Earlier this week the Trinity Broadcasting Network aired the Discovery Institute’s film ‘Darwin’s Dilemma: the mystery of the Cambrian fossil record.’ The feature length, allegedly-documentary movie has been promoted as an exploration “of the Cambrian explosion and the scientific controversy that still surrounds it.” Because of the evolutionary and science-based subject matter dealt with by the film, I thought that a private screening was in order, so when Saturday afternoon rolled around, I parked myself on the couch with a couple slices of cold pizza and hit play on my DVR’s remote…
Wow, the film really blew me away! To set the stage, let me first explain that being an enthusiast of science and nature documentaries, my DVR is pre-programmed to search and record all shows that include certain key words in their descriptions or titles. Occasionally, these key words, like ‘evolution’ or ‘fossils’ for example, result in the unintentional recording of creationist crap, and more often than not, this crap comes from the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN). About twice a week, the TBN broadcasts ‘science education’ programs with devious names like “Teaching Origins Objectively;’ but these shows don’t usually pose much of an inconvenience. They’re not a problem because I’ve conditioned myself to delete these recordings the very second that a party line or half-truth is identified – thus I rarely need to endure more than five minutes of these mostly low quality, poorly produced and obviously disingenuous shows.
Getting back to ‘Darwin’s Dilemma,’ as I started to watch, I was instantly caught off guard by the film’s production quality! The imagery was great; at the opening there was a well-animated Anomalocaris swimming happily in the Cambrian sea, and then after failing to out-swim an undersea avalanche, he was vividly buried and fossilized. Anomalocaris was an ancient animal that resembled a cross between a trilobite and a modern shrimp; it inhabited the world’s oceans about 520 million years ago. Comforting me through the Anomalocaris’s life and death drama was a spirited music score and a narrator that spoke with clarity and ease, like a wise grandfather detailing a long forgotten tale. As I continued to watch the paleontological spectacle unfold, I listened carefully to my knowledgeable patriarch, waiting for mention of a god, intelligent design or other clue to the movie’s shifty agenda – but it didn’t come.
I continued to watch...
Then a quote appeared on the screen;
"The Cambrian Explosion was the most remarkable and puzzling event in the history of life…” -Stephen Jay Gould
At first glance I thought that the creationist gig was up; but then, after a moment’s thought, I found myself in agreement with statement. The Cambrian Explosion was a pretty significant event, and although Stephen Gould’s quotes are often mined and used out-of-context by religious evil-doers, this wasn’t the case in this situation… The Cambrian Radiation was – and is – puzzling. I kept watching.
The story line moved from the demise of the introductory Anomalocaris to the history of the famous Burgess Shale. The narrator, while seamlessly transitioning between historic black and white photographs, elaborated on the rarity of unearthing quality fossils from geologic strata, he then verbally underlined the scientific value of those recovered from Canada’s Burgess Shale. He discussed Charles Walcott’s field seasons and the paleontological digs key to uncovering the mysteries of the Cambrian metazoans.
Then the film flashes to Cambridge University where we meet evolutionary biologist and renowned Cambrian expert Dr. Simon Conway Morris, whom promptly describes the Burgess fossils as “miraculous.”
I’d be willing to wager that Morris didn’t intend the word “miraculous” in the same sense that it is frequently used by the religious minded, but non-the-less I felt a deepening sickness come over me. Simon Conway Morris is a widely respected scientist, and he has openly explained that he participated in the ‘Darwin’s Dilemma’ film while unaware that it was to be torqued and twisted into pseudo-science. Unfortunately, had I not known about Morris’s plight, his cropped dialogue in the film would seem nothing short of fully endorsing the Intelligent Design scheme - truly a shame.
As the Cambridge interview proceeded, Simon Conway Morris went on to congenially list many of the questions and difficulties surrounding the study of the Cambrian Radiation Event. As I listened to his enthusiastic detailing of a lacking pre-Cambrian fossil record, poorly understood Proterozoic ecology and complications arising from the embryological development of animal body designs, I became aware that although Morris has hundreds of published articles to his credit - most of which offer answers to the very questions he lists in the film - none of his studies or findings are being mentioned. As one example of many, I recall a 1998 piece in which he specifically criticized “blanket assertions” about the Cambrian radiation. In the film Morris was being portrayed as an expert with no answers; furthermore, in the process of describing the past blockades to science’s Cambrian comprehension, he was actively shooting down out-dated notions about the radiation event. The end result of the exchange was a sneaky, almost imperceptible ‘time shift’ during which Morris’s critiques of science-past are superimposed on science-current. His onscreen persona is presented as asserting that modern biology has no way of explaining what happened during the Cambrian Radiation. In primary support of this false-claim is a reported lack of fossils predating the Cambrian diversification – a lack of intermediate fossils between pre-Cambrian protozoa and the rise of the Cambrian’s multicellular animals.
Just as Morris’s on-film character convinces the audience that the Cambrian fossils are “miraculous” and without predecessors, a new quote takes the screen;
“It is as though they were just planted there without any evolutionary history…” -Richard Dawkins
CONTINUED IN PART 2 - HERE
Morris, S. (1998). The evolution of diversity in ancient ecosystems: a review Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 353 (1366), 327-345 DOI: 10.1098/rstb.1998.0213
Wednesday: Hili dialogue
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