing function. Sometimes the mutation results in the antibiotic being expelled from the cell faster or taken in more slowly. This doesn't create a new species and doesn't fundamentally change the organism.

Another factor left out of the discussion is that antibiotic resistance always comes with a cost of its own. Antibiotic resistant bacteria are always inferior to the original wild-type bacteria. Their growth is stunted. Sometimes these costs can be compensated for but also at additional costs. Resistant bacteria are not better bacteria. Remove the antibiotic and they quickly lose out to the original wild-type bacteria. Therefore, to suggest that in the case of resistant tuberculosis that the bacteria evolved right inside the human host is highly misleading. The bacterial resistant forms were already present, the bacterium has not changed or evolved at all.

While the episode gives numerous examples of natural selection on a micro scale, the evidence discussed tells us nothing of how antibiotic resistance arose in the first place or how ants, molds, fungi, and bacteria first became intricately associated.

The fifth episode contains perhaps the least science and relevance to evolution, but will certainly be the most entertaining and even titillating for high school students. The episode "Why Sex" tries to ascertain the purpose and even evolution of sexual reproduction. While containing some helpful information and case studies, the program is full of speculative storytelling and an overload of sexual displays and sexual acts from fish to lizards, to birds, to chimpanzees and even a highly unnecessary and suggestive encounter between humans.

Also included is a highly controversial, yet factually presented discussion of evolutionary psychology and one researchers ideas that all forms of human artistic endeavors are little more than sexual displays. Some of their own previously used evolutionary experts would find most of this episode an incredible waste of time and money.

"The Mind's Big Bang" and "What About God?"

The uniqueness of human beings presents a difficult evolutionary puzzle. So much of who and what we are is categorically different from other animal species that trying to account for it by mutation and natural selection presents a tough challenge. In Episode Six, "The Mind's Big Bang," we unfortunately don't get much of an answer.

The episode begins by documenting the amazing human capacity for art in the caves of France. This launches a long series of segments that document the early appearance of artistic expression that has its roots in the development of tool making. Eventually this explosion of capacities rooted in the brain is traced to the remarkable development of human language. As in other episodes there is lots of speculation about the selective advantages of language, but this tells us nothing of how language evolved. The discussion gives the impression that if we can just discover what language is used for, we will know how it evolved. This is typical evolutionary story-telling masquerading as science.

The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language candidly admits that "For centuries, people have speculated over the origins of human language. . . . [but] the quest is a fruitless one. . . . We have no direct knowledge of the origins and early development of language, nor is it easy to imagine how such knowledge might ever be obtained."{3} The Discovery Institute's Viewers Guide also notes that we are told that language was the key to our becoming human. In Episode Two, however, we were told it was the ability to walk on two legs and in Episode Five it was using our brains to choose sexual partners. This confusion of "key events" exposes them for the speculation they truly are.{4}

The final episode "What About God?" reveals the entire series as the propaganda it is meant to be. Here we meet the old science vs. religion argument in all its glory. The Evolution producers go to great lengths to distort the controversy to their own ends. The Scopes trial and the Sputnik-induced revolution in science education are neatly packaged and distorted as science vs. religion. The inquiring and passionate science students and professors who have no quarrel with evolution are favorably portrayed against uneducated parents and naïve Bible literalists. Theistic evolutionist Keith Miller is pictured as a liberator to Wheaton College students who don't want to be perceived as unintelligent.

What becomes unmistakably clear in this episode is that the reigning naturalistic stranglehold on science education is to be maintained at all costs. Those who oppose it, risk being branded as dangerous or stupid or ignorant or all three. Censorship of facts contrary to evolution is justified in the name of science. The bottom line is that "It's OK for people to believe in God, as long as their beliefs don't conflict with Darwinian evolution. A religion that fully accepts Darwin's theory is good. All others are bad."{5}

The PBS Evolution Web Site

Located at www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution, the PBS Evolution Web site is a goldmine of information and teaching suggestions along with interactive games and exercises aimed at sharpening one's evolutionary skills. But visitors should also expect that much of the information contained here employs the same sleight of hand that the video series uses in relating evidence for evolution. With such a great volume of information available at the Evolution Web site, I will direct my attention to one article as an example. Under the main heading of "Change," an essay is offered critiquing Intelligent Design. The essay is authored by Kenneth Miller, a Brown University biology professor, featured in the first episode as a Roman Catholic who sees no problem with evolution.

