Movie Review: Flock of Dodos

[Originally posted on November 9, 2007 at]

Whether we like it or not, the Evolution/Creation Wars will be with us for a while. The forces of Creationism are as determined as ever to challenge Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, especially as it is currently taught in public schools and universities. The Creationists’ latest ploy is ”Intelligent Design,” or “ID,” which posits that lifeforms are so “irreducibly complex” that they must be the result of some super-intelligent agent.

Never mind that the Creationists have been turned back repeatedly in recent years. In 2005, the courts ruled that Cobb County, Georgia could not place evolution disclaimers in biology textbooks. In 2006, a similar tactic by the school board of Dover, Pennsylvania was overturned by federal Judge John E. Jones III (a George W. Bush appointee, no less). Dover voters tossed out the school board during the next election. And in Kansas, the fate of the entire state’s biology curriculum has been the subject of not one, but two struggles within the state Board of Education. Despite these setbacks, there’s no reason to believe that this battle won’t be fought again and again in various places across America. The Kansas Wars are the jumping-off point of filmmaker Randy Olson’s new documentary Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus, which looks not just at the nuts and bolts of the debate, but also at the tactics used by each side. Why is it that the Creationists seem to be winning the PR campaign, when all the scientific evidence is against them? 

Olson is a former evolutionary ecologist and makes it clear his sympathies lie with the scientific community. He avoids getting bogged down in religious arguments by taking the scientific claims of ID proponents at face value. The most prominent voice in the film is Michael Behe, a biochemist and Catholic best known as author of the pop-science book Darwin’s Black Box. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the pro-ID activists featured in the film are either scientific laymen or academics who aren’t even involved in biology, and Olson gives them just enough rope to hang themselves. While Olson makes short work of several of the claims made by the ID community, he is never sadistic or condescending. Olson goes out of his way to depict ID-ers as nice, well-meaning folks who are just misguided. 

It’s when Olson turns to his former scientific colleagues that we begin to see the problem. One scientist announces that ”Intelligent Design is mendacity”—whereupon Olson freezes the action to provide a dictionary definition of mendacity. Later, this same scientist describes Creationists as “yahoos” and “ignoramuses.” These two statements nicely sum up the problem: that the scientific community has done a poor job in the public relations department, and they often view their non-scientific opponents with contempt. The evangelicals and conservative politicians charm the public, utilizing their traditions of soundbiting and sloganeering to communicate messages like “Teach the Controversy.” Scientists, on the other hand, often come across as tweed-wearing curmudgeons who talk down to the public and consider it beneath their dignity to appear in open forums to debate evolution with non-scientists. To be fair, it must be frustrating to see that astronomers no longer have to do battle with astrologers; chemists no longer have to debate alchemists; and geologists aren’t constantly being tripped up by pro-flat-Earth wingnuts. But Olson makes a good point: if evolutionary scientists aren’t willing to adapt to the realities of their social environment, they run the danger of going the way of the much-lamented dodo. In short, scientists need to launch a Charm Offensive of their own to win the hearts and minds of voters, taxpayers, and future scientists.

I highly recommend this documentary. It’s often very funny, with most of the good-natured humor targeting the socially challenged evolutionists (they are the eponymous “Flock of Dodos,” after all). Flock of Dodos is still making the rounds at film festivals all over the world, but it’s already available on DVD. Check it out!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *