The Voyage that Shook the World

by John C. Snider © 2009

If you buy the latest Creationist explanation, Charles Darwin was a fantasy-prone naif who “fabricated stories” as a boy, fell for a bunch of geological uniformitarianist claptrap, got mad at God for the deaths of three of his ten children, and kluged together the Theory of Evolution by cherrypicking the data he collected on his famous round-the-world voyage.  Plus he was a racist precisely because he believed that, while all human beings are derived from a common ancestor, some were more evolved than others.

As you probably already know, 2009 marks both Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his magnum opus The Origin of Species.  Lovers of science have been celebrating all year, but Creationists–still smarting from recent legal setbacks involving teaching Intelligent Design in public schools, and increasingly desperate to sound “sciencey” when discussing their discredited theories–are determined not to be outdone in the Year of Darwin.

What will probably be this year’s most furious volley from the Creationists in the battle for Darwin’s legacy is a new documentary called The Voyage that Shook the World, produced at a cost of over $1 million by Creation Ministries International (an Australian-based outfit headed by self-described ufologist Gary Bates).

Voyage is a short film (somewhere around 55 minutes long), but it has nearly impeccable production values, with state-of-the-art digital effects, beautiful photography of places Darwin visited during his time on the HMS Beagle, and realistic sets and period dress to complement the voice-over narration.  Although actors portray Darwin at various ages, they almost never speak (and on the occasions they do speak it comes across rather stilted).  Still, one has to give CMI credit for putting their budget dollars up on the screen.

Talking Heads Who Stop Making Sense

Supplementing the narrative are a dozen or so talking heads, including (more or less in order of appearance):

  • Janet Browne (a historian of science who teaches at Harvard)
  • Sandra Herbert (a Darwin scholar who teaches at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County)
  • Peter Bowler (professor on the history of science at Queen’s University, Belfast, Northern Ireland; and although you’d never know it from the film, he’s a keen critic of Creationism)
  • Emil Silvestru (a Romanian born and educated geologist who is on staff with CMI)
  • Stuart Burgess (professor of Mechanical Engineering at University of Bristol, UK, and a contributor to Answers in Genesis)
  • Phil Currie (a Canadian paleontologist)
  • Bryan Milsted (head of research at the Darwin Research Station in the Galapagos)
  • Rob Carter (a biologist on staff with CMI)
  • Craig Buckley (a biologist at Cambridge University)
  • Cornelius Hunter (a biologist affiliated with the Discovery Institute)
  • Matti Leisola (a biochemistry professor from Finland–good luck finding much about him online that isn’t in Finnish)
  • Alvin Plantinga (a professor of philosophy at Notre Dame who, according to Wikipedia, argues that “if evolution is true, it undermines naturalism.”  Yeah.)
  • Tapio Poulimatka (a professor of philosophy from Finland)

Perhaps not surprisingly, three of the participants (Peter Bowler, Sandra Herbert and Janet Browne) complained prior to the film’s release that the production company–Fathom Media–approached them under cloaked circumstances, saying only that they were filming a documentary for possible broadcast on Australian TV.  (See “The Perils of Publicity,” page 24 of the July 2009 issue of the Newsletter of the History of Science Society.)  The trio also complained that their comments were edited in such a way as to skew their meaning and/or taken out of context (sounds like Fathom was doing a little cherrypicking of their own!).  CMI has defended its methods, saying, “If people had asked us…the team would [have answered] honestly” about being associated with Creationism.  They also bristle at the suggestion that not laying out the whole truth behind the purpose of the film to the interviewees was not a “lie of omission.”  At one level, this seems to boil down to a he-said-she-said type of quarrel, but a careful reading of CMI’s defense includes what amounts to “well, all atheists are liars anyway.”  They also defend their tactics, noting that reporters during the Cold War used false pretenses to interview Communist officials for an exposé on repression behind the Iron Curtain!  So…pro-science historians are equivalent to Communists trying to cover up atrocities???

Charlie Darwin: Gullible Sap

Creationists nowadays are fond of manufacturing a false equality between their ideas and the theory of evolution as accepted by the vast majority of working biologists.  They do this by pushing the notion of “different starting points yield different conclusions.”  They argue that scientists who assume a naturalistic world end up jiggering their data to come up with naturalistic theories, while creation scientists, who believe in the Bible, end up with equally valid, but nonetheless supernatural, theories for how things came to be.  What kind of theory you come up with depends simply on what your assumptions are going in.  Indeed, Voyage goes one step further, stating flat-out that “scientists have a faith commitment to evolution that is not supported by science.”

But Darwin, as depicted in Voyage, isn’t some hand-wringing evil scientist hell-bent on upending the sacred teachings of Genesis.  No, no–Darwin was just a victim of the British naturalist subculture; a victim of his freethinking ancestors (most notably grandfathers Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgewood); a victim of mind-numbing grief over the death of three children that drove him to flights of fantasy that erased God from any possible theory about the nature of life on earth.  He’s to be pitied, this poor, gullible, mistaken, grieving fellow.  Please.

A point that Voyage hammers home ad infinitum ad nauseam is the influence upon Darwin of Charles Lyell’s geological theory of uniformitarianism.  I’m no geologist, but my understanding is that uniformitarianism assumes that the same natural forces that are at work today were also at work in the past.  Lyell thought that the earth’s geology was by-and-large driven by the gradual processes of continental drift, wind and water erosion, etc.  This led to the conclusion that the earth was far, far older than the Bible would imply–millions of years older.  (The scientific consensus today, confirmed across several independent disciplines, is that the earth is about 4.5 billion years old.)  Oh, but Lyell didn’t know anything about flooding, or volcanoes, or earthquakes–things that can cause rapid and catastrophic changes, and so this blows the theory of an ancient earth out of the water, as it were–or so the producers of Voyage would have you believe.  Obviously, Lyell’s theory–like Darwin’s–was a sort of first draft which has been much modified by subsequent generations of scientists.

