Flock of Dodos

Article ID: JAI414 | By: Paul Nelson

This review first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume30, number6 (2007). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org

Let’s meet the feuding parties. On one side, we see the mostly likable, mostly friendly folks who use simple, clear, scientifically erroneous analogies, as well as political means and public relations campaigns, to support their view that Darwinism is false, and that living things show evidence of intelligent design. On the other side, we find the often arrogant, overeducated academics and lousy communicators—otherwise known as “scientists”—who nevertheless have the biological evidence firmly in their corner.

These are the contending camps in the intelligent design (ID) debate, as depicted in the eighty-six-minute film Flock of Dodos (FOD). FOD has played at film festivals and on university and college campuses nationwide, as well as on the cable network Showtime. Written, produced, and directed by ex-evolutionary biologist-turned-filmmaker Randy Olson, FOD offers an amusing look at the ID debate in the United States, emphasizing the educational public policy arguments over ID in Kansas, Olson’s home state. FOD traces the history of debates over evolution in the United States from the Scopes Trials in 1925 to various events within the past couple of years, such as those in Pennsylvania, Kansas, and Ohio. The film, which includes animation, interviews, and even an offbeat experiment, is fun to watch. Its accuracy, however, is hit and miss. Let the viewer beware: if you watch FOD for the laughs—and there are many—maintain skepticism about the scholarship and reporting.

The Praiseworthy Aspects. The easy-going, humorous, candidly watchable flavor of FOD is reflected in Randy Olson’s treatment of his own family history and career in the film. He speaks, for example, with self-deprecating charm about being tongue-tied as a graduate student at Harvard in the early 1980s while in the presence of his scientific hero, the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. (I can testify to the overwhelming, speech-destroying effect of Gould’s powerful personality at close quarters.)

Olson describes his career change, from biologist to filmmaker in the wake of a divorce, relating that event with empathy toward the similar experiences of one of his interview subjects, Kansas lawyer and ID activist John Calvert. The nonconfrontational, relaxed tone of most of the interviews in FOD speaks to a filmmaker with genuine curiosity about his subjects. Olson clearly states his sympathies for Darwinian evolution, but he allows his pro-ID interviewees to make their points without interruption.

Olson, moreover, is unsparing regarding his natural allies, evolutionary biologists. In the film’s most striking scene, a poker party Olson organized that included evolutionary biologists from Harvard University and other leading institutions, Olson’s filming and editorial choices allow the academic arrogance of the assembled scientists to strike viewers with full force. The plain message of this and other sequences in FOD is unflattering to mainstream biology. Even if these guys are right about the facts, one wouldn’t want to spend much time with them.

The Problematic Aspects. The ID/evolution debate, however, calls for more. Having the sort of companionable personality that might make one a pleasant acquaintance with whom to share a cross-country drive, as Olson has, is no guarantee of reportorial or scientific accuracy.

Consider the issue of poor reporting. Olson portrays biologist Jonathan Wells as misrepresenting the use of fraudulent embryo diagrams in modern biology textbooks. In the late nineteenth century, German embryologist Ernst Haeckel drew figures purporting to depict similarities in vertebrate embryos across organisms such as fish, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. Haeckel argued that these similarities could be explained only by common ancestry. Olson acknowledges that Haeckel’s drawings are suspect but also asserts that the drawings are not used in modern biology textbooks. Lending humor to Olson’s assertion is the vain search of the ID activist John Calvert, when Olson asks him to find Haeckel’s drawings in the biology textbooks in Calvert’s home.

The segment is amusing, at the expense of ID, but its factual basis is flat wrong. A number of modern biology textbooks have reproduced Haeckel’s fraudulent figures, including a widely used text, Molecular Biology of the Cell, by a former president of the National Academy of Sciences, cell biologist Bruce Alberts. It was at best a matter of happenstance that Calvert did not have those textbooks in his home on the day Olson was filming. In any case, the extent of Calvert’s personal library provides no excuse for Olson. Honest reporting requires Olson to establish facts for himself. How widely were Haeckel’s figures used? That is research to be done in the library, not a point for easy (but wholly erroneous) lampooning if the right books happen not to be around during an interview.

