Intelligent design advocates are fascinated with Darwin. Granted, anyone who knows a little about the man probably is, and all creationists appear to fixate on him just a little. They spend a lot of time arguing with Darwin, as if any perceived “victory” over Darwin somehow undermines evolutionary biology. But while people like Phillip Johnson and William Dembski exude a real dislike of Darwin, it seems like the trend these days is to make positive comparisons with Darwin, to suggest that they are following in his footsteps and taking his ideas to their logical conclusion. In his talk on Monday, Stephen Meyer spent a lot of time making the point that he was inspired by Darwin (and Lyell, of course). In Darwin’s Dilemma, this theme seems to continue (although this may simply reflect the role that Meyer had in shaping the film).
The OU IDEA Club (Intelligent Design & Evolution Awareness Club) hosted a screening of Darwin’s Dilemma last night at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History on the University of Oklahoma campus. The screening was followed by a Q&A with Stephen Meyer and Jonathan Wells.
Ostensibly, the movie focuses on the “problem” of the Cambrian Explosion, the apparently rapid radiation of complex animals during the Lower Cambrian, about 530 million years ago. The presence of a large number of well-differentiated fossils in the Cambrian, coupled with the apparently lack of fossils in the Precambrian, was identified as a potential obstacle for the theory of evolution by Charles Darwin. It is to this dilemma that the name of the film alludes. In the first two thirds of the movie, much of the focus is on the discovery of the Burgess Shale in Canada, and the Maotianshan Shales in Chengjian County, Yunnan Province, China.
The start of the movie was innocuous enough. The animations of the Burgess Shale fauna was pretty enough, although it was cartoony and felt rather dated. The story of the discovery of the Burgess Shale was interesting, although once again, their animations (explosion on the mountainside to represent Walcott‘s investigation of the formation; fossils pulled out of the rock face when they were being discussed, and then re-inserted) were a little distracting – they felt dated, like an old video game. (But it’s rude to complain when the movie’s free…)
There were problems with their treatment of Darwin. The NCSE’s factsheet points out several errors that suggest a sloppy treatment of factual matters. The movie claims that Darwin worked with Adam Sedgwick in Wales on Cambrian rocks prior to his voyage on the Beagle. The factsheet says
In fact, according to Michael Roberts, Darwin and Sedgwick never observed Cambrian rocks together.
In addition, the footage of Wales is apparently of Ordovican volcanic rock, not Cambrian rock. Does it matter? Not a whole lot, but it does suggest a certain flexibility with the facts. But does that really matter in a movie that sets out to mislead its audience? Probably not. The movie also repeats the common misconception that Darwin’s ideas about evolution were born while he is in the Galapagos.
But the first hint of what’s to come surfaces in the discussion of Walcott’s ideas about where Precambrian fossils might be found.
According to the movie* Walcott (the discovered of the Burgess Shale) suggested that the transitional Precambrian fossils might be found beneath the ocean floor. I have no idea whether this was a serious prediction or not, but the movie treats it as if it were. They say that Walcott’s hypothesis remained untested until deep-water drilling for oil has brought lots of drill cores from the bottom of the ocean, and none have revealed Precambrian fossils. They then go on to say that ocean-floor mapping has revealed that the rocks of the ocean floor are relatively young, and the ocean floor is an entirely unsuitable place to look for Precambrian fossils.
Taking all this at face value* still leaves me puzzled. Oil prospecting?? Why would anyone expect oil companies to drill for oil in Precambrian deposits? Oil is a fossil fuel. Given the paucity of Precambrian fossils, what sort of petroleum geologist would look for oil in Precambrian rocks? Why spend so much time building up a strawman, only to admit it’s a strawman? Is it meant to convey a sense of superiority over these “poor dumb materialist geologists”? Did they have some stock footage of an oil plantform that they had to use before it went bad? Or was it just bad editing?
Beyond this point, the movie went sharply downhill…
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*Treat that with whatever skepticism you think is warranted. It is, after all, an ID production.