Mainstreaming Evolution

Public broadcasting, by presenting the basics of evolutionary theory, is only starting the public's necessary work.

The week of September 23, 2001 promises to be important for American public education. That's when the Public Broadcasting Service, PBS, shows an eight-hour series of television programs exploring the subject of evolution. This should help in keeping the subject firmly in the mainstream of world culture, where it has been for a hundred years.

For better or worse, most Americans get much of their information from television. I say for better because it supplies the things that text lacks and that makes science hard to teach well: actual sound and real-life imagery. I say for worse because what it doesn't supply makes science hard to learn well: long, detailed discussion of complex concepts that can be reread and studied intensively. Science television works best by marrying good images with the simplest explanations, so that viewers will get the message in one viewing.

The PBS series "Evolution" promises to be a good sketch of the basics of evolution, suitable for people without much background in the subjectstudents, naturally, but also most adults in the USA. Until the American school system becomes as effective as those of other industrialized nations, programs like PBS's "Evolution" will have to do. Here's what the series covers.

Show 1, "Darwin's Dangerous Idea," recounts the long story of Charles Darwin, how he published the first scientifically useful theory of biological evolution in 1859, and how scientists and the public responded during the remaining 23 years of his life. There is a risk of focusing too much on this one man, because he was not the first to publish a theory of evolution and because his theory had gaps and flaws. But the program also documents current research projects to bring the ideas to life as well as the man.

Show 2, "Great Transformations," looks at the history of life as recorded in the fossil record. It presents the unified tree of life as well as some of the main branching places in that tree.

Show 3, "Extinction!" treats the mirror-side of Darwin's work. His 1859 book was On the Origin of Species, not about extinctionthat is, instead, the destiny of species. By examining the five greatest known episodes of mass extinction plus the sixth episode, which is going on today, the series demonstrates how what Darwin began grew into what we're working on now.

Show 4, "The Evolutionary Arms Race," examines the role of competition in pushing the evolution of species. In the 1800s, this emphasis on competition caused an uproar because of its seeming conflict with moral valuesnever mind that Darwinism was not meant to apply to politics or culture. This program clarifies the problem in today's preferred way, which is to emphasize that evolution also advances through cooperation. Both are forms of natural selection, a core element of Darwinism.

Show 5 is "Why Sex?" and it should make clear how useless natural selection would be if there were no individual variationif there were nothing to select from. The power of sexual reproduction to create variation underlies all the major changes in living things since a billion years ago. This hour, too, gets into the delicate question of how the interaction of sex and selection plays out in the human species.

Show 6, "The Mind's Big Bang," tests the boundaries of Darwinian evolution by exploring the change in humankind that led to the emergence of the mind as we know it, some tens of thousands of years ago. While the rise of civilization and the explosion of language and culture are outside of Darwinismwhich is concerned only with geneticsthere is a place for evolution in studying what led up to those great advances.

Show 7 ends the series with "What About God?" This segment does the viewer the favor of letting real people speak for themselves. The creationist movement gains its fuel from valid human experience, and the correct approach for a program of this sort is to be sensitive to that fact. The producers say they hope to "underscore the point that science and religion are compatible, although they play very different roles in assigning order to the universe and a purpose to life."

If you have been paying attention, it should be clear that evolutionary theory has nothing direct to say about the things that are central to religion: right ways to live, good and evil, justice and mercy, the nature of the spirit that animates our hearts, the truths of tradition, the rules for using our inherited world. Pope John Paul II has stated in this regard that "truth cannot contradict truth." One thing that statement means is that the older truth, religion, has an obligation to take the younger truth of science seriously, with a readiness to explore apparent conflicts deeply and fairly.

PBS's "Evolution" is a good beginning, and rebroadcasts of the series, both on the air and in American schools, will help to repair the foundations of science education. But a television show is just useless infotainment if we do nothing with the knowledge. The PBS Web site has some resources for further learning, but I can point you beyond that. Start with the links in the box at the top of this article, and help make evolution a working part of your thinking and activism as well as your vocabulary.

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