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The catalog description of this audio-visual program states that it "teaches the basic science of modem evolution theory, while at the same time fostering respect for the religious search for ultimate meaning in life and the universe." It is intended for use in biology, humanities, and history courses.
All items in the Time, Space, and Spirit series, of which this is a part, are designed to begin "where your textbook leaves off." That is, while the textbook deals with the "what" and "how" of science, items in this series concentrate on the "when," "where," and "why." Each program is divided into two parts: the first tracing the history, "the fascinating human story," behind the discoveries covered; the second presenting "the clear cut outlines of present day state-of-the-science knowledge of the concept in question." This series was developed in consultation with the History of Science Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The two parts of the program Evolution are called "Anaximander to Darwin and Beyond" and "Evolution by Natural Selection Today." Let's begin with part one. The program opens with some nostalgic old photographs of the Scopes Trial and recent shots of the famous Rhea County Court House where the trial was held. The narrator gives the outcome of the trial in broad outline and then jumps to ancient history and the evolutionary ideas of Anaximander. From Anaximander, the history of science in general is briefly traced up to the eighteenth century. Then material is provided on Carolus Linnaeas, Georges Buffon, Jean Baptiste Lamarck, Georges Cuvier, James Hutton, and Charles Lyell. Finally, Charles Darwin, Alfred Russell Wallace, and T. H. Huxley are covered in some detail.
This serves as a nice beginner's history of the leading characters in the development of evolutionary science, but it misses its opportunity to demonstrate why these different thinkers came to the conclusions they did. The student gets hardly a taste of the evidence and discoveries that made the contributions of these men so important. Instead, trivia on the personal lives of each are provided (for example: Buffon started work at six o'clock every morning and took only two breaks each day to have his hair dressed and powdered; while Linnaeas started out as a poor boy "plagued with gout, headache, scurvy, and toothache"). And when information on the discoveries and theories are provided, it is oversimplified and somewhat misleading. For example, we learn that Cuvier concluded that fossils had been formed in "great catastrophes of the past. Catastrophes like the Biblical flood," when Cuvier actually rejected the worldwide flood idea and argued instead for numerous regional floods.
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But the worst mistakes the program makes come at the end. The recent court suits of fundamentalist Christians are mentioned, along with the creationist belief in a worldwide flood. The narrator then says, "Who is right? Who is wrong? Some say it is hopeless, we will never know these things. Some say we already do know, and it is this way." Fortunately, a good quote from Darwin against dogmatic hostility to science closes the presentation. Yet, this bit of confusion is minor compared to the seeming attack on evolution that appears with frame seventy-seven. The viewer is here told that evolution has
With nothing more said on this subject, the student could easily conclude that evolution is a socially dangerous idea or that all the ideas in the list are equally distasteful.
The photography in the program is excellent and of high quality, but often the images are there just to provide something pretty to look at rather than to instruct. And, in one case, an improper picture is used. When talking about Cuvier, a fossil of Archaeopteryx is shown. Archaeopteryx wasn't discovered until a half century after Cuvier's death!
If one is not supposed to be too critical of the lack of scientific content in part one, given that its purpose is historical, that caution does not apply to part two. The intent there is to explain evolution in an up-to-date way.
A Jesuit priest's poem about the glories of God's creation opens this part. This is compared to Darwin's five basic principles of evolution by natural selection. These principles are well explained, along with an important remark that science looks for explanations that use "a bare minimum of general principles." The history of life on the planet is then covered, and the student is given a clear idea of how old Earth is and how small a part of Earth history human civilization represents. This is all good material. But, in the choice of photographs used, great opportunities are lost for graphically demonstrating the evidence for evolution. Most of the photography is excellent but often consists simply of nice pictures of interesting fossils which seem to have no obvious relationship to one another. There are no tree-of-life diagrams, no cladograms, no comparisons of fossil forms, few transitional fossils, and no graphic illustrations of the mechanisms of evolution. Such tools would have been very useful in supporting statements made in the narration, but it seems the images used were selected for their photographic artistry rather than for their value as illustrations of scientific concepts.
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There is also an air of "corniness" created by the use of an obvious model of Icthyostega walking up a modern beach and another model of a flying reptile in the air with some modern hillside in the background. The real plants in the pictures don't match the reconstructed animalseither in size or nature.
Very little is said about human evolution, and what is said is disjointed. Human ancestors are simply listed. Homo erectus is mentioned under the name Pithecanthropus, and its importance or connection to modern humans is not detailed.
The present controversies over evolutionary mechanisms are only briefly dealt with, and only Stephen Jay Gouldnot Eldredge or any othersis mentioned. And no case is made for how microevolutionary changes make macroevolution inevitable. Fortunately, the narrator calls the occurrence of evolution a fact and the mechanism of evolution a theory and then adds that the consensus of scientists today is against creationism. But in the absence of a convincing case, these statements acquire a hollow ring.
The program concludes with a discussion of possible "deeper spiritual meaning expressing itself through the evolutionary process." The last seven frames accompany stanzas of a poem by Kathleen Raine. This inspirational close will probably be lost on most students, though they will enjoy the photographs of sunsets, redwood trees, and reeds swaying in the breeze.
Overall, high school students will prefer viewing this audio-visual presentation to taking a test or hearing a lecture, but they will learn little and remember less. Some of the message they won't hear at all, since the narrator is unskilled and key words are lost as his voice trails off now and again. So, if a little educational entertainment is needed in the science, history, or humanities classroom, this program is suitable. But if solid learning is desired in order to promote a clear understanding of science and the case for evolution, one is advised to look elsewhere.