PBS’ “Evolution” generates a debate

The PBS documentary “Evolution” has generated a cultural debate that its producers expected.

Critics of the eight-hour production issued a poll to try to prove the public disagreed with the program, which was the fall’s top opener Monday on public television.

The Discovery Institute, a public policy organization in Seattle, commissioned a public poll finding that eight in 10 Americans said a public television program on evolution should present scientific arguments for it, “but also the scientific evidence against it.”

The Institute has argued that the “Evolution” series does not cover scientific criticism of Darwinian theory, which holds that random mutation and natural selection produced nature’s complexity.

“Public television producers are clearly at odds with overwhelming public sentiment in favor of hearing all scientific sides of the debate,” said institute President Bruce Chapman.

The series’ executive producer, Richard Hutton, who heads the science unit at WGBH Boston, said yesterday that viewer numbers are not yet in, but reviews have “been largely wonderful.”

“We’re getting a lot of questions from viewers,” he said of the series, which ends tonight. “I hope this series helps people understand what evolution is.”

The series has an interactive Web site that offers, among other things, advice to educators on dealing with student “misconceptions” about evolution and on how teachers and administrators can respond effectively to disputes on the issue.

The Zogby International poll commissioned by the Discovery Institute found that 71 percent of those surveyed agree that biology teachers should include “scientific evidence against” Darwin’s theory. The survey of 1,202 adults in late August has a three-point margin of error.

Other organizations are opposing the “Evolution” series. The creationist group Answers in Genesis has dedicated its Web site to discussing the “evolution assault” by PBS. Hugh Ross, an astronomer and founder of the science ministry group Reasons to Believe, has been on talk-radio shows this week responding to each episode.

Mr. Chapman believes the producers of the documentary “want people to think that the only criticism of Darwin’s theory today is from religious fundamentalists,” he said. “They routinely try to stigmatize scientists who question Darwin as ‘creationists.'”

The producers of “Evolution” had asked Discovery Institute scientists to appear on the last segment, “What About God?” But Mr. Chapman said they would only cooperate if their scientists could dissent on camera during the scientific episodes.

The Discovery Institute also circulated a list of 100 scientists who are “skeptical” of the Darwinian theory of evolution. “Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged,” said the statement.

One signer, chemist Henry Schaefer, a five-time Nobel nominee, said, “Some defenders of Darwinism embrace standards of evidence for evolution that as scientists they would never accept in other circumstances.”

The “Evolution” series is based on cases of scientists producing evidence for Darwin’s theory. The disagreements among the scientists are over such questions as when reptiles got fingers, whether a group of genes dictates animal shapes and whether cooperation can drive evolution.

PBS’ “Evolution” Web site, which features audio and visual lessons, games and animation, will remain online after the series ends.

The Discovery Institute’s Web site also has information on the documentary, posting a “viewer’s guide” on the PBS episodes.

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