A failed attempt to tell about organic evolution

Editor's Introduction -- Hawkhill's shoddy video Evolution presents an outdated, jumbled view of organic evolution, repeatedly conflating science with supernaturalism and half-baked sociology. Hawkhill offers "evolution" as conceived by journalists, not by scientists.
from The Textbook Letter, July-August 1992

Reviewing a classroom video for high schools

1990. Running time: about 39 minutes.
Hawkhill Associates, Inc., 125 East Gilman Street, Madison, Wisconsin 53703

Jumbled, Outdated Science,
Mixed with Supernaturalism

William J. Bennetta

For more than a century now, organic evolution has been the central fact of biology and the grand concept that unifies the scientific study of living things. Even so, the public at large knows little about it.

One reason for this is clear and sad: Many of our public schools, seeking to perpetuate primitive religious beliefs, have suppressed (or have deliberately misrepresented) what scientists know about the history of life on Earth. This has been going on for decades, and it is educational fraud. As the biologist Stuart H. Hurlbert has remarked in these pages, "Any general-biology book or course that fails to accord a central place to organic evolution is practicing a gross deception on students." [See TTL, November-December 1990.]

Because that deception has been widespread and common, typical Americans do not know what evolution really is, let alone knowing that it stands at the center of biological thought. They are likely to imagine that evolution is "only a theory," that theory means a flimsy notion or guess, and that "the theory of evolution" is tantamount to the statement "Men came from monkeys." Most pathetically, they are likely to believe that scientific thought about the history of life is comparable (but antagonistic) to religious thought, and that people must choose between them. (When I took high-school biology, in 1953, a class-period was given to debating whether the "correct" picture of the history of life was furnished by scientific findings or by the Bible's creation myths. Two students spoke on each side. I'm sure that this idiotic exercise had cruel effects: By ignoring all other stories of supernatural creation, it must have given some students the false impression that the stories in the Bible have some unique significance in a scientific context -- and it certainly led some students to misunderstand the purview of science, and to regard science and religion as interchangeable. My teacher might better have given that period to showing that science and religion are different things, that they operate in different realms and with different precepts and goals, that a scientific concept and a religious belief are not equivalent, and that the notion of pitting one against the other is absurd.)

With this in mind, I have asked two major questions in evaluating Hawkhill's video Evolution: Does it provide a valid account of evolutionary biology as such? And does it rise above the custom of viewing evolutionary biology as something that is inextricably entangled with religion? On both counts, I have found the video unacceptable. Hawkhill's people have not done enough studying of the science that they are trying to describe, for their view of evolution is outdated and jumbled. Further, they are confused about where natural science leaves off and supernaturalism begins, and they conflate the two in vulgar, corruptive ways.

Evolution has two parts. Part One, titled "The Idea of Evolution: A History," takes about 21 minutes. Part Two, "Evolution by Natural Selection," takes about 18.

Part One opens with an amateurish account of the Scopes trial. This can only reinforce what some students probably (and unfortunately) believe already: that the truly important thing to know about evolution is that it is involved in a war between science and religion. Hawkhill's narrator gives no respectable analysis of the Scopes case or its background, but he notes that a poll of spectators at the trial showed them to be "equally divided, for and against evolution." He seems unaware that the notion of being "for" or "against" a phenomenon of nature is nonsensical.

Next, a flashback and some more history -- but here the history is pretty good. This may be the best part of the video, as the narrator sketches a succession of ideas about the origins of organisms, starting with the conjectures of Anaximander (circa 550 BC) and extending through those of Lamarck (in the early 1800s). The information and interpretations are largely sound, but the narrator is confused about Benjamin Franklin, who is remembered for his contributions to physics, not to "the scientific understanding of living creatures."