Consider the film’s treatment of Professor John Angus Campbell of the University of Memphis. FOD portrays Campbell as having represented himself as an evolutionist—a brave minority voice for reason—at an ID conference held in South Carolina. Only later, they claim, did the filmmakers learn that Campbell was affiliated with the Discovery Institute (consistently depicted as the somewhat sinister birthplace of ID throughout the film). FOD intimates that Campbell was less than honest in presenting himself as a person who did not promote ID.

Campbell is not an ID advocate, however, despite his association with the Discovery Institute. What he said in his interview—at least the portions excerpted in the film—fits exactly with Campbell’s long-standing public posture about the ID/evolution debate. Campbell is an expert in the rhetoric of science, Darwin’s rhetoric in particular, and cares passionately that students, teachers, and the culture at large have the same freedom Darwin enjoyed to debate different theories of origins. Campbell’s major editor’s essay in the Michigan State University Press volume, Darwin, Design and Public Education (2003), makes this clear. What then explains FOD’s near-slanderous portrayal of Campbell as a dishonest, stealth ID advocate? I suggest, charitably: shallow, lazy, or simply nonexistent fact-gathering. I think Olson owes Campbell an apology and retraction.

FOD contains other serious errors as well. It vastly overstates the Discovery Institute’s budget for ID, for instance, in keeping with the film’s depiction of Discovery as a well-funded, but less than transparent, institution.

The Hidden Assumption. Imagine a spectator watching a baseball game through a knothole in the fence—and all he sees is third base. He watches the entire game with his eye there, focused on third base, and only third base.

If someone asks him to describe the game, he says, “Well, there’s some guy that stands around kicking the dirt for quite a while, spitting on the ground, and that sort of thing; and all at once a bunch of guys come sliding in and kick the dirt all over and then swear at each other and almost fight, and pretty soon they all leave and the first guy stands around, kicking the dirt once again. And that’s about it.”

The knothole of modern science is naturalism. Now, naturalism is said to come in two forms: one philosophical (call this PN)—the physical world is the whole of reality—and the other methodological (call this MN)—the physical world is all that science can study, although there may be more to reality, in its totality, than the strictly material. MN is said to be philosophically neutral, and necessary for the practice of science, while PN is a universal claim about the nature of reality itself.


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For all practical scientific purposes, however, PN versus MN is a distinction without a difference. Here’s the problem. It is possible that nonmaterial causes exist, such as minds, and bring about distinctive effects in the world. If MN rules out this possibility before the evidence has a chance to speak for itself, then the practice of science simply becomes applied naturalism, that is, PN in all but name. Science ceases to be a truth-seeking enterprise, because reality is being viewed through the knothole of naturalism.

What if life on Earth actually were designed and brought into existence by a nonhuman intelligence? If the “rules of science” (MN) kept us from ever discovering that, what passes as “science” would not be genuine knowledge at all. Science must be kept free to pursue the truth. To borrow a metaphor from Olson’s film, the poker-playing scientists would have rigged the game, by begging the question, presupposing what they were trying to establish. Olson and friends might have avoided this glaring fallacy had they invited at least one philosopher to the table for poker night.

A Qualified Recommendation. Would I recommend FOD? Yes, but only if viewers are informed about the film’s factual errors. One hopes that Olson will take his production back into the editing room, to fix the inaccuracies and misrepresentations that detract from his overall message. Given the likelihood that the intelligent design debate will be with us for a long time, Olson should have plenty of opportunities to do just that. I look forward to seeing his next film, and indeed to meeting him someday. We dodos of intelligent design, although challenged left and right, won’t be going extinct any time soon.