- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 22, 2001

The sweeping eight-hour "Evolution" begins Monday on PBS with drama, a fitting launch for a science documentary with plots and subplots and good guys and bad guys.
The study of evolution can be as didactic and dull as any science, but here we begin with a cocky and adventurous Charles Darwin marching up a Chilean slope in 1831 to buy a fossil head from the locals.
With this, one of the year's most expansive educational films is off to a good start, drawing on Hollywood experience, several award-winning studios and the funding of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
The series' dramatized story of Darwin conveys an important element of angst, since he knew his theory could overthrow conventional faith and morality. Yet it is a kind of token struggle, for the rest of "Evolution" is worry-free textbook Darwinism.
The first two parts of the show covering the Darwin biography have one goal: to show the power of evolutionary theory and put it beyond reproach. What one misses, however, is a good argument among evolutionists, who still disagree on much 142 years after Darwin's "dangerous idea" began to dominate biology.
Some of the best historians of Darwin, such as England's James Moore, are on-camera experts in the first installment. But docudrama sets the overall tone. For example, Darwin is portrayed as a mild-mannered seeker of truth. His chief foils, Capt. Robert FitzRoy, paleontologist Robert Owen and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, are snobs or Anglican fundamentalists.
In the end, we are forced to sympathize with Darwin only. The sympathy runs deeper still when after the unmerited death by illness of his 10-year-old Annie, Darwin rejects a traditional God. This is factual scholarship, but it clearly mixes pathos with science.
That continues to the end of the first two hours, which close at Darwin's tomb in Westminster Abbey and with the requiem Mass that was sung at Darwin's burial. The image of Darwin actor Chris Larkin fades as he recites from "On the Origin of Species" about how "forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."
The treatment, of course, walks the precarious line of any movie that hopes to teach history.
The production is one of the biggest PBS projects in recent years, launched in 1998 and a cooperative effort of "Nova," WGBH Boston, and Mr. Allen's Clear Blue Sky Films. The series has a companion book, a Web site that opens Monday and an Evolution Project with teaching aids for public schools.
Besides the excellent cinematography, and a you-are-there immediacy, the series' other strength is that it pulls no punches. Usually, evolutionists in public play down the conflict Darwinism has with most kinds of Christianity or conventional morality. They characterize evolution as "merely" insects developing immunities, birds growing larger beaks or diseases "evolving" resistance a subject of one episode.
Throwing diplomacy to the wind, the program says plainly that evolution explains all life. The subtitle is "A Journey Into Where We're From and Where We're Going." In the fascinating episode on "Why Sex?" we are presented with the case that "sexual selection" or desire for the fittest to reproduce gave rise not only to male peacocks with bright feathers, but human culture and even human consciousness.
While biological evolution argues that reality stems from brute matter, Darwin actor Mr. Larkin says it nevertheless "stirs the soul." Darwinian philosopher Daniel Dennett says evolution is the greatest human idea ever because it unites "purposeless, meaningless matter in motion" with the human perception that the world has "meaning and purpose and design."
Viewers will learn the basics of evolution, from common ancestors and genetic similarity, to the study of mass extinction. Few science documentaries question the limits of scientific knowledge, and no doubt is cast here either. But evolution is a contentious field, and since no serious dissent shows up in eight hours, a gee-whiz quality prevails.
Episode 1, for example, visits a biologist who has built a model of the earliest eye to show how its membrane could bulge with more liquid and make a better lens. According to "natural selection," the lucky creature with this eye survives best and passes on the better eye. Evolution of the lens, however, is not the difficult question in evolution. The tough question is how the chemical reactions by which light reaches the brain evolved.
One segment asks whether evolution is driven by struggle or cooperation, but the last segment "What About God?" basically pits fundamentalist creationists against hard-working schoolteachers. While the first must explain their struggle with evolution, the second gets no devil's advocate questions. One dedicated biology teacher is a Christian who has no conflict with evolution.
That is fine, but why not also ask her about the "unresolved conflict" of David Lack, the top evolutionist who made "Darwin's finches" famous in every classroom textbook. When Lack had turned to belief, he said: "Darwinism seems irreconcilable with Christian, and perhaps with any, moral standards."
True, the more fundamentalist minority in America shuns even a hearing for Darwinism. But "Evolution" misses most Americans in between the Bible-thumping Capt. FitzRoy and the strict creationists.
There are varied and honored responses to all of the ins and outs of evolution, whether on scientific or religious points. PBS has opted for conventional content in a wonderful package. More simply put, the show seems to say: Darwin is good; a Bible-thumper is bad. Don't question the "good," but ask questions of the "bad." That is a fairly shallow lesson for a great educational accomplishment of the year.

* * *
WHAT: "Evolution"
WHEN: 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday on WETA (Channel 26) and WMPT (Channel 22)MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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