Darwin’s Dilemma: I watched it so you don’t have to.

About two weeks ago I wrote that I’d received a DVD from young-earth creationist (and Discovery Institute member) Paul Nelson, a copy of the movie “Darwin’s Dilemma.” And you may recall that this movie created a bit of a stink in Los Angeles when the California Science Center, realizing that it had committed to showing that stealth-creationist movie, tried to back out.

Well, I have dutifully watched all 72 minutes of the film (a duty akin to cleaning the refrigerator: it has to be done, but it isn’t fun).  The verdict: a stinker.  It’s a well-produced movie whose goal is to show that the Cambrian “explosion,” along with a few ancillary “facts,” prove that evolution is wrong and that intelligent design is the best explanation for not only the sudden appearance of animal phyla at the beginning of the Cambrian, but for all of life in general.

The good stuff:  the animations of the Burgess shale animals: Wiwaxia, Marrella, and the like.

The bad stuff:  everything else.

It’s a breathlessly duplicitous movie, enlisting scientists like Simon Conway Morris and James Valentine, who (I think) accept evolution, into implicitly endorsing ID by their very appearance in the movie.  Either these scientists are secret IDers, or, more likely, they agreed to appear without knowing that the movie would be a vehicle for creationism.

But you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out who’s behind the movie, for if they’d merely Googled the movie producer, Illustra Media, they’d find very quickly that it appears to be identical to Discovery Media, an explictly creationist/religious outfit.  Lesson to scientists: don’t agree to appear on film unless you have absolute confidence in who is making the movie.  Conway Morris, for one, apparently has some sympathies for creationism, since he’s floated the argument that evolution is driven by God.

The movie repeatedly hammers home the message that the sudden appearance of all “animal forms” at the Cambrian boundary contradicts evolution’s central tenet that things evolve gradually from ancestors who were different.  This is “Darwin’s dilemma” of the movie’s title.  No matter that trace fossils and some remains of animals appear before the Burgess Shale fauna, so that that fauna didn’t represent the first animal life on Earth, and no matter that the “Cambrian explosion” was not instantaneous, but lasted between 5 and 20 million years.  No, the film states that the animals arose instantaneously and implies (but does not state) that this reflects God’s creation.  (They call it instead “a burst of creativity”.)

Besides Conway Morris and Valentine, several more dubious characters appear as talking heads.   Courtesy of The Discovery Institute, we get Jon Wells, Paul Nelson, and Stephen Meyer, all dolled up in jackets and trying to talk like real scientists.  Also supporting their cause is somebody new to me,  University of California at San Francisco biologist Paul Chien, also happens to be a Discovery Institute Fellow.  Dr. Chien claims that the Cambrian explosion is a “quantum jump” that has “no explanation” (well, there are lots of explanations, just not a solution yet!).  And Jon Wells, lying as usual, says that the explosion “could have happened overnight.” Note to Wells: no, it coudn’t.

Two other scary people appear:  Doug Axe and Richard Sternberg, the former new to me, the latter involved in the big mess about the publication of Meyer’s ID paper in a peer-reviewed journal.  Both are shown as working at The Biologic Institute, a spinoff of the Discovery Institute ostensibly involved in scientific research, but whose scientific credibility is demonstrated by the presence of several young-earth creationists on board. (See Celeste Biever’s exposé of this place in New Scientist.)

A few comments on the content:

1.  The movie repeatedly states that life has a long history and originated 3.5 billion years ago. It accepts the geological eras and their dates. So why on earth is Paul Nelson in it, since as a young-earth creationist he explicitly rejects all this?  ID people always want to present a united front on the age of life, and they’ve decided (which they must do so they don’t look like complete morons) to accept its ancient age.  But here I fault Paul Nelson (and the Discovery Institute in general) for hypocrisy.

2.  The movie not only claims that there were no transitional forms representing the ancestors of the Cambrian fauna, but implies that there are no transitional forms in general.  That is, of course, a lie.  We have transitional forms between fish and amphibians, amphibians and reptiles, reptiles and mammals, dinosaurs and birds, land mammals to whales and seals, and so on.  If sudden appearance reflects the actions of a Designer, then how do IDers explain these transitional forms? Did they — God help us — evolve?

3.  And what about those vertebrates, like mammals, who appeared later?  And what about the flowering plants, which didn’t evolve until about 200 million years ago, more than 300 million years after the Cambrian explosion?  Did God have some afterthoughts?

4.  The film presents a few other arguments for intelligent design.  One is the sudden appearance, supposedly fully formed, of phyla (characterized by their possession of novel “body plans) at the Cambrian boundary, rather than species, which, according to evolutionary biology, should appear before phyla, diverging only later to form the more inclusive groups.  The film argues that the “top down” pattern is precisely what is expected if life resulted from a designing intelligence: humans, who are conscious designer, use a top-down strategy in their creations.  Automobiles, for example, have retained the original design of an engine, four wheels, etc., while varying only in detail as time progressed.

