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WGBH girds for uproar from creationists

Charles Darwin, portrayed by an actor The reaction to Darwin's work began during his lifetime and is likely to spike again this fall. Pictured: actor contemplating a break with religious doctrine. (Photo: John Rogers, copyright by WGBH.)

Originally published in Current, June 11, 2001
By Geneva Collins

An educational experience 4.6 billion years in the making," says the clever tagline for WGBH's big September series Evolution. The way the Boston producers have been preparing for the reaction from creationists, you'd think they expect the controversy surrounding it will last almost that long.

"Evolution is two steps away from abortion," said Anne Zeiser, director of national strategic marketing for WGBH, placing the flash point at which evolution ignites fundamentalist outrage. Recent polls show that 45 percent of Americans say they believe in creationism, and many Christians view Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection as an assault on their faith.

Evolution, a seven-part, eight-hour co-production of WGBH's Nova science unit and billionaire Paul G. Allen's Clear Blue Sky Productions, will kick off the PBS fall season Sept. 24-27. It will come with a comprehensive website, an educational outreach initiative targeted at high school biology teachers, and a companion book.

The project's executive producer, Richard Hutton, had been itching for more than a decade to do a series on evolution. Before being wooed back to public television in 1999 from a job as a senior v.p. for Walt Disney Imagineering in Orlando, Hutton had worked at WETA, where he headed TV production and programming, and WNET, where he developed The Brain and The Mind for PBS in the '80s.

"Everybody wondered for years if it would be possible to do something on evolution," said Hutton. "The idea of raising funding was very slim because of the controversial nature of the topic."

Enter deep-pocketed Clear Blue Sky Productions, the independent film production company started by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. According to Bonnie Benjamin-Phariss, director of documentary production for the Seattle-based company, Allen and President/Executive Producer Jody Patton had been talking about doing an evolution documentary to promote scientific literacy. Clear Blue Sky already had worked with WGBH on another project, having purchased outtakes from WGBH's 1995 Rock & Roll series for its music museum in Seattle, the Experience Music Project, so executives contacted Nova Executive Producer Paula Apsell about a possible collaboration.

The resulting product was made entirely without corporate or foundation underwriting. Clear Blue Sky is the sole financial investor of Evolution (whose price tag no one involved in the project was willing to disclose, except to say documentary segments are on par with standard Nova costs). The company also had considerable editorial input. WGBH was the production partner.

Hutton said WGBH brought him on board to head up the project in 1998 or 1999, well before the headline-grabbing imbroglio in Kansas, in which state school board officials voted to remove evolution from the science curriculum of the public schools. (A newly elected school board reversed the decision earlier this year.)

The Kansas controversy "affected us in that my friends had all said, 'Oh, evolution is dusty and passé,' and then suddenly we were in the news," said Hutton.

Recent headlines notwithstanding, people have been attacking Darwin's theories since he first expressed them. It's a point Evolution strives to make in its first episode, revealing that Darwin suppressed publication of The Origin of Species for 21 years because he knew it would inflame the Anglican church, and he wanted to spare his family the wrath and ridicule he knew would follow. In a dramatized re-enactment in the first episode, Darwin tells a friend, "It's like confessing to a murder."

Darwin docu-drama

Evolution's use of a Masterpiece Theatre-style dramatization of Darwin's mid-19th century life in an otherwise conventional science documentary might be considered controversial if the subject itself weren't already so incendiary. Hutton said producers chose this approach because "all the incredible work was done in Darwin's head. Panning still photographs wouldn't convey anything. One of the goals [of the dramatization] was to bring flesh and bone to Darwin and his personality, his family, his fears."

Later episodes (sans dramatization) address Darwinian concepts like survival of the fittest and how they apply to modern life (it explains why microbes develop resistance to drugs, for example). But the real lightning rod for criticism is expected to be the final episode, titled "What About God?" In this one-hour segment, Evolution's creators address some of the objections that Americans have raised about Darwin's ideas, starting with the famed Scopes Monkey Trial in 1926. It reports the situation from several battlegrounds in the conflict, such as Wheaton College in Illinois, a fundamentalist Christian university that teaches evolution in its science classes but requires professors to sign a statement of faith that they believe Man is directly descended from Adam and Eve, who were created by God.

"How do we make sense of sin coming into this world if we evolved from apes?" one student asks.

Kenneth Ham, a Christian activist who believes in a literal six-day creation as outlined in Genesis, is shown in front of a model of Noah's ark that includes dinosaurs as part of the menagerie rescued from the flood. (Many creationists believe the global flood depicted in the Bible explains the existence of dinosaur fossils encased in mud.)

The episode touches on, but does not go into great detail about, an updated anti-Darwin school of thought called intelligent design. Unlike believers in literal creationism, proponents of intelligent design accept that the Earth is millions of years old. But they argue that the complexity of living things that exists even at the cellular level cannot be explained by long-term random selection and variation. They contend that it indicates the handiwork of an intelligent designer.

