Sorry for the lack of updates everyone; I’ve got another long-researched “treat” coming up that isn’t quite ready yet, and I’m still looking for some more illustrations to make it as interesting as I possibly can. It might not be as well received as the big human evolution post, but I still want to put out something that I can really be proud of.
As for my reading, I finished The Gorilla Hunters last night and overall I’m glad to be done with it. It’s a bit of a mess of Dickensian dialog with generous helpings of racism and ecological idiocy that ends in a rather odd way (the group’s guide, “Makarooroo” marries his sweetie and becomes a Christian missionary). My wife also couldn’t help but laugh at the unintentional homoeroticism found here and there in the book, likely a product of our dirty minds and the language used when the book was written more than anything else (and one of the protagonists being named “Peterkin”). If you’re an adventure novel completest or interested in fiction of the era, you might want to give it a quick read, but otherwise it wasn’t especially enjoyable or compelling.
I also read some more of Where Darwin Meets the Bible, and the book does improve a bit after the first 40 pages if historical indexing. The chief problem is, however, that the author is a newspaper journalist, and many of the mini-biographies he writes seem like they were peeled out of previous articles/interviews and pasted into the book. We meet people like Eugenie Scott, Phil Johnson, Michael Ruse, Ernst Mayr, and others, but they are almost presented like pearls on a string; related but still somewhat out of context from one another. This probably stems from the authors attempt to cover the issues by topic rather than chronologically, but there is a lot of jumping around with the people being discussed only contributing a sentence or two. If you can tolerate these stylistic shortcomings, or you just want to have the book as a resource to mine information, that’ll work fine, but otherwise I distinctly get the feeling from this book that it’s not terribly different from the various newspaper articles the author has written previously, just assembled in a different manner.
I’m sure by now everyone has heard how PZ (and probably Dawkins, Scott, and others) was interviewed under a false guise to provide fodder for the Ben Stein ID film I mentioned yesterday. Beyond the underhanded tactics of the film’s producers, however, another topic has shown up; what is being done in the film world to help evolution? Randy Olson, who created the film Flock of Dodos had some rather pointed words for the people in the comment sections of PZ’s posts, and he is right in that this film (despite it’s lack of substance), looks shiny and fancy and will be bound to impress some people. This got me thinking about evolution in TV and film, and I have a few of my own ideas about what’s been done already and what could be done if there was enough money involved.
As for television, evolution shows up here and there (it’s a major theme in many nature documentaries, from Walking With Dinosaurs to the wonderful Life of… programs starring David Attenborough), but shows that focus in on evolution are relatively rare. PBS had their multi-part series a few years ago, but it doesn’t seem to have had much of a lasting impact overall (at least not in the same way that the BBC’s latest series Planet Earth grabbed people’s attention). As for film, evolution is a running theme through a number of movies (let’s not get into that David Duchovney/Orlando Jones/Sean William Scott feature from 2001…), but I don’t know of any “big screen” documentaries that have covered the topic well. Yes, there is Olson’s Flock of Dodos, but that didn’t seem to get a very wide release and the more I think about the film, the more ambivalent I become towards it. Being that I’m working mostly from memory though (I saw the film last fall at the AMNH), I’ll withhold from a second review until I can buy a copy of it, although I agree with a comment my friend Chris once made that using the old S.J. Gould poker game to show how “intolerant” scientists can be was a bit of a set-up that reinforced the old “Scientists are often jerks and bad at communicating” stereotype.
Still, the public doesn’t immediately pan well-made scientific films in theaters. Look at the success of March of the Penguins (and I assume the upcoming Arctic Tale will get a similar response). It was a beautifully shot natural history film that received plenty of good reviews, and I have the feeling that the camerawork, much like in Planet Earth, had a lot to do with its success. Indeed, there were murmurings that March of the Penguins somehow supported intelligent design (although this is now largely forgotten), but it seemed to be an appealing nature film because it was non-threatening. Even in programs like the BBC’s Life of… series, the wonder and beauty of nature is what really seems to grab people and catch their attention, and that’s a theme that filmmakers concerned with evolution would do well to remember.
So, if I had unlimited money, I would want to get some of the National Geographic or BBC people to help film an big-screen evolutionary epic. I haven’t given this enough thought to come up with a big script or major storyline, but here are a few ideas that immediately jump to my mind.
– Have at least one sequence featuring the Grand Canyon, especially if it can be done during sunrise/sunset. Take the viewer on a walk down through the layers and try to convey the concept of deep time, maybe using a little CGI or puppetry to have the “ghosts” of long gone representatives of those times appear and fade out as the camera moves on down through the layers. Any area with a large exposure of rock covering hundreds of millions of years will do, but I very much prefer formations in the American West for this type of illustration.
– Get in touch with Stan Winston’s workshop (they’ve done Predator, Jurassic Park, The Relic, Pumpkinhead, etc. etc. etc.) and work with them to create some archaeocetes for a sequence on whale evolution. It really is one of the most dramatic stories in evolution, and if done well it could be very, very exciting.
– There are pros and cons to having a host v a narrator, but if there was a host I’d recommend Harrison Ford. He’s already related to the study of the past and adventure because of his role as Indiana Jones (and many people don’t understand the difference between archaeology and paleontology), so it could be a good way to draw people in and set the right sort of tone.
– If nothing else the film would need an evolutionary narrative, but this would have to be handled carefully. Why do certain mythologies appeal to us? Because they are stories that tell us something about who we are and that we can identify with. Without going to extremes that would bias the science, the film would have to be cohesive and tell an evolutionary story that directly related the topics to us, and so a good segment of the film would have to be spent on our own evolution.
– Dinosaurs would at least have to make some sort of an appearance, and I’d want to focus in on the K/T extinction event and how that set up future evolution. Dinosaurs are an instant draw, and as the intro scene to Armageddon showed (giving us a view of the impact from space), given the right special effects a meteor strike could make for some impressive cinema. Just imagine focusing in on a Tyrannosaurus family sharing a carcass before seeing the flash of light and “whumph!” sound of the impact, and then showing what happened when the burning glass spherules, ash, and molten rock came back down to earth in places all over the world. This couldn’t be the end of the sequence though, as the rise of the mammals would have to be shown (and the evolution of the mammals could be a great way to talk about whales and then humans).
– I’m biased towards paleontology (obviously), but development and genetics should definitely be featured as well. These might be harder to make a compelling sequence out of, but I’m sure some experts in the field would be able to come up with something exciting.
Anyway, those are just a few ideas I would have if someone gave me lots and lots of money to make a film about evolution. Some big stories would have to be left out, but I think an exciting and informative narrative could be constructed. Hopefully someone will make such a film someday, a blockbuster based upon the history of our own planet, but I won’t hold my breath.