This history sets the stage for Darwin, but when Darwin arrives, the script degenerates badly. The narrator reads from On the Origin of Species, quoting Darwin's initial lines about biogeographic evidence of evolution. We do not learn what that evidence was, however, for the narrator hops quickly to Alfred Russel Wallace, then hops to 19th-century discord over Darwin's ideas, and then sinks into occultism: "Most scientists and many people of all faiths accept today the Darwinian theory of natural selection as the best explanation for the living diversity in this world. Some [who?] will add, however, that behind the scenes it is god who is responsible for the living ascent, especially for the human soul."

He doesn't say which "god" he has in mind, but that doesn't matter much. What does matter much is that this video, which Hawkhill promotes as a source of "science literacy," stupidly mixes a testable, scientific concept (i.e., natural selection) with untestable, religious ideas (a god, "the living ascent," the human soul). This can only mislead students terribly, prevent their understanding what science is, and leave them confused about religion too. Science is definitely not the business of explaining natural events and processes by writing them off as the work of supernatural beings who lurk "behind the scenes." There is no place in a science classroom for a video that promotes that notion or tries to mull science with mysticism.

Now the narrator hops to creationism. He tells that some "fundamentalist Christians" have tried to use lawsuits or legislation to force "creationist points of view" into public schools, but he doesn't tell what "fundamentalist" or "creationist" means.

Part One ends with another hop. We now hear that the idea of evolution has "spawned" varied social and political doctrines: that capitalism, socialism, communism, fascism, racism, manifest destiny and progressive education all "claim descent and support from the theory of evolution by natural selection of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace." That is a misleading, irresponsible venture in myth-mongering. Things such as capitalism and racism existed long before the scientific recognition of natural selection, so they obviously were not "spawned" by that recognition. And the narrator fails to explain that those claims of "descent and support" generally have been pseudoscientific absurdities advanced by charlatans.

Part Two opens with a bungled outline of the Darwin-Wallace theory. The narrator seems captivated by that old motto "survival of the fittest." He intones that "The more fit will survive and pass on their desirable traits to their offspring," but he does not say what "fit" means, and he thinks that natural selection is a matter of differential survival. The idea of differential reproductive success eludes him.

Now he asks what evidence supports the Darwin-Wallace idea, and he answers: "A great, great deal, and from many, many scientific disciplines. First, and perhaps most important, there is the fossil record . . . ." This introduces a survey of the history of life, as shown by fossils, starting at a time about 700 million years ago. The survey is good, but what about the claim that fossils support the idea of evolution by natural selection? The narrator never substantiates this. Nor does he substantiate his claim of evidence "from many, many" disciplines. Does he even know which disciplines they are? Incredibly, he says nothing about molecular biology or the reconstruction of evolutionary histories through studies of macromolecules. His perception of evolutionary biology seems to come from a schoolbook written in the 1950s.

For no evident reason, he now returns to half-baked sociology and asks rhetorical questions that, I guess, are meant to seem deep: "What role [has natural selection] played in sexism, racism, social and political changes? What role, if any, should it play?" Then he hops to creationism again and makes two right statements: "The overwhelming consensus of professional biologists, geologists and paleontologists is that the creationists are simply mistaken . . . . Recent court cases have [produced rulings] that 'scientific creationism' is religion, not science."

Good -- and that is where he should stop. But he extends his performance, resumes his role as a part-time mystic, and spouts more rhetorical questions. These show again how badly confused he is, and they can only produce more confusion in students: "Is there . . . some deeper spiritual meaning expressing itself through the evolutionary process? Does life have a role in the seemingly cold universe? Does god stand behind the drama of life on earth and in the universe? What is the ultimate meaning of life on earth?"

So he again confuses the natural with the supernatural, conflates science with supernaturalism, and entangles biology with religion. It's all vulgar and stupid, but amateurs evidently find it irresistible when the subject of evolution comes up.

Hawkhill's video fails to rise above the popular, ignorant notion that evolutionary science cannot be respectable unless it can be "reconciled" with every imaginable religion, and that the reconciliation requires that science and religion be grafted together. The usual result, seen anew in this video, is clumsy flailing that explains nothing, confuses everything, and yields nonsense about "deeper spiritual meaning expressing itself through the evolutionary process." There is no excuse for letting such stuff into a schoolroom.

