Endangered Evolutionists

A new film ponders the popularity of "intelligent design."


Randy Olson started his career as a marine biologist, got tenure, got bored, and became a filmmaker. Perplexed by some newspaper clips sent by his mother, he decided to explore the controversy over evolution and intelligent design (I.D.). The result is Flock of Dodos, an engaging, sometimes hilarious documentary that skewers both sides of a heated debate.

Olson believes the evolutionists are right, but he also thinks they're overbearing and inept at public relations. Darwin's current defenders, he argues, lack the wit and skill of the late evolutionary champion Stephen Jay Gould and have not come up with a ready slogan to match I.D.'s call to "Teach the Controversy." Instead we have spokespeople like the Ph.D. who bellows "I have the floor!" at his colleagues during a polysyllabic poker game. Later we see the same man forgetting what he wanted to say.

The I.D. advocates, by contrast, come across as adept communicators. Michael Behe, one of their most prominent spokesmen, seems low-key and likeable in his plaid shirt. Returning to his native Kansas, the filmmaker chats with cheerfully earnest anti-evolutionists, visiting one elderly education official in her farmhouse kitchen. Besides such folksy sincerity, Olson notes, I.D. enjoys the deep pockets and media acumen of its leading organization, the Seattle-based Discovery Institute.

Yet when it comes to substance, it's the evolutionists who hold the cards. Nature is filled with evidence that organisms were not designed—or at least not intelligently. Whales have hip bones, Olson points out, vestiges of the limbs of walking ancestors. Human hearts have vulnerabilities that could have been designed for the benefit of cardiologists. Rabbits have an inefficient digestive system that requires them to eat their own poop.

Furthermore, I.D. proponents don't always understand what exactly evolutionists believe. Recalling his own embryology studies, for example, Olson rebuts I.D. advocates' claims that current-day evolutionists give credence to "Haeckel's embryos," inaccurate 19th-century drawings.

Repeatedly citing Mount Rushmore, I.D. folks in the film argue that design can be detected. Some features of organisms, they claim, are self-evidently artificial, much like those carved faces. The trouble with this analogy is that we know a lot about how Rushmore was sculpted, and about human works in general, whereas superhuman designers presumably operate in mysterious ways. Often, Olson just lets the I.D. advocates have their say; the film's frontispiece is the lawyerly Latin phrase Res ipsa loquitur, "the thing speaks for itself."

The film discusses the December decision Kitzmiller v. Dover, in which a federal judge in Pennsylvania disallowed an effort to introduce I.D. into science classes. This treatment seems like an afterthought, though. (The decision was handed down when filming was already under way.) In the wake of that case, Olson's picture of embattled evolutionists seems a bit overstated. Nonetheless, I.D. retains considerable popularity and is not yet spent as a political force. The fight isn't over.

And Olson is quite right that evolutionists have done a poor job of communicating their arguments to the public. His calls for scientists to develop greater savvy in public relations have caused some grumbling among evolutionists worried that following such advice will require them to glitz up and dumb down their findings. But it is possible to communicate science competently without being dull. Indeed, Flock of Dodos itself does a solid job of conveying complex ideas in a way that is lively and entertaining. The film is loaded with amusing graphics and metaphors. A pie chart is depicted as real pie. Evolution vs. I.D. is shown as a prizefight. Cartoon dodo birds flock across the screen.

Similarly, Olson is right in giving I.D. advocates a forum for their beliefs and in treating his interlocutors with respect. The disdain among some evolutionists for engaging in debate probably has helped I.D. gain momentum in public opinion in recent years. As Flock of Dodos recounts, the decision by several scientific groups to boycott the hearings on evolution and I.D. run by the Kansas Board of Education did little to win hearts or minds.

On the other hand, contrary to Olson, I.D. supporters aren't really so adept at communication. When given a chance to state their views, they often stumble. Behe's testimony in the Kitzmiller trial was repeatedly cited by the judge as he ruled the other way. The film's dichotomy between pompous evolutionists and plain-spoken I.D. advocates is not the full story; there's plenty of self-importance on the I.D. side as well. And while Olson makes fun of evolution Ph.D.s for using big words, some I.D. writing, such as that of mathematician-philosopher William Dembski, is notable for its abstruseness.

But it's an intelligent, engaging documentary, a film that illuminates far more than it obscures. Intelligent design's recent inroads occurred in large part because evolutionists were not creative enough in getting their arguments across. Flock of Dodos is a sign that's changing.