Darwin’s Sanitized Idea

PBS’s Evolution is an exercise in Creationist appeasement.

Evolution, the glitzy seven-part PBS miniseries airing Sept. 24-27, is surely the most comprehensive presentation of Darwin’s theory yet offered by the American mass media. Its motto may be best expressed by Chris Schneider, a Boston University biologist interviewed while collecting specimens in the Ecuadorean rain forest: “Darwin really got it right!” And in its exploration of topics like the role of natural selection in battling HIV and the importance of sex to genetic diversity, Evolution repeatedly demonstrates the wide applicability of Darwin’s theory.

But PBS’s mainstreaming of Darwinism also trims back some of the theory’s more controversial implications. Evolution flatly denies equal time to Darwin’s religiously based rivals, Creationism and intelligent design theory, yet the program repeatedly argues that evolution and religion are compatible. If you eat Darwin’s theory for your main course, Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and others seem to say, you can have religion for dessert. (Slate’s Robert Wright has accused Stephen Jay Gould of abetting Creationism. Click here for the charges.)

In this, Evolution fits into the modern “science and religion” reconciliation movement. The leading booster behind this trend has been Sir John Templeton, a retired financier who has, to be blunt, more money than God. Templeton’s foundation funds institutes, research, and conferences, and presents the annual Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, an award deliberately set at a monetary value exceeding the Nobel Prize and frequently given to a religious scientist. This year’s prize went to Dr. Arthur Peacocke, an Oxford physical biochemist and Anglican priest and a “leading advocate for the creative interaction of theology and science.” The quotation comes from a Templeton press release, but is copied verbatim in Evolution’s promotional materials: Like Gould, Peacocke is a spokesman for the series.

In the actual series, however, it is the Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller who serves as the most outspoken proponent of a Templetonian reconciliation between evolution and religion. The author of Finding Darwin’s God but a fierce foe of Creationism, Miller describes himself as “an orthodox Catholic and … an orthodox Darwinist.” In Evolution’s first installment, titled “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,” we watch Miller in church, bowing his head and holding out his palms as a priest intones, “Our Father, who art in heaven …” Miller’s notion of God? “He’s the guy who made up the rules of the game, and he manages to act within those rules.”

Miller and Gould’s reconciliationist position seems custom designed to answer fundamentalist claims that by teaching evolution the public schools inculcate atheism. After the Columbine High School shootings, for example, the House Republican whip Tom DeLay warned that we should expect more tragedies so long as “our school systems teach children that they are nothing but glorified apes who are evolutionized [sic] out of some primordial soup of mud.” Reading quotations like that, it’s easy to see how evolutionists would worry that, in a country where over 90 percent of people believe in God, evolution had better find some way of getting along with religion.

Yet the fundamentalists seem to be exactly right about the religious implications of the study of evolution. Sure, Kenneth Miller can separate his scientific research and his religious beliefs. But few top scientists actually do so. In 1998 in the journal Nature, the historian Edward Larson and Washington Times religion writer Larry Witham reported the results of their survey of the religious views of National Academy of Sciences members. Nine out of 10 were atheists or agnostics, and among NAS biologists, just 5.6 percent believed in God, the lowest percentage for any scientific field. Larson and Witham quoted the Oxford scientist Peter Atkins: “You clearly can be a scientist and have religious beliefs. But I don’t think you can be a real scientist in the deepest sense of the word because they are such alien categories of knowledge.”

Atkins’ point comes across clearly in Evolution’s final segment, titled “What About God?” The documentary visits the evangelical Wheaton College and interviews science students struggling to reconcile what they know of evolution with their fundamentalist upbringings. The students come across as genuinely intellectually motivated, and they ask good questions, but Wheaton lays down clear parameters for their discussions. The college requires all its faculty members to sign a statement affirming their belief in the literal existence of Adam and Eve. Given this dogmatic precondition for intellectual inquiry on its campus—where one student describes endorsing evolution as “like coming out of the closet almost”—Wheaton actually counts as a rather stunning counterexample to the notion of a reconciliation between science and religion.

Evolution’s attempt to divorce Darwinian science from atheism, though well intentioned, is finally naive. Darwinism presents an explanation for life’s origins that lacks any supernatural element and emphasizes a cruel and violent process of natural selection that is tough to square with the notion of a benevolent God. Because of this, many students who study evolution will find themselves questioning the religions they have grown up with. What’s insidious is that Evolution allows fundamentalists to say this, but not evolutionists. The miniseries interviews several experts who could be expected to oppose the reconciliation outlook, notably Daniel Dennett, author of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and the Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, who has written, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” But neither Dennett nor Dawkins gets much of a say on the topic of religion.

Evolution closes its first and last episodes with a reading of the last sentence of On the Origin of Species:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed laws of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

The series repeatedly frames this passage as evidence of Darwin’s “fundamentally religious” view of nature. But later in life Darwin explicitly disavowed this view of nature’s “grandeur.” Furthermore, the words “by the Creator” only showed up in the second edition of the Origin, released several weeks after the first. Why this change? Because after Darwin came under vicious attack for his views—science versus religion—he went back and stuck in references to God as a form of appeasement. Evolution, possibly unaware of the Origin’s different texts, uses the original sentence at the close of “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” but the more godly version at the close of “What About God?”

After the publication of the Origin, Darwin steadily grew even more skeptical. In his autobiography, begun in 1876, he puzzled through various arguments for the existence of God, but finally concluded, “I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.” PBS never cites this passage, perhaps because it puts Darwin far closer to Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins than rare theistic evolutionists like Kenneth Miller. The series strives to present a charming picture of a scientific theory that leaves religion relatively unchallenged, but Darwin’s life itself suggests otherwise.