The essay is titled "Life's Grand Design" and purports to explain how evolution accounts for the design of nature far better than an intelligent designer would. His entire discussion revolves around the design of the human eye.{6} On page one Miller presents the problem. The eye is exquisite in its design, accomplishing the wondrous effect of color vision with a very complicated design. How could it possibly have evolved one step at a time? On page two, Miller begins his response with the standard blind watchmaker explanation from Richard Dawkins. Miller emphasizes the gradual slight improvements and that all those that are positive will be selected. This is not necessarily true. It is well known that some genetic changes will be so slight that they do not offer a significant enough selective advantage and therefore, will be lost. Miller ignores the uncomfortable details.

Miller then describes how easy it would be to build an eye from just a few light-sensitive cells. But he starts with "light- sensitive cells." Where did these come from? How did they become light sensitive? The molecular mechanism of light sensitivity is quite complex and one of Michael Behe's examples of irreducible complexity. But once again Miller ignores the uncomfortable details. Miller states, "it is possible to draw a series of incremental changes that would lead directly to the lens and retina eye." But you know, I'm not interested in whether it can be drawn. I want to know how it would evolve biologically.

Finally Miller delivers the coup de grace; the eye exhibits design flaws that any engineer would never employ. You see, the human eye seems to have things a little backwards. The light- sensitive cells face the back of the eye or the retina, instead of the front of the eye where the light comes from. Therefore, the incoming light must pass through the nerve cells and blood vessels first, potentially distorting the image. Not only that, but the nerve cells eventually bunch together before punching through the retina en route to the brain, therefore creating a dangerous blind spot. Surely an intelligent designer wouldn't do it that way. The eye is therefore a great example of evolution at work. Evolution simply arrives at the best available solution.

But again, Miller ignores the details. He doesn't reveal that the layer of cells behind the nerve cells, behind the blood vessels and behind the photoreceptor cells, is an immensely important group of cells we will abbreviate as the RPE (Retinal Pigmented Epithelium). The RPE is necessarily in close proximity to the photoreceptor cells, the rods and cones, because the RPE replenishes the necessary molecules for vision. With the RPE at the very back of the retina, these cells act as an absorptive layer to get rid of excess light. Without the RPE we would be blinded by ordinary sunlight. Also the absorption of excess light sharpens our vision. So the designer has a dilemma. Both the nerves and blood vessels must be in front of the rods and cones or the RPE must be in front because both must be in direct contact with the photoreceptor cells and they all won't fit and function together. Something will get between the light and the light sensitive cells. Putting the blood vessels and nerves in front of the rods and cones creates a very mild light filter, but does create a blind spot where the nerves bundle together. However, putting the RPE between the light and the rods and cones would create a much more detrimental filter and diffusing agent. The vertebrate eye is structured properly when all factors are considered.

"The vertebrate eye provides an excellent example of functional-- though non-intuitive design. The design of the retina is responsible for its high acuity and sensitivity. It is simply untrue that the retina is demonstrably suboptimal, nor is it easy to conceive how it might be modified without significantly decreasing function."{7}

As we have seen in this essay, evolution can offer some impressive evidences on first glance. But time and time again, the intricacies of design are in the details.

