Movie Night

Last night I drove into New Haven, Connecticut, to catch an advanced screening of Flock of Dodos, a movie about evolution and intelligent design. Afterwards I took part in a panel discussion. It was an interesting evening, not only because the movie was quite good, but because it provoked a noisy discussion.

I don’t want to give away too much of Flock of Dodos, because I would prefer that a lot of people get a chance to see it for themselves. Randy Olson, the creator of the film, spoke after the film and explained that the version we saw was still a bit rough around the edges, and he’s getting ready to enter it into various film festivals and hopes to get distribution after that. I wish him well.

To be brief, then, Olson is a biologist-turned-filmmaker who got a bit baffled by the rise of intelligent design and decided to investigate, heading back to his native state of Kansas. He talked to school board members, intelligent design advocates, and evolutionary biologists. Olson’s a friendly, open guy who can share a beer with a creationist without getting it splashed in his face. But in all the laid-back conversation, he offers some pretty penetrating observations of the intelligent design movement. A creationist board of education member winks and smiles with a mix of flirtation and cynicism. An intelligent design advocate declares that all biology textbooks promote the lies of Haeckel about embryos and evolution, only to start paging through the textbooks in his office in a futile search to find any mention of Haeckel. A cardiologist who is one of the leading champions of intelligent design in Kansas doesn’t even know which scientific meetings he would go to present his research, if he had any research to present.

Olson weaves in interviews with evolutionary biologists, who clearly make Olson want to bang his head against the wall. They’ve got the science right, but they can be inarticulate and high-handed, torpedoeing their own cause. Their efforts at communication to the public are stiff and a bit arrogant. Meanwhile, intelligent design advocates have hired the PR firm that brought us Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

The movie does a nice job of conveying the past few years of school-board shenanigans, including the Dover case. And it’s funny. It hits the same personal, low-key humor struck so nicely by Morgan Spurlock in Supersize Me. Spurlock made his point about American eating habits more effectively than a semester’s worth of lectures from nutritionists. Olson makes his point about the emptiness of Intelligent Design more effectively than a lot of scientists themselves have.

The premiere packed an auditorium at Yale with a couple hundred people creating all sorts of fire hazards. After the movie, the other panelists and I sat down to talk. John Hare, a theologian at the Yale Divinity School, said he enjoyed seeing the intelligent design sympathizers portrayed not as yahoos but as people, as well as seeing evolutionary biologists portrayed as bastards. (His word, not mine–the first time I think I’ve heard a theologian use the word bastard, now that I think of it.) Hare was half-joking; he explained that a lot of the trouble over evolution–needless trouble, in his view–came from those who would try to explain every tiny facet of human existence as the product of an adaptation finely honed by natural selection.

I talked about how my own experience as a science writer certainly meshed with some of Olson’s own experiences. I can remember getting into discussions with biologists five or six years ago about the rise of intelligent design, and they would just give me blank stares. When I explained what was happening beyond their lab, most of them seemed to assume that I could only be talking about ten or eleven people very far away. Once intelligent design began popping up in newspapers and magazines and education standards, the biologists did perk up and take notice. But their responses were not quite up to the challenge. I recounted how a bunch of representatives from a lot of scientific societies gathered for a meeting on challenges to evolution and came away a clarion call to action: each society would post a statement in support of evolution on their society’s web site. Other biologists didn’t even think it was their place to get involved. If not them, I wondered, who?

The other panelist was Richard Prum, an ornithologist who has done lots of important work on the evolution of birds. (I’ve reported on some of his work in the New York Times and elsewhere.) He put up with our semi-constructive criticism pretty well. He was asked to come up with a short and sweet slogan to go up against the creationist “Teach the Controversy.” Harkening back to ID advocate Michael Behe’s testimony at the Dover trial that astrology would qualify as science under his definition, Prum suggested, “Teach Astrology.”

But for all the goodwill, you could tell that Prum felt that some of Olson’s complaints were a bit unfair. In Flock of Dodos, the biologists all come off as stiff, tongue-tied, and unemotional. That portrayal serves Olson’s message, which is that biologists have to become much more media-savvy or risk the fate of the dodos that give the movie its title. But Prum pointed out that evolutionary biologists aren’t just sitting around at the Discovery Institute getting paid to write op-ed pieces. They’ve got full-time jobs doing science and teaching students. It’s more important for them to do good research than to put out a snappy press release.

The issue continued to itch away under Prum’s skin when the discussion was opened up for questions from the audience. One person asked what Olson actually thought scientists needed to do in the current climate, and Olson began to talk about how scientists needed to learn to be more spontaneous. And in the middle of Olson’s reply, Prum grabbed the microphone and said, “You want spontaneous?” He stood up, his chair flying back, and held the mike a bit too close to his mouth so that his voice was weirdly fuzzy. I’m obsessed with birds, he said. Believe me, it’s not hard to get excited about evolution. But we just don’t have that much effect on what people are thinking in this country.

It was a disconcerting sight, because Prum has the very cheerful, easy-going demeanor of a man who loves birds and the fact that he gets to study them for a living. (Exhibit A) At first Prum may have thought his outburst would be a funny joke, and a dramatic way to respond to Olson’s jabs. But the passion really did sweep through him, to the point that his hands were shaking. And the audience broke into wild applause.

Olson just smiled and said, “Now, that’s spontaneous.”

I think Olson’s portrait of scientists was a bit of a caricature. Ken Miller of Brown has proven that biologists can talk about evolution in an engaging way, and his testimony played a key role in the devastating crushing of intelligent design in Dover, Pennsylvania. And while some scientists still think that issuing a statement on a web site no one visits is bold action, other scientists have explored new ways of communicating evolution, from games to blogs. But there can be a lot of truth in caricature, especially when it’s stammering and stumbling to explain evolution in plain terms.

The evening ended with a student in the back making the case that, like it or not, evolutionary biologists do work that has profound implications for people’s lives. “If I have to quote Spiderman,” he said, “it’s a great power you have. And with great power comes responsibility.”

And with Spiderman on our minds, we decamped for beer.