This is a clever argument, but of course fails when we have a good fossil record, as in the evolution of mammals from reptiles or of amphibians from fish.  We don’t see fully-evolved mammals appearing suddenly in the fossil record, later spinning off the various groups of modern mammals. Rather, we see a gradual divergence of mammal-like reptiles from reptile-like reptiles, with the major groups of mammals forming later.

And Meyer and his cronies claim, as expected, that the information to create new body plans through development simply can’t have arisen through random mutation and selection. (For a good refutation of this idea, see Kenneth Miller’s books, Only a Theory and Finding Darwin’s God.)  Richard Sternberg further argues that the fact of development itself is beyond evolutionary explanation, for development requires “another level of information” beyond that stored in the DNA.  That’s not true either, for DNA codes for proteins that, once formed, self-assemble into organisms. (See Richard Dawkins’s new book, The Greatest Show on Earth, for a lucid explanation of how this happens.)

Darwin’s Dilemma is a slick package designed to deceive the viewer by pretending that the facts, and the scientific consensus, are against the tenets of evolutionary theory. It hides the real facts, suborns genuine scientists, and, above all, pretends that it’s motivated not by religion, but by concern for truth.

Sometimes I wish there were a God, just so jokers like this could face Him after death and hear these words: “I never asked you to lie in my name.”


  1. NewEnglandBob
    Posted January 20, 2010 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    Thanks, now I and countless others have no need to watch this film by the “Liars for Jesus™” crew who are hiding from their Discovery Institute swamp.

  2. Jordan
    Posted January 20, 2010 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    “(They call it instead “a burst of creativity”.)”

    This reminds me of Dawkins discussing inconsistencies in the Catholic dogma that tries to incorporate God and evolution:

    Rowan Williams claims, “I think there are certain moments there’s an opening in the world in which the underlying divine action comes through in a fresh way..”

    • Sili
      Posted January 24, 2010 at 8:22 am | Permalink

      What does that have to do with Catholic dogma?

  3. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted January 20, 2010 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    The movie repeatedly hammers home the message that the sudden appearance of all “animal forms” at the Cambrian boundary…

    How nice. So the first mammals appeared then? The first birds? Etc.?

  4. Posted January 20, 2010 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    I am somewhat surprised that Conway Morris would lend his name to this. Although, I know he is an anti-materialist. In this he seems to be the same as Ken Miller.

    I have a related question. I remember Dawkins suggesting that belief in a sudden explosion of body plans during the Cambrian could be due to observer error. Somewhat akin to a gardener wondering why all present growth on the tree was at the twig-level as opposed to the bough or branch-level.
    (The analogy with evolution is direct due to the idea of branching descent).

    Is this a good/bad argument to bring up when people start talking about Cambrian explosions?

  5. Anthony
    Posted January 20, 2010 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    Well Jerry, I know that you said that you would watch it so we wouldn’t have too, but curiosity got the best of me. So I wasted some time and brain cells to see what they had to say. Your evaluation is spot on.

    I can see why so many ignorant church goers can watch this stuff and come away with their faith strengthened and continue to fight science. You create a film, add great footage and lots of spin to affirm what you already believe and the masses just eat it up.

    • KP
      Posted January 20, 2010 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

      Sometimes I think that if I wanted to make a bunch of money really quickly, I could use my knowledge of evolution to provide just the right spin to say that not only 1) does evolution fail to explain [X], but it’s failure to do so 2) led me to the revelation that there must be a God who designed [X] and probably everything else.

      Sell a few million copies of a book or DVD to the faithful, and live a much more leisurely life than that of a mid-level scientist.

      This all occurred to me as I am going through Marvin Lubenow’s “Bones of Contention” wondering just how he thinks he can get away with some of the ridiculousness in it. It got me wondering for just a minute if he’s really making it all up to sell the faithful a bill of goods.

  6. Posted January 20, 2010 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    The Creationist’s Dilemma: The fact that the earth is “only” 6000 years old yet 5 million years is “sudden”.

  7. Confused
    Posted January 20, 2010 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    I always thought Simon Conway Morris was the epitome of intelligent design creationism. He’s hard up at the evolution end, but at least from his Wikipedia page (he did a lecture series titled “Darwin’s Compass: How Evolution Discovers the Song of Creation”) it seems pretty clear he believes that evolution was how God created the world.

    Since you say the film “implies (but does not state) that this reflects God’s creation”, I’m really confused about why you think Conway Morris must have somehow been duped into taking part in this venture because he believes in evolution, when he quite clearly regards creation and evolution to be reconcilable.

  8. Posted January 20, 2010 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    I saw it on TBN over a month ago.

    They conveniently ignore the fact that phyla were understood as “related” well before genetic data confirmed it.