Notes

1. The story of whale evolution has indeed grown more sophisticated over the last 10-15 years. Indeed, this was one transition that many creationists had a great deal of fun with. How could a land mammal evolve into a whale? How could the transitional forms possibly be functional on land or in water? If one were to scan the presumed transitional series (found on page 138 of Evolution by Carl Zimmer, Harper Collins, 2001) it is quite impressive evidence for evolution. The transitional series, while a little jerky with certain gaps remaining, appears gradual enough and the fossils seem to appear in the expected order and strata. But as always, the truth is in the details. Two recent articles investigate the evidence with some detail and rigor. Ashby Camp has written a fine summary (last modified March 11, 2002) and critique of the fossil evidence for whale evolution that is available from the TrueOrigins website at www.trueorigins.org/whales.asp. Also, John Woodmorappe has analyzed the mixture of characters in some of the whale-like fossils in his article "Walking whales, nested hierarchies, and chimeras: do they exist?" in TJ 16(1) 2002: 111-119. TJ was formerly Creation Ex Nihilo: Technical Journal.
    What we learn from these articles is that the true land mammal ancestor of whales is still in dispute. The pakicetids, the first "intermediate," are true land mammals with a few potential aquatic features in their inner ears. The next group known as ambulocetids show some aquatic features but other features distance them from actual whale ancestors. Many of these are not in the proper stratigraphic position. The pakicetids and ambulocetids are all less than 10 feet long; the fully marine Basilosaurus are all over 50 feet in length. Even by evolutionary standards there isn't enough time between these species to evolve even this simple increase in length. None of the species depicted on page 138 of Evolution are thought to be actual ancestors of modern whales. The diagram is actually drawn to indicate this fact but most people looking at it won't come away with that impression. Each species is diagrammed as an offshoot of the lineage but not an actual transitional form. How come we always find just "types" of ancestors and never the ancestors themselves? Some character or another always disqualifies the intermediate in question. There seems to be a deeper lesson here that most evolutionists are unwilling to face.

2. The documentation of human interference in the ecosystems of Hawaii and Thailand are summed up with a plea to slow down the rate of human induced extinction and allow nature to take its own more natural and easy-paced course. This implies, however, that humans are somehow outside the loop of nature. If we are just another biological species, then we are only acting according to our own biological nature. How or why should this be suppressed? As in past mass extinctions, the strong, opportunistic and lucky will survive. Perhaps that includes us, perhaps not. In the naturalistic worldview of the series, what's the difference? This is another example of stealthily applying a Christian worldview that gives intrinsic value to nature while maintaining the guise of naturalism. In a naturalistic worldview, nature just is. Choosing to interfere on nature's behalf indicates intrinsic value and worth that can only come from outside nature itself. In the Christian worldview, this comes from God.

3. David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, Second Edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 6,290.

4. www.reviewevolution.com, p. 92.

5. Ibid, p. 107.

6. www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/change/grand/, p. 1-6.

7. George Ayoub, On the design of the vertebrate retina, Origins and Design, Vol. 17(1): 19-22. This article can also be found on the web at www.arn.org/docs/odesign/od171/retina171.htm.

©2002 Probe Ministries


About the Author

Dr. Ray BohlinRaymond G. Bohlin is Vice President of Vision Outreach at Probe Ministries. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois (B.S., zoology), North Texas State University (M.S., population genetics), and the University of Texas at Dallas (M.S., Ph.D., molecular biology). He is the co-author of the book The Natural Limits to Biological Change, served as general editor of Creation, Evolution and Modern Science, co-author of Basic Questions on Genetics, Stem Cell Research and Cloning (The BioBasics Series), and has published numerous journal articles. Dr. Bohlin was named a Research Fellow of the Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture in 1997, 2000 and 2012.

What is Probe?

Probe Ministries is a non-profit ministry whose mission is to assist the church in renewing the minds of believers with a Christian worldview and to equip the church to engage the world for Christ. Probe fulfills this mission through our Mind Games conferences for youth and adults, our 3-minute daily radio program, and our extensive Web site at www.probe.org.

Further information about Probe's materials and ministry may be obtained by contacting us at:

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