(This column was first published in the October 8, 2001 Buffalo News.)
Over the years PBS has done us proud. It has been one of the few islands of quality in a vast ocean of television sewage. While our sit-coms increasingly focus on bathroom humor and sexual innuendo, PBS continues to provide a rich diet of drama, science, news, art, history, music, education, travel, commentary and appropriate children's programming.
But PBS topped even this honored tradition last week with its series, "Evolution." Overall I believe that these were the finest programs I have ever seen on television. Although I would not have included a few minutes of the seventh hour on sexual reproduction and I didn't always agree with everything I saw, I feel that the series maintained a remarkable level of quality over its full eight hours.
The first episode took us back to 1833. Charles Darwin and the captain of the Beagle, Robert Fitzroy, visit a small farm in South America where they are shown a huge prehistoric skull. Immediately, the wide gulf between their beliefs is clearly defined -- Fitzroy the unquestioning believer in biblical infallibility, Darwin beginning to respond to evidence that contradicts his own Episcopalian background.
Then through the first seven of the eight hours we learn how evolution has become the foundation of biological science -- that is, the basis for the scientific study of life in all its forms. We see Darwin refining his ideas through his studies of mollusks, earthworms and Galapagos finches -- he also observed the breeding of pigeons and dogs -- and trying to avoid the inevitable political battles with those who disagree with his ideas. In parallel with this human drama we gain insights into how evolution relates to modern research -- from paleontologists and archeologists piecing together billions of years of the history of life on earth to doctors and pharmacists seeking responses to viruses rapidly developing immunity to our most powerful drugs. Along the way dozens of episodes illustrate such diverse topics as extinction and genetics as well as the special roles played by sex, competition and society. In all this we humans are seen as an increasingly important part of the process.
But the most moving episode comes in the final hour when a young Wheaton College student confronts new ideas. "I was definitely indoctrinated," he says, "and along the lines of 'This is how Genesis 1 and 2 entails the story of creation and this is how it's got to be.' And, yes, evolution was portrayed as an evil, you know, it was Satan's doing -- it's the demise of the church if we even listen to it.… I would say Christians in general and myself included don't know anything about evolution so when we're bashing it or when we're just dismissing it outright we're not even understanding what it says." He maintains his faith, accommodating meanwhile to the new ideas.
It is clear that this series disturbs evolution opponents who range from biblical literalists to those who favor most of evolution but with the "intelligent design" of some higher power. Just two indications of their concern are the Discovery Institute's 152-page critique "Getting the Facts Straight" and a critical essay by Reagan speechwriter Josh Gilder (both available through www.discovery.org.)
Indeed, the series does pose problems for these critics because, among other things, local school board members now have a resource; they have answers to those who seek to bowdlerize our science texts and biology curriculum.
Unless, that is, we join the man in that final episode who says, "No matter how much science discovers, God tells us, and I believe it, that man's wisdom is foolishness."-- Gerry Rising