TV Review: What Darwin Never Knew

During the past year scientists have been celebrating the work of Charles Darwin for the insight the 19th century naturalist had into how evolution works. It is truly amazing how much Darwin got right, but there was also a lot that Darwin didn’t know. Indeed, Darwin recognized a group of disciplines that were relevant to what he was proposing, from paleontology to embryology, but despite his discoveries there were still mysteries in each field. A new NOVA program, What Darwin Never Knew, looks at what we now know about some of the questions Darwin’s research raised but could not immediately answer.

Despite the title of the show, however, the first portion of the program might as well have been called “What Darwin Knew.” The show briefly recapitulates how Darwin developed his idea of evolution by natural selection, but I must admit that it is a rather poor summary. Darwin is discussed out of context as if he was working in isolation. There is no mention of Richard Owen, Charles Lyell, John Gould, A.R. Wallace, or any of the other naturalists who influenced Darwin’s work. I know the show is meant to honor Darwin but I would hope that, 150 years after the publication of On the Origin of Species, we could move beyond such narrow-sighted idolization.

The rest of the program is a series of scientific vignettes about evolutionary research using genetics and embryology. Flies with glow-in-the-dark wings, sticklebacks that lost their spines, finches with funky beaks, the legs of Tiktaalik, light and dark mice, and humans all feature in the second half, and the conclusions derived from each case are presented as stuff “Darwin didn’t know.” (You could make a fair drinking game out of the show by taking a drink every time this line is uttered.) I will not spoil all the details for those of you planning on tuning in, but a major emphasis is placed on regulatory genes in each of these examples to illustrate how large differences can be produced through relatively small changes.

As my wife commented while watching the show with me, however, these stories are not told very well. The examples are presented one after another without being tied to a strong narrative, and in some cases the evidence presented does not support the conclusions presented by the narrator. This approach quickly became tiresome. The science is presented in an accessible way, that much is true, but the program’s latter half seems to get lost within itself.

Furthermore, some of the last segments are marred by an insistence on human exceptionalism. Yes, our species is unique, but so is every other! Even so, the program highlights what it believes to be differences between us and apes, namely opposable thumbs and a big brain. But many other creatures (including our primate relatives) both have opposable thumbs and brains as large, if not larger, than our own relative to body size (i.e. capuchin monkeys and Neanderthals for this latter trait). These traits alone can not explain art, architecture, music, and all the other things the show stresses separates us from other animals. The research relevant to these traits in our species is interesting, but by presenting them out of context the show provides a rather shallow view of our species and our relatives.

As with many science documentaries these days, What Darwin Never Knew left me with mixed feelings. There were so many small historical and scientific errors in it that I could not list them all, yet the show still contains some solid segments. In all honesty I was a bit bored with it by about the halfway mark, but then again I might have enjoyed the show more had I not already been familiar with much of its content. With a stronger narrative and the correction of a few mistakes it could have been a much better show, but such as it is I finished watching the show more out of a sense of personal obligation than actual interest.