In the last episode, Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, explains that ever since a 1987 Supreme Court ruling that decreed that creationism is a religion and not a science, anti-evolutionist forces have been seeking to present their views in more scientific terms.

"We would have been very interested in supporting intelligent design if we had found scientific support for it," said Hutton. In fact, intelligent design proponents at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute were invited to participate in the last episode but declined, said Zeiser.

"We declined because that episode is related to the religious controversy that Darwinian theory has aroused," said Discovery Institute spokesperson Mark Edwards. "There's no sense of us being painted as religious opposition when everything we're doing is from a scientific point of view." He predicted the institute would issue a response to the series after it airs.

WGBH conducted eight focus groups around the country while putting the Evolution project together, said Zeiser, which gave its creators a sense of how the subject matter would play in Peoria (metaphorically speaking). It also solicited pubcaster feedback via an eight-member station advisory board. The chief strategy for dealing with the expected controversy is to bring on board several major-league spokespeople in the areas of science, religion, and education. Those who have signed on include anthropologist Jane Goodall, theologian Arthur Peacocke, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and Ken Miller, a biologist and devout Catholic who wrote the book Finding Darwin's God. Some of the spokespeople were content advisers and appear in the series and on accompanying classroom videos; others will make appearances at scientific, educational and religious conferences, attend publicity events, and sit for media interviews in the coming months.

"We at WGBH or PBS don't want to be in the position of arguing with people about their belief system," said Zeiser. "Our point of view is that science and religion do not need to be in conflict. Science speaks to the 'what happened.' Religion speaks to the 'why.'"

"Our primary goal is to have this entire project and all of its components put momentum and be part of the national dialogue about the whole subject," said Jason Hunke, director of marketing and publicity for Clear Blue Sky.

Zeiser will conduct two sessions on what she calls Evolution "messaging" at the PBS annual meeting in Philadelphia this week. "The idea is the controversy's going to happen, so this is about managing it," she said.

Members of the station advisory board (from WEDU, Tampa; WTVI, Charlotte; WTTW, Chicago; KERA, Dallas; KUED, Salt Lake City; WNPT, Nashville; Iowa PTV; and Maine Public Broadcasting) saw a cut of the last episode in January. "When they saw it, they said, 'We're not as worried now.' They felt it was respectful," said Zeiser.

WGBH's biggest outreach

Looking beyond the TV series, Julie Benyo, director of Evolution initiatives for WGBH, says the educational outreach effort for the project is the most extensive in the station's history. Benyo oversees the website ( and the educational components, which include classroom videos, a teaching guide and an online professional development course for high school biology teachers.

"Some teachers are afraid to even say 'evolution' in their classroom. They call it the E-word. . . . They are hungry for this information," said Benyo. The teaching videos will provide ways for teachers to handle the creation debate in the classroom, she said.

The website will be what Benyo describes as a "vetted portal" for reliable, scientific, seminal information about evolution. It is being designed with extra safeguards to help it withstand hacker attacks and expanded capacity "so we're not brought down by 100,000 people logging on at once," she said.

Even months before the series airdate, Evolution is already on the radar screens of anti-Darwinists, according to Zeiser. She said one of the founders of the intelligent design movement mentioned it at an appearance in Boston recently, and that creationists have requested information from the website.

Of course, a producer can make sure a show is perceived as controversial by hyping it as such, and one wonders whether WGBH's elaborate preparations might possibly be one part series promotion to two parts protective firewall. The WNET series Nature aired a six-part series, Triumph of Life, in January that addressed evolution and hardly raised an eyebrow, said Executive Producer Fred Kaufman.

WGBH's Evolution project "is different in that they get into human evolution, which we really didn't touch on in any detail," said Kaufman. "Our series was really geared to what animals do in terms of adaptations and strategies for survival. . . . The majority of the e-mails said it was stunning. There were just a couple of people who criticized us as presenting this as a fact without giving any credence to creation theory. There was no kind of big reaction to this," he said.

Still, WGBH is urging stations not to underestimate how the project will play out.

"If there's one take-away from this, it's that what's really important is how emotional this issue is for people," said Zeiser. "For people raised in a certain way, this is where they came from, they feel that evolution and science is in conflict [with their faith]. It was humbling for us to understand. It made us realize that not only were we delivering a science series, we had to be fully prepared with how it intersected with education and religion."


Home . To Current's home page
Earlier document . Earlier document: How the Bible tells it.
Outside link . Outside link: WGBH's Evolution website.
Outside link . Outside link: Paul Allen's Vulcan Productions, Seattle (formerly Clear Blue Sky Productions).
Outside link . Outside link: Online debate over evolution organized in 1996 by WGBH's Nova unit.

Web page posted June 23, 2001
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