Thursday Notes

23 08 2007

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.


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6 responses

23 08 2007
Zach Miller

I don’t remember dinosaurs in Armageddon! I’m gonna have to force myself to sit through at least the first ten minutes again…

I think the archaeocetes would be great transitional forms, but so would Tiktalik (got to show it doing a push-up) and Acanthostega. A section about convergence wouldn’t hurt, either, perhaps with extreme examples (like Effigia and Thylacosmilus) and tamer ones, like ichthyosaurs.

23 08 2007
laelaps

Zach; Maybe I should have phrased myself better; there aren’t dinosaurs, but they do have a recreation of the meteor impact from space and it’s pretty impressive. I agree with the convergence and water-to-land transitions too. That’s simply the problem; there are so many good examples it’s hard to choose!

23 08 2007
DoubleW

Actually, one thing I always thought would be very helpful in the fight against creationism is a documentary exploring the various creation myths found throughout the world. I’ve always had a fascination with creation myths, which show how various culture throughout the world explained how the earth came to be before modern science.

Surprisingly, there isn’t a lot of literature out there about creation mythology, and I think it would open a lot of people’s minds if they realized that the Judeo-Christian story of creation is just one of many stories about creation out there. How many people realize, for instance, that early Christians actually had two different versions of Genesis? The gnostic movement had a very interesting twist on the Garden of Eden, believing that the snake was the good guy and the god of our world — the material world — was the bad guy. In their version, Eve really was framed, because her act liberated the human mind (although I don’t want to paint gnostics as feminists, because they weren’t).

Granted, this is a backdoor way of promoting science, but it will help.

And I’m sorry, because I know I’m going to offend a few people here, but I believe Olson hit it right on the mark about scientists, but the sad fact is scientists refuse to acknowledge they are part of the problem. People like PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins play right into the creationists’ hands, which is why they went out of their way to seek the two out in this case. Both make sweeping, simplistic generalizations about whole groups of people just because they disagree with them, making them not much better than the Christian fundamentalists they routinely attack. They may be great for preaching to the choir — although that leaves me with some concern about the choir — but they can be alienating to people new to the debate who are sitting on the fence, not sure which side to take.

Before you ask, yes, I’m an atheist myself and usually agree with the two on their political views. It’s not the message I have an issue with, it’s the tone and the stereotyping that bothers me.

23 08 2007
DoubleW

Just one more thing, to explain myself better on the whole PZ/Dawkins issue: I used to be a big believer of UFOs, ghosts and, especially, Nostradamus (although never creationism, I never sunk that low). I was a kid and all these things appealed to me, primarily after seeing the Orson Wells documentary (or is it mockumentary?) about Nostradamus. I’ve since given up believing those things, having fell in love with real science. But as I was moving away from psuedoscience, the last thing that would have helped was some know-it-all telling me how stupid I was for believing all that garbage. People are naturally defensive, and the most likely result of me hearing that would’ve been to found reasons to keep believing, to solidify my stance to let this jerk know I wasn’t going to let him intimidate me. That’s why I hate the language the two use to defend atheism – it’s so counter-productive to the cause. I’m not saying that certain big wig creationists, like the Discovery Institute folks, shouldn’t be ridiculed and criticized. They most certainly should. I’m talking about everyday folks who usually give no more thought to religion than maybe showing up for church every Sunday. People like to be treated as equals, and showing a certain amount of respect to their own views can help open the door to getting them to think about other points of view.

23 08 2007
laelaps

Thanks for the comment Walt. I like the idea about the creation myths; that could be a 10-part series in and of itself!

As for what you said about Olson’s movie I both agree and disagree. PZ, Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, Harris, and other are definitely visible, but I think what Olson did (and other have done) is say “See, this is what all scientists are like.” All the aforementioned people, whether philosophers, scientists, historians, or whatever are all highly visible and so they seem to be the “model” by which others are judged. In fact it’s not surprising that many fall into the middle-aged to silver-haired erudiate white male, when in reality all kinds of people are pursuing science. As I’ve said many times before, one of the best excercises in dealing with this Frankenstein/Einstein sort of paradigm is asking students to draw a picture of what a scientist is or should look like, then show them a video of all the different people carrying out all kinds of scientific work.

What I specifically take issue with in Olson’s movie is that it goes along with the “bad scientist” sort of frame. Scientists are smart, but they’re mean and horribly communicators (or so the common knowledge goes), and the poker game is filmed and framed to back this up. Indeed, scientists are considered “dodos” for their ineptitude in reaching the public. This is a pretty broad statement, especially given successful efforts by scientists like Carl Sagan through the Cosmos series to spark at least some interest, however fleeting, in science. The creationists and ID advocates in the film, on the other hand, are shown as misguided but nice, and we are not shown any of their low-key meetings or Biblie studies where their personal opinions about evolutionary scientists come out. It can be just as condescending, despite the desire for scientists to accept God, as the scientist who suggested in a sound-bite that at some point you have to say “You’re an idiot” to people who accept creationism. This works as a tool to support Olson’s point, but again, I feel it was a bit of a set-up.

Indeed, a big part of the problem with science communication is that it can be difficult to create good programming and public outreach programs. Working scientists can’t just focus on public relations, whereas that’s all many ID advocates and creationists do (pumping out popular works like there’s no tomorrow). You may be right in that right now the “new atheism” is fashionable, especially given Dawkins’ move from writing about science to religion and superstition, but I do reject the idea of taking him or any other high-profile scientist as an intolerant archetype that can be attributed to any other scientist. The problem is much about public education, literacy, understanding, and overall desire for knowledge as it is about communications; if people just don’t care (as seems to be the case in the U.S.) it’s that much harder to get the message across.

In any case, I think this is a multi-faceted problem and the best thing we can do is improve our teaching of evolution and science in general in public schools, as simply fighting creationism is not enough to get people to understand evolution as a science. Lots of effort has been put into keeping creationism out of schools, but I think the same effort should be put into the effective and accurate teaching of good science, and the public is just as much accountable for the state of things as scientists, politicians, or popular writers.

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