Another sly insinuation made in Voyage is that, once Darwin bought into his crack-brained theory of evolution occurring over vast amounts of time driven by innumerable tiny mutations, he unwittingly fell into the trap of racism.  Observing the primitive culture of the native inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego at the southernmost tip of South America, Darwin concluded that the Fuegians must be closer to the original state of Man.  In short, less evolved than technologically superior Europeans.  What Voyage doesn’t tell you is that for hundreds of years, Christians relied on the Bible to support institutionalized racism (Sons of Ham and all that jazz).  America’s Founding Fathers, who lived a century before publication of The Origin of Species, believed that black men were inferior to white.  Abraham Lincoln–born on the same day as Charles Darwin–for all his good deeds on behalf of slaves, was personally convinced that an African was not the equal to a Caucasian.  And Lincoln was no tainted biologist.  (One rich irony is that I attended a screening of this film in a Southern Baptist church, a denomination that split from other Baptists in 1845 over implicit Biblical support of slavery.  Most Southern Baptist churches would not admit black members until late in the 20th century; in fact, the SBC finally repented of its racist roots only in 1995.)  To sum up, both evolution and the Bible point toward man’s common ancestry, and both have been misused to justify all sorts of horrible actions.  But since racism, slavery and anti-Semitism existed in Christian society long before Darwin came along, we can safely dismiss any foolish notion that modern biological science is responsible for those evils.

Iguanas and Finches (and Lions and Tigers and Bears–oh, my!)

Having dispensed with Lyell’s gradualism and strongly hinted that floods (if not The Flood) can be agents of rapid geological change, Voyage now attacks the Darwinian idea of slow evolutionary change.  Of course, the late Stephen Jay Gould, an actual scientist, got the jump on the producers of this documentary by nearly 40 years with his theory of punctuated equilibrium; that is, an idea that species can remain relatively unchanged over long periods of time, then experience sudden bursts of rapid evolution.  Biologists still debate the precise rates and mechanisms for mutation, but no one today is arguing for the cartoonish all-or-nothing evolutionary gradualism depicted in Voyage.

Voyage presents a number of anecdotes that are supposedly wooden stakes driven into the vampire heart of Darwinism.  One is the observance in the Galapagos of hybrid iguanas; i.e. the result of crossbreeding between marine iguanas and land iguanas.  This is presented as some revolutionary challenge to models of speciation, but why this is so isn’t really explained, except for a glancing reference to the fact that scientists have difficulty arriving at a full definition of what constitutes a “species.”   (The documentary fails to mention whether or not hybrid iguanas should be properly considered a new species: one reference online states that hybrid iguanas are sterile.)

Voyage also asks us to consider research done into surprisingly rapid mutation of Darwin’s finches in response to changing local conditions.  I don’t recall the documentary saying so, but undoubtedly they were referring to the work of Peter and Rosemary Grant, who observed that populations of finches changed over just a few generations to favor birds with beaks suitable to available seeds. (See the Grants’ book How and Why Species Multiply: The Radiation of Darwin’s Finches, published by Princeton University Press, in which “the Grants trace the evolutionary history of fourteen different species from a shared ancestor three million years ago.”  Oops.)  Nonetheless, the documentary implies that the incredible diversity of species can be attributed to ultra-fast microevolutionary processes (presumably God made an original proto-finch, from which all species of finch have emerged over the last 6,000 years).  And I did mean to say “microevolutionary” because, as if sensing the slippery slope of admitting that evolution does occur–and even having the gall to accuse scientists of being obsessed with “fixity of species”!–Voyage does a quick sleight-of-hand by insisting that mutation never leads to “novel structures” or “new genetic information.”  Macroevolution handily exorcised with a 30-second soundbite.  [Late-breaking note:  I just discovered this recent report from NPR called “Chicago Scientist Find Evidence of High-Speed Evolution,” which discusses some of the latest discoveries in rates of mutation.]

Soft-Selling the Baloney

The film concludes that Darwin, “the boy who loved to tell stories, had created a grand narrative,” but this narrative is a “simple and crude story,” which is what workaday people find palatable. (As a skeptical companion said during our after-dinner discussion, “As if ‘an invisible guy in the sky just poofed everything into existence’ isn’t simple and crude.”)  Voyage tries to have it both ways: after dismissing this “simple and crude” idea, in nearly the same breath scientists are mocked for masking the unknowns of the theory of evolution as “research problems.”

What’s most surprising about this film is the extent to which it soft-pedals its ideas, almost to the point of putting its audience to sleep.  There’s barely any mention of God, and proponents of evolution are depicted more as misguided fools than arrogant elitists.  This might be a good thing in the long run: the faithful who sit through this documentary in a darkened chapel might nod off and miss the indoctrination.  On the other hand, how many of those who do pay attention and absorb the talking points are likely to spend the time double-checking the information on the internet, like I did?  Not very many, I’m afraid.  So we’ll probably hear a lot of folderol about hybrid iguanas and mutating finches for years to come.

So far The Voyage that Shook the World has been shown almost exclusively in churches to friendly audiences.  It’s not likely to get a theatrical release, both because it’s less than an hour long, and because it lacks the big-name presence of a Ben Stein.  There’s no doubt CMI would like to see it get air-time on American cable, and it’s remotely possible they could bamboozle some programmer in the same way Drive Thru History bamboozled History Channel International a few years ago.

If you can spare the time, check the film’s screening locations and see it for yourself.  Be prepared to ask questions if a Q&A session is offered afterwards.

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