Honest Effort,
Poor Product

Michael T. Ghiselin

Hawkhill's Evolution, intended for use in high schools and junior colleges, looks like an honest effort. It tells unequivocally that evolution by natural selection is accepted by the scientific community as a central principle of biology, and for the best of reasons.

The narrative begins with the Scopes "monkey trial," then traces the history of evolutionary ideas from the time of the Ionian Greeks to the present. Evolution is presented, rightly, as fact. Creationism is depicted, rightly, as a religious movement, not as a scientific alternative. Religion is treated as something that addresses questions that science cannot answer, and the historical parts of the narrative make clear that most of the resistance to evolutionary thinking reflects religious motivations, not scientific ones.

Unfortunately, there are some glaring flaws, often resulting from oversimplification, in both the history and the science that Evolution presents. For instance:

  • The student gets the impression that Darwin and Wallace developed the same theory -- natural selection as an explanation for evolution -- simultaneously. (In fact, Darwin formulated that theory some 20 years before Wallace did, but delayed publishing it.)

  • The concept of natural selection is iterated three times, but it is treated simplistically and with no effort to dissociate it from "the survival of the fittest." (That catchy slogan, coined a century ago by Herbert Spencer and known widely today, is misleading. Natural selection works through differences in reproductive success, not in mere survival.)

  • There is no clear distinction between the formation of new species and their subsequent transformation, so the student will not understand the reasons for the patterns of biological diversity that we now observe in nature. (An overview of some particular genealogy, with branching sequences and evolving lineages, would have done the trick here, but the video has none.)

  • The narrator says the fossil record shows that evolution has in fact occurred, but he does not explain how the record shows this. As chemical evidence of evolution, he cites only the salt content of the human body (a sign that we are descended from marine organisms). The compelling evidence supplied by biogeography is ignored.

  • In talking about human evolution, the narrator alludes to a notion that human consciousness originated only 5,000 or 6,000 years ago. That is very soft stuff to have in a video that supposedly attempts to be rigorously scientific.

The visual material in Evolution is not particularly appropriate for elucidating concepts in the narrative. Indeed, a lot of organisms are displayed for no clear purpose beyond filling the screen. Sometimes the choice is anachronistic or otherwise unfortunate, as when we see outdated pictures of ancient, big dinosaurs lumbering clumsily across a landscape. (Today's reconstructions show the great dinosaurs as active and agile.) And the picture that is said to show Buffon is really a famous portrait of Cuvier.

Several minutes are devoted to a chronology that puts the history of life and the vastness of evolutionary time into perspective -- quite successfully, I think. Less successful is an effort to link natural selection to politics, racism and the like.

The video would be better if it considered some question that currently is a subject of scientific debate -- something to show students that not all of the answers are in. The narrator seems to be trying this when he mentions punctuated-equilibrium theory, but the result is a disaster. He gives credit for the theory to Stephen Jay Gould, rather than to Niles Eldredge, and he confuses punctuated equilibrium with the old notion that major changes occur in a single generation.

Evolution thus comes across as a sincere effort that falls far short of excellence. What it offers is "evolution" as conceived by popularizers and journalists, not by scientists. If this video were used during the first days of an introductory biology course, it might help to get things moving in the right direction, chiefly by ensuring that students are aware of evolution from the outset. But it would not enable students to understand evolution as biologists understand evolution.

The booklet accompanying Evolution is essentially a transcript of the narrative on the video, with minor differences in wording. The transcript has been supplemented by two time-scales (good enough), a map (adequate), a glossary (poor) and a bibliography (dreadful). The booklet appears to have been done by an underpaid assistant in what was obviously a low-budget project to begin with.

William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes often about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.

Michael T. Ghiselin is a biologist, a historian of science, and a senior research fellow at the California Academy of Sciences. His interests include systematics, reproductive biology and comparative anatomy. His books include The Triumph of the Darwinian Method and The Economy of Nature and the Evolution of Sex.


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