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The Fight For American Minds

The Fight For American Minds


Advance warning of a spectacular media blitz arrived at PBS affiliates as the past school year ended. The memo, dated June 15/01 was entitled “The Evolution Controversy: Use it or Lose it.” According to the memo, the affiliates should prepare not only to promote the eight hour series entitled Evolution, but they were also to promote the very concept of evolution itself. The series would run in September as the new school year began. This project, which was two years in preparation, was co-produced by WGBH Boston (of NOVA fame) and Clear Blue Sky Productions. The program was declared to be a “comprehensive PBS project, not just a television series.” The objective was to reach as many people as possible (including teachers and ten million students over a ten year period). To that end, a feature-rich web site had been prepared as well as a HarperCollins companion book. Among the target audiences the memo listed religious leaders and government officials. These are not usually expected to pay particular attention to general interest science programming. But this was to be no apple pie and motherhood “beauty of nature” sort of show. Indeed one of the “outreach” objectives was to “co-opt existing local dialogue about teaching evolution in schools.” To support this more serious political agenda, the advertising campaign would include television, print media and “guerrilla/viral marketing” whatever that may be (but it doesn’t sound good).

Obviously the memo’s language was not intended for public consumption. In August however, an employee of a PBS affiliate shared the entire package, eight part video series and memo, with the Discovery Institute of Seattle, Washington. (a non profit, non partisan public policy centre founded in 1990 for the discussion of issues in science, technology, regional development, the environment and defense). Horrified by what they saw, a team of scientists on the DI staff spent August preparing a comprehensive reply to PBS’s Evolution series. The result was a 151 page work entitled “Getting the Facts Straight: A Viewer’s Guide to PBS’s Evolution“. The reply was loaded onto a webpage at www.pbsevolution.com and a banner advertisement was taken out in the science section of the New York Times web page. Thus a critique of the series was available in advance for all to access. It did not last long.

Several days before the start of the series, the Discovery Institute was forced, under threat, to withdraw their original URL and change it to www.reviewevolution.com. At the same time the New York Times pulled the advertising banner. Eventually this was restored, and as of October 2, the hits on the NYTimes site were nine times the industry standard, at 2.7% of the audience viewing the Times‘ science page, compared to a more normal 0.3% of viewers. The PBS series had ended but interest in commentary still continued high.

So what was the actual content of the programs and what did the critique say? The critique focused not only on content but also on presentation strategies. Not too surprisingly, the show made ample use of statements about evolution by big name scientists. These authoritarian pronouncements, in visually appealing contexts, were designed to impress the viewing audience. A wide variety of natural phenomena was discussed — thereby implying that if evolutionists described them, then these issues must indeed be evidence for evolution. There was no time for actual discussion of evidence. After all, the objective was to retain the interest of the viewing audience. Detailed discussion would definitely slow the pace of the show.

Ostensibly the programs were supposed to concern themselves with science. However the producers, in their memo, noted that science, education and religion all converge. Thus there was actually a heavy emphasis on religion. The first episode introduced the topic and the last dealt exclusively with this issue, but there were also frequent references in between. One of the really troubling aspects of the series was the use of almost subliminal cues. For example, in episode one, a children’s church choir sings “All Things Bright and Beautiful” (with its famous refrain “The Lord God made them all”), while the narrator declares that scientists’ attitudes to religion range from atheist to ‘traditional.’ A scientist in the congregation, said to hold ‘traditional’ views, then shares his perspective with us as the congregation in the background recites the Lord’s Prayer. The scientist declares that God and evolution are fully compatible. This is an interesting contrast to “Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory.” Later, as a clergyman reads Genesis 1:27 “God created man in His image, in the image of God created He him…” atheist Daniel Dennett remarks that purpose and design come from nature “without any direction at all.” Episode 1 is not yet finished but already the viewing audience has the idea. Cherished expressions of Christian faith are contrasted with evolutionary statements..

But there’s more. In episode 2, a Michelangelo painting from the Sistine Chapel fills the screen. This is the famous scene where God, at the touch of a finger, instills life into Adam. Many people consider that there are few paintings with a more profound message. However in this show, with the painting as background, the narrator proclaims “We seem so special, it’s hard not to think that we’re somehow an exception to evolution. But of course we’re not.” The message of the painting has just been declared irrelevant. Still later in episode 5, the majestic strains of the Hallelujah Chorus provide background to the statement of an evolutionary psychologist that all human artistic expression stems from our instincts for sexual display! Finally in the last episode, imaginary African scenes of brutish human ancestors are depicted to the background strains of a modern African choir. The choir chants “Lord have mercy” and “O Lamb of God” from the Roman Catholic mass. The show has contrasted praise and worship with a sexual agenda and brutish ancestors. The question arises as to whether these contrasts were intentional. The viewers might not agree with the show’s message, but they will remember the contrasted images whether they want to or not.

As to particulars of the shows, episode one contrasted Darwin’s religious upbringing with his later “scientific” views. Also experts introduced us to the modern update of Darwin’s views, the neo-Darwinian synthesis. Episode two described major supposed developments (great transformations) in earth history. Among the issues discussed were whale evolution, invasion of the land, the Cambrian explosion and the search for a genetic explanation for all the above. Episode three described extinction events. Episode four concentrated on interactions between populations of organisms. Episode five concentrated on sex. Episode six speculated on the emergence of the human brain and episode seven asked “What about God?”

As far as discussion of content is concerned, everyone is encouraged to download the Discovery Institute’s 151 page guide “Getting the Facts Straight” for themselves (or persuade a friend who has internet access to do so for you). This guide not only includes commentary but also a teachers’ guide to enable teachers and students to separate fact from speculation. It is impossible to reduce all the details covered in eight hours of viewing time to a few lines of text. However in general it can be said that the TV script neglected to mention evidence contrary to the evolutionary position and any scientific views which are contrary to standard evolution theory. Moreover the series most astonishingly seemed fixated on religion. The message appeared to be that religion was O.K. as long as it did not contradict evolution theory. Sole funding for the series and advertising was Clear Blue Sky Productions, owned by Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen. It is interesting that one man can have such an effect on broadcasting. And anyone in North America, whether in the United States or Canada, should ask ourselves whether we will allow this blatant propaganda to influence us.

Margaret Helder
October 2001

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