To put the upcoming 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 foods — bacon and eggs, butter, steak — would 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 1970’s 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, cholesterol — a substance found naturally in every cell in your body — was 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 process — heart disease in modern humans — where 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 be — has to be — the 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 HIV — the 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 HIV — not 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 academics — plus the vast majority of the public — are 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 theory — roughly, the idea that complex systems can organize themselves — explicitly 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 series — financed in its entirety by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen — is to change people’s religious beliefs. The series wallows in religion — from 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 religion — incarnated in a down-the-line Darwinist professor shown receiving communion — and bad religion — represented by fundamentalist Ken Ham, whose supporters are shot in choir robes and sing their objections to evolution. Good religion cheerfully accommodates Darwinism. Bad religion doesn’t.
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.