Monday, May 01, 2006

A Flock of Dodos

I saw A Flock of Dodos earlier today as part of the Tribeca Film Festival, and I stayed for a very brief Q&A with the filmmaker, Randy Olsen. A Harvard-trained marine ecologist, Olsen fully supports the theory of evolution, but with a twist. He endorses evolution directly, but the heart of his support seems to be expressed in criticism. He likens scientists to a flock of dodos and warns that science could go the way of the dodo if it's not communicated with greater concision, personability, and humility.

It occurs to me that all three of these traits are often found in humor, or at least in varieties of humor that are not meant to ridicule. Olsen's movie is in fact concise, personable, and humble in its sense of humor. The movie gave me my first chance ever to laugh at the subject, and it's apparent that Olsen likes people and likes to laugh with them -- not at them. He asks himself in the movie whether he would want to sit down for a game of poker with some of the dry, respectable scientists that he's interviewed or with the various colorful personalities that he's found among supporters of Intelligent Design, and he has no problem expressing how much he likes the latter. He says that his first note in his research was his discovery that ID advocates were not the close-minded Bible thumpers, he implies, that he had expected.

Ultimately this is a movie about people more than evolution. At the Q&A, Olsen was asked why he didn't go more deeply into what was wrong with the concept of Irreducible Complexity, and he noted that the medium was, relatively speaking, more of a motivational than an educational tool. He said he considered adding a few minutes of hard scientific details, but he chose to raise the issue rather than try to settle it on film, which would be hard to do. As an ordinary viewer, I think that's a good approach. A different kind of documentary, perhaps for public television (as was alluded to in the Q&A), could delve into the details more fully.

And Olsen said that it would not be easy to describe in a few minutes why Irreducible Complexity was wrong, which is an indication right there that he does not consider such concepts to be on par with basic children's errors. He did mention someone else who he thought had summarized very quickly what was wrong with IC, which just showed his admiration for concision as well as his belief that evolution cannot win its debates so long as scientists are long-winded about it.

In that way and many others, A Flock of Dodos is a call, in the best sense, to popularize science. There is an idea out there that popularization of anything dumbs it down, but Olsen is just not an elitist about this. For him, popularization seems to mean a direct connecting with people. That's how you popularize among great numbers of people -- just talk to them.

And listen. Olsen spends a lot of camera time listening while ID advocates have their say; and most of these conversations, it seems, do not proceed into arguments over scientific data. Olsen is really more interested in talking to people about the controversy, which is what his movie is about. He's done a great job of teaching the controversy -- in the best sense.

He has less sympathy as he looks higher up on the food chain of ID, so to speak. The Discovery Institute comes off as a secretive, impersonable glass-windowed facade that won't speak to people -- which is true in the case of Olsen, who tried repeatedly to obtain an interview. There are also strong implications in the movie that the Institute is more a successful child of wealthy and skillful marketing than an honest broker of science. There will be food for argument here, but I have to say that my own sympathy with ID also rests with the ordinary people who are interested in it.

Even here, though, Olsen is not offering a wholly negative judgment. He does not view skillful marketing as a bad thing in itself, and he considers it essential for scientists to adapt to the current age or, well, you know the rest.

One more thing I appreciated about Olsen's take is that he does not introduce ID as originating with the Discovery Institute. He begins instead with the philosopher William Paley (d. 1805) -- who used the famous God-as-watchmaker analogy -- and introduces ID almost as if it stepped out of a tradition with deep philosophical roots and straight into the 1990s. I think he's missed, or chosen not to dwell on, the connections between creationism and ID. A Flock of Dodos does repeat the finding of the Dover trial that ID is repackaged creationism, but there is no more on that subject. In fact creationism appears in the narrative often as a contrast to ID and not as an ancestor.

Olsen's final judgment on ID is that the movement is stuck at the level of intuition and has not yet proceeded to make a scientific theory. He sees ID as residing presently in the heart (he says his own heart is with evolution), and he plainly sees its advocates as heartful, personable people. His contention that ID is not a scientific theory cannot be tested in the movie, which does not offer much scientific content -- but it is the view I hold, and I have yet to see anything from ID that counts as a rival mechanism to mutation and natural selection.

It's a good movie and worth seeing. It is not a hard-hitting movie, either in terms of teaching science or even teaching the social controversy. There is no mention of such a prominent atheist as Richard Dawkins, for example, which is something of a lack in a movie that is largely about how scientists can lose a debate which is theirs to win or lose. Still, if you've never laughed about this subject and you want to, or if you're simply interested in the subject, it's very much worth checking out.

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