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Evolution debates hit the big screen

February 22, 2006 By Kendall Powell This article courtesy of Nature News.

Documentary Flock of Dodos challenges scientists to evolve.

The premiere of a documentary on the controversy surrounding intelligent design drew a sell-out crowd of 300 to a movie theater in Overland Park, Kansas on 2 February. Randy Olson, a marine biologist and filmmaker, wrote, directed, and narrates the film, Flock of Dodos: the Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus.

Olson believes in evolution, but he does not set out to debunk the arguments behind the intelligent design (ID) movement. Instead, the film shows ID's proponents, backed by a huge public-relations budget, winning over the American public.

Scientists' ideas, in contrast, are lost amid jargon and intellectual snobbery. Scientists, the film hints, may be the real dodos, risking extinction by not adapting to a changing media environment.

"I firmly believe in the analogy with natural selection," says Olson. "Science has backed into this lumbering, conservative corner with no flexibility to deal with something like ID when it comes up."

Olson grew up in Kansas before heading to Harvard for a doctorate in evolutionary marine ecology. He moved to Los Angeles in 1994 to work on film-making and marine biology at the University of Southern California (USC).

Pompous boors

Flock opens with Olson's mother sending him newspaper clippings from Kansas, circling the name of her neighbour, John Calvert, a national leader of the ID movement.

Olson heads to Kansas to interview Calvert and cover the recent Kansas school board hearings, which ended with the adoption of science standards in November 2005 that include teaching "the scientific criticisms of the theory [of evolution]". He also travels to Dover, Pennsylvania, as that school board wrestles with the issue in court. And he plays poker with several colleagues from his graduate-school days at Harvard.

If scientists can't communicate with each other, how are they going to communicate with us?
Subbiah Ramasamy
Senior biology student at Blue Valley North high school
The scientists in the film come across as pompous boors who shout each other down. The audience chuckles as Olson asks USC palaeontologist David Bottjer whether evolutionists have a catchphrase to counter the ID motto 'Teach the Controversy'. After a lengthy, dull explanation that there is no controversy, Bottjer says, "No, I haven't heard a catchphrase, have you?"

Viewers from both sides agreed that scientists lack communication skills. "They couldn't talk in the language of the common man," says Subbiah Ramasamy, a senior biology student at Blue Valley North high school in Overland Park who attended the screening. "If they can't communicate with each other, how are they going to communicate with us?"

After the screening, a panel of experts from the film (three for ID and three for evolution) fielded questions. The discussion, complete with boos and cheers, revealed the fervour surrounding the Kansas school board's decision.

A comment from Calvert equating teaching evolution with promoting atheism drew grumbles from the crowd, which was roughly two-thirds pro-evolution. His position - that teaching science based only on natural explanations and physical laws promotes an atheistic ideology - is an argument now typical within the ID movement.

That position is destructive, argues Steven Case, an education researcher at University of Kansas in Lawrence. "That means we are setting kids up to be anti-intellectual or have a crisis of faith. Neither one of those things should be going on in a public school, that's not what we do," Case says in the film.

Olson presents the audience with fairly dense material, but leavens it with comic relief and heartfelt narration. Moviegoers from both sides of the debate laughed at the animated dodos that take over for the talking heads, groaned at the politics, and applauded a picture of George W. Bush hanging in one Kansas home. "It was clearly a success," Olson says.

The film has since played to sell-out crowds on the at Harvard, Stony Brook, Yale, and Cornell universities on the US east coast. Further screenings are planned at Rice University in Houston, Florida State, and Kansas State universities in March. Olson intends to enter the documentary in film festivals, and hopes to secure a distributor for an eventual DVD release.

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