    Then they ignore the fact that we have precursors to the Cambrian “explosion” in the appearance of eukaryotes long prior to that time, and the various metazoan fossils.

    No explanation, either, for the “Ediacaran explosion,” which apparently the “designer” did just for the fun of it. No explanation for the “Cambrian explosion” either, unsurprisingly.

    It’s really dishonest. I’m not surprised that Paul Nelson would find this a convenient way to get dishonesty to someone while pretending to be above that sort of thing.

    Glen Davidson

  9. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted January 20, 2010 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    The trilobites were fallen angels, at the end of the Permian they were all sent to Hell.

  10. whyevolutionistrue
    Posted January 20, 2010 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    Note: I’ve been informed that James Valentine has issued this disclaimer about his participation in the movie:

    What James Valentine Really Thinks About Evolution
    Dr. James Valentine, an evolutionary biologist and Professor Emeritus in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of California at Berkeley, is featured in the intelligent design movie Darwin’s Dilemma.

    I wish to clarify my role in the new film Darwin’s Dilemma. When I was interviewed about a decade ago for the material used in this movie, I was unaware that this interview might appear in a film promoting intelligent design. My appearance should not be misconstrued as support for any creationist agenda.
    I support evolution.
    I disagree with the view that the best explanation for the Cambrian record is the action of an “intelligent designer” instantaneously creating phyla. Had the filmmakers bothered to read my book On the Origin of Phyla, they would have understood that I do not support a creationist interpretation of the Cambrian explosion or the fossil record. Scientific findings in many fields, including my own (paleobiology) as well as geology, geophysics, geochemistry, developmental biology, and systematics, have led to a synthesis of the events surrounding the Cambrian explosion that is in full accord with well-established evolutionary principles.
    When watching Darwin’s Dilemma, I ask viewers to note:
    • My interview statements do not criticize evolution
    • My interview statements do not promote creationism or intelligent design
    • Even though my interview is interspersed with several intelligent design advocates, I do not share their interpretation of the Cambrian record I would like viewers to know:
    • I think evolution is the best scientific interpretation of the fossil record
    • While the religious views of individuals should be respected, scientists also merit respect earned by generations of hard work in their fields
    Dr. James Valentine
    University of California, Berkeley

  11. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted January 20, 2010 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    As for Douglas Axe, he is old news. Hailed as the savior of Luskin’s “Wedge” program, he was instrumental in instituting Biologic [sic!]. After publishing a mediocre peer reviewed paper on, IIRC, measures of protein folds which coincidentally supported evolution (i.e. from one fold it is rather common to find another – despite “designists” attempting random non-selective shuffling), the webosphere become silent.

    Richard Sternberg further argues that the fact of development itself is beyond evolutionary explanation, for development requires “another level of information” beyond that stored in the DNA. That’s not true either, for DNA codes for proteins that, once formed, self-assemble into organisms.

    Or if you don’t abstract away the cellular machinery, there is a rather robust (but modifiable) “environment” that has been continued alongside inherited DNA throughout. As the genome learns from all of the environment, it knows about this as well, hence it can use and control observed self-assembly.

    So there is “another level of information” that is continually supplied to the genome. But it isn’t beyond evolution, it is mundane as far as environment goes.

    If they were rational and/or not lying, creationists could attack pre-cellular abiogenesis on this. Never evolution.

  12. James F
    Posted January 21, 2010 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    I must correct you about Paul Chien: he’s on the faculty at the University of San Francisco (USF), NOT the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF). There’s no way he would have made the cut at UCSF. Seriously, I want to keep intact my streak of never being affiliated with a school with creationists on the faculty.

    • Jason F
      Posted January 22, 2010 at 6:07 am | Permalink

      James, you beat me to it!

      But even schools like MIT have global warming deniers on faculty.

  13. Stephen P
    Posted January 21, 2010 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    ‘Dr. Chien claims that the Cambrian explosion is a “quantum jump”’

    Did he really say that? I trust that he is aware that a quantum jump is the smallest possible unit of change? Oh … apparently not.

  14. Xenithrys
    Posted January 22, 2010 at 2:50 am | Permalink

    Small nit-pick. Flowering plants are generally reckoned to be no more than 135 million years old. (Although their sister-group, the living gymnosperms, do have a much older fossil record.) Makes your point even stronger.

  15. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted January 22, 2010 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    a quantum jump is the smallest possible unit of change?

    Actually there is no such thing.

    Never was used in QM, what I know of.

    And now observationally refuted by gradual decoherence, and theoretically by the observation that classical systems are the ones with discrete dynamics. (By way of coherent states, admitting such things as bayesian a priori/a posteriori descriptions.) While quantum systems predict the above observed continuous dynamics. (There’s an arxiv paper on that, if anyone is interested.)

    Folk physics got it all backwards!

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted January 22, 2010 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

      Oops, this both got on the wrong subthread and is vague: it is “quantum jumps” that is folk physics.

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