Not the whole truth

LAST FALL, FOUR consecutive nights of PBS prime time were taken up with copulating animals, subdividing bacteria, animated DNA molecules, and pontificating sages of science. This month the Paul Allen- financed series Evolution is back (in more digestible weekly two-hour doses). But this time it’s got a little competition.

Some might say, “very little.” But to heretics who refuse allegiance to the sociocultural scientific juggernaut called “the neo-Darwinian synthesis,” any competition is welcome, any opportunity for their case to be heard. And, apparently, to judge by the film Icons of Evolution, any tactic, however slippery, capable of furthering their cause.

The 51-minute documentary film, which made its official debut last Friday evening in the modest setting of Seattle Pacific University’s Gwinn Commons, is credited to a video production company called Coldwater Media LCC, but to anyone even slightly familiar with neo-anti-Darwinian synthesis in America today, the tone, text, and cast of characters are all intimately known. Whatever Coldwater Media LCC may be, the fingerprints of Seattle’s neoconservative Discovery Institute (DI) are all over the film.

Icons of Evolution is in part the story of a crusading high-school science teacher persecuted by the authorities for daring to expose his students to the truth about evolution. No, not John Scopes. This time the martyr is Roger DeHart, hounded out of his job with the Burlington-Edison (Wash.) School District for daring to take a critical attitude toward Darwinian dogma and encouraging his students to do likewise.

DeHart’s troubles began in 1998, when evolution-minded parents became aware that for 12 years, DeHart had been omitting certain chapters in the assigned biology text and substituting materials of his own for student consideration. After a series of increasingly fractious public meetings and extensive editorializing in the local media, DeHart resigned his post and took up a position teaching “earth science” in nearby Marysville.

Up to a point, the version of DeHart’s story told in Icons of Evolution is factually correct. But one major aspect of the story the film omits: the large and finally dominant role in the fracas by the Discovery Institute, which not only publicized DeHart’s plight and played Little David to the ACLU’s Goliath but tried to organize a campaign to elect anti-evolutionists to the Burlington-Edison School Board.

The DI doesn’t try to obscure its interest in DeHart’s situation: Indeed, DI president Bruce Chapman appears in person along with a half dozen “experts” “interviewed” by the filmmakers, all eloquently deploring the damage done in Burlington both to human rights and scientific progress.

Why the sarcastic quotation marks? Because with a couple of exceptions, the “experts” are not precisely who they purport to be. Take Paul Nelson, for example, whose undertitle IDs him as “Ph.D., Philosophy of Biology, University of Chicago.” True, as far as it goes: Nelson did attend UC and got a Ph.D. in 1998. But that’s not where he works: He works for the Discovery Institute, a fellow of its Center for the Renewal of Science & Culture.

Same with “Jonathan Wells, Ph.D., U. Cal Berkeley,” “David Berlinski, Ph.D., Princeton,” and “Stephen Meyer, Ph.D., history and philosophy of science, Cambridge University”: The degrees are real, but the apparent academic affiliations aren’t; all three are fellows of Discovery Institute. John West, for a change, is, as suggested by his on-screen ID, a professor at SPU; but his Discovery Institute “fellowship” also goes unmentioned by the filmmakers, making Icons of Evolution look less a documentary than a covert ideological infomercial.

Well, never mind the “mercial” part for the moment; what about the info? Again: OK as far as it goes, but not far enough to shake the huge structure of Darwinian theory and confirmatory research assembled over nearly 150 years, let alone topple it. The way Ernst Haeckel fudged drawings of embryos to make the early development of distant species look more similar is trotted out; the Galᰡgos finches that gave Darwin the idea how species might diverge are turned against him (by ignoring 90 percent of the data); some deft misreading of the comparative embryology of wasps and fruit flies “proves” that there’s no evidence that both insects ultimately derive from a common ancestor; and so on. As a threat to Darwinism, it’s reminiscent of a woodpecker trying to bring down a sequoia.

Since anyone who’s actually mastered the material on evolution in a second-year college biology text can refute all this scientific guff without opening the book, what’s the point of packaging it to look like an episode of Nova? Because the First Amendment has so far proved impermeable to the religious right’s campaign to bring God back into public education. But if you don’t mention God and make your guff look like science, you can call any attempt to keep your guff from impressionable minds “censorship.” And censorship, as we all know, is un-American.

For more on the Discovery Institute, go to www.discovery.org. For the story of Roger DeHart’s battle with the Burlington-Edison School District and material on the Discovery Institute and its affiliations that you won’t see on there, go to www.scienceormyth.org/resources.html.

rdowney@seattleweekly.com


Roger Downey’s science column appears every other week.

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