Evolution | Notes & Review

Posted on December 26, 2008


This 4-part, 8 hour series by PBS and WBGH is a fascinating and well-done production that charts through the issue of evolution, its development and socio-cultural implications.



Part 1, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea charts the, shall we say, the “evolution” of Darwin’s ideas and thoughts in and through the science community in Britain, and his own personal life. Through confrontations with his colleagues and the worldview clashes with his wife, Charles Darwin wrestles with his ideas in the real world of politics, science, and religion. At the death of his daughter, Annie, Darwin begins to question God, His existence, and His goodness, and comes to the conclusion that Annie’s death was merely the result of the “natural selection” intrinsic in the universe. Some would argue, though, that the invocation of the word “Creator” at the end of his book Origin of Species is evidence that Darwin never fully rejected His faith.

This first part is a mixed interview documentary of several people listed below with a dramatization of the main events and people in Darwin’s life that influenced his decisions and his writings, and includes the famous 1860 debate between Thomas Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce. (here, Wikipedia, and apparently there was a Memorial Debate in 1986, and you can purchase the CD).

While clearly pro-Darwin, and a bit biased against the religious (though perhaps for good reason), this first installment was designed to simply lay out the argument for Darwin’s idea.

Daniel Dennett – Amazon
Stephen J. Gould – Amazon
Kenneth Miller – Amazon
David Page – MIT
James Moore – Darwin biographer | Darwin: The Life of a Tortured Evolutionist, The Post-Darwinian Controversies (Speaking of Faith program)
Sally Boysen – Ohio State

Part 2, Great Transformations

What underlies the incredible diversity of life on Earth? How have complex life forms evolved? The journey from water to land, the return of land mammals to the sea, and the emergence of humans all suggest that creatures past and present are members of a single tree of life.

The “Cambrian Explosion.” About 560 million years ago, an explosion of life, with great diversity. Evidenced by the 1915 discovery in the “Burgess Shale.”

And what is evolution tinkering with? Not the bodies, but the recipe for the bodies; the genes. What this means is that evolution works with “packets” of information to create new and diverse combinations. Animals resemble each other, because they all use the same genes, the same body plans.

Part 3, Extinction!

Why aren’t we dead yet? 90-95% of all species that have ever lived on this planet are extinct.

Five mass extinctions have occurred since life began on Earth. Are humans causing the next mass extinction? And what does evolutionary theory predict for the world we will leave to our descendants

Part 4, The Evolutionary Arms Race

This installment tracks the development and evolution of micro-organisms, the main killer of humans, observing that evolution is a result, not just of mere biology, but of dietary behavior, the hunter and the hunted. Humans in the past may have evolved to overcome that which preyed on us, however, we have yet to wing the battle to overcome that which preys within us. Just as evolution is the culprit of these micro-organisms developing resistance to the drugs we develop, so evolution could become the solution to “domesticate” these deadly diseases. Working with evolution, instead of against it, we may be able to win the battle against infectious disease.

One effort is focusing these principles on H.I.V., connecting it to the Bubonic Plague of the Middle Ages, suggesting that a strain of resistant genes developed among Europeans during that time to result in about 10% of today’s Caucasian population having an observed resistance to H.I.V.

Additionally, evolutionary theory looks at “symbiosis,” i.e., “cooperation,” the biological relationships of co-dependency that are critical to the survival of many species.

Part 5, Why Sex?

From an evolutionary perspective, sex may be more important than life itself. Sex and genes, and the protection of both is what connects us to every other living organism. The sex drive drives evolution.

Beginning with a unique species of female lizard that reproduces without the need of a male, a lizard that has mastered the art of cloning, it raises the question of “Why?” To an evolutionary biologist, this is a fundamentally important question. Why bother with the complexities of sexual reproduction, when cloning seems more preferable for evolution? Conclusively, males must matter. There must be some fundamental biological reason for sexual reproduction.

Essentially, that answer is the diverse variation that helps to promulgate survival in an ever changing world. Attraction is an evolutionary way of identifying, unconsciously, good genes that we would want to mix with our own, in order to promulgate our own genes through our progeny. This may help explain beauty.

However, I was ultimately unsatisfied with explaining how these processes spur the human species on to care for those who are not their own genes (e.g. adoption). There is still an anti-theistic thread that is a little too prevalent, and though I look forward to the last installment.

Part 6, The Mind’s Big Bang

The Mind’s Big Bang attempts to explain the development of the human mind was born. Through studying ancient stone art, some of it over 30,000 years ago, they address questions such as how humanity developed communication, culture, intellect, thought, ideas, language, and more. How did it happen? Beginning with hominids in Africa, the program charts the history of human evolution, the mind, culture, identity, and social interaction through the last 30-40,000 years.

I was disappointed with this installment because the arguments seemed weaker. They discuss the development of hominids and neanderthals, and their premise is that they are ancestral. Yet, in the program, they state that hominids became extinct. In the next line they suggest that neanderthals arose to take their place, and they provide the ancestry for modern homo sapiens. This line of explanation is more assumptive than explanatory.

Another angle of attempt is the study of monkeys and their cognitive abilities, even to grasp certain “concepts” like “0.”

Steven Pinker – MIT, Amazon
Rick Potts – Smithsonian Institute
Richard Klein – Stanford University, Amazon
Steve Kuhn – University of Arizona
Mary Stiner – University of Arizona
Randall White – New York University
Jean Jacques Hublin – University of Bordeaux I
John Shea – State University of New York
Michel Lorblanchet – Centre Nat. de la Recherche Scientifique
Richard Wrangham – Harvard University
Andrew Whiten – University of St. Andrews
Judy Kegl – University of Southern Maine
Richard Dawkins – Oxford University
Robin Dunbar – University of Liverpool
Sue Blackmore – University of West England

Part 7, What About God

What About God highlights the deep seated beliefs of Evangelical Christians and the contention between them and evolutionary theory. Real life families and students from Wheaton College share their personal wrestling with their inner convictions from their upbringing with the continued and the “evidences” that suggest evolutionary validity. Though some are strictly literal with the Bible, such as those like Ken Ham and his organization Answers in Genesis, the program was fairly respectful of the sides of the issue, representing them well, and concluding with the non-blatantly stated position that perhaps the two can co-exist in a harmony of sorts.

Ken Ham – Answers in Genesis
Nathan Baird (parents, Jim & Patti) – student, Wheaton College
Derek Chignell – Wheaton College
Emi Hayashi – student, Wheaton College
Walter Hearn – Biochemist and Writer (formerly of Wheaton College), Being a Christian in Science
Stanley Jones – Provost, Wheaton College
Keith Miller – Kansas State University
Peter Slayton – student, Wheaton College
Beth Stuebing – student, Wheaton College
Clare McKinney – Jefferson High School
Stephen Randak – Jefferson High School
Eugenie Scott – National Center for Science Education
The Genesis Flood – Henry Morris

Posted in: Religion, Reviews, Science