Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 8, 2009

A Flock of Dodos

Filed under: Film,science — louisproyect @ 7:26 pm

The other night I stumbled across “A Flock of Dodos” on the Showtime cable network, a somewhat overly whimsical documentary on “intelligent design” that I still recommend heartily. It is directed by Randy Olson who received a PhD in evolutionary biology from Harvard while studying under Stephen Jay Gould. Olson changed careers in the mid 1990s and became a documentary film-maker with Michael Moore as his most obvious influence. Using himself as a central figure, Olson interviews both sides of the debate seeking to make it entertaining to a mass audience. He largely succeeds although nobody is better at this than Michael Moore obviously.

Olson got the inspiration for this movie in 1999 after he his mom began sending him clippings from her hometown newspaper in Kansas about the state school board’s decision to integrate intelligent design into the high school science curriculum. On top of that, she lived next door to John Calvert, a lawyer who was spearheading efforts to promote intelligent design both in Kansas and nationally.

One of Olson’s first interviewees is Dr. Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University who wrote “Darwin’s Black Box”, a kind of bible for the intelligent design movement. Unlike the more openly fundamentalist advocates of creationism such as William Jennings Bryan, people like Behe try to couch their arguments in scientific terms, albeit in a specious manner. For example, they like to compare two mountain ranges, one in the Rockies and the other in South Dakota that just happens to include Mount Rushmore. Behe holds up the two pictures and asks Olson what conclusions you can draw from them. Obviously, it is easy to state that the first mountain range is a product of seismic events, erosion, etc. But you must conclude that Mount Rushmore was designed. By analogy, something as marvelous and as elegant as the eye must be a product of design as well since the contingency of Darwinian evolution would surely be incapable of producing such a result.

In one of the more successful attempts at humor in the movie, the frequently inelegant outcomes of evolution are depicted, especially those that relate to the digestive system, a rather less inspiring example of plumbing-particularly when it comes to rabbits. It seems that the rabbit first has to excrete out the semi-digested food it takes in and can only absorb it fully after eating it in the form of feces, which “A Flock of Dodos” films in its less than glorious dimensions.

Much of the film is devoted to an investigation of the Discovery Institute that is largely responsible for promoting intelligent design through its access to rightwing foundation funding. If you go to their website, you won’t find much in the way of dinosaurs being only a few thousand years old. When addressing the question of whether intelligent design theory is the same as creationism, their FAQ replies:

No. Intelligent design theory is simply an effort to empirically detect whether the “apparent design” in nature acknowledged by virtually all biologists is genuine design (the product of an intelligent cause) or is simply the product of an undirected process such as natural selection acting on random variations. Creationism is focused on defending a literal reading of the Genesis account, usually including the creation of the earth by the Biblical God a few thousand years ago. Unlike creationism, the scientific theory of intelligent design is agnostic regarding the source of design and has no commitment to defending Genesis, the Bible or any other sacred text. Honest critics of intelligent design acknowledge the difference between intelligent design and creationism.

Although there is little hope for serious change coming out of the Obama administration, it seems likely that public schools and colleges will not be as receptive to creationism and intelligent design over the next four years. After all, it doesn’t cost a Goldman-Sachs manager anything to preserve the separation of state and church.

For a good introduction to the issues surrounding intelligent design, rent “A Flock of Dodos” from Netflix.

1 Comment »

  1. I can also heartily recommend “Critique of Intelligent Design” by John Bellamy Foster et al, published by Monthly Review Press, for a comprehensive demolishing of intelligent design proponents like Behe.

    Comment by belgish — February 8, 2009 @ 8:38 pm

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