false controversies and evolution in the u.s.

A filmmaker trying to kick-start a controversy to market a biographical movie about Charles Darwin is finding it hard to get attention. But why?
charles darwin

Despite the lamentations of Jeremy Thomas, the producer behind a recent biographical movie about Darwin, the entertainment industry in the United States didn’t find the topic too controversial to merit a distribution deal for the film. Newmarket Films will let it loose sometime in December and try to cash in on the free exposure the movie received. If we were to trust Thomas, creationists and fundamentalists will be incensed at any and all portrayal of Charles Darwin and his life that doesn’t show his picture framed right above the Nazi Swastika on the wall of Hitler’s office, which is why no American distributor wanted to take on this film. If they did, the protests will be so loud, the ensuing free press pretty much guarantees a handsome profit on the movie. And I have little doubt that this narrative influence Newmarket to sign on the dotted line. But if I were the executive in charge of Creation, I wouldn’t be rushing to count my box office or DVD controversy-fueled bonus just yet…

While UK’s Telegraph had a field day with Thomas’ comments, the truth behind American companies’ wait in picking up the rights was the fact that the movie wasn’t very marketable. It was just a biography of a scientist with no big stars, no explosions, no aliens condemned to slums in a statement about apartheid, nothing that leaps out and says how it could be pitched to an audience at a profit. And this is when it seems that Thomas’ senses told him to play the controversy gambit. Instead of trying to simply sell his movie as the biographical journey that helped Darwin solidify the idea of natural selection, he would dare distributors to take it on just to create a furor in the fundamentalist community which holds Darwin just a few notches below Satan on their official hate list. It’s cunning salesmanship, but at the same time, it’s very disingenuous. Fellow skeptic Jen Myers also pointed this out and went into even more detail about the real trials and tribulations faced by indie film distributors today.

The Telegraph’s article quotes that just 39% of American accept the theory of evolution and it’s true that far too many people in the U.S. simply refuse to consider the concept’s scientific merits because they’re afraid that by accepting evolution, they’re falling prey to evil, anti-God forces. But while the author is having a “look at those silly superstitious yanks” moment, the nature of Americans’ relationship with evolution is a lot more complex than it appears at first glance. All the polls about the theory don’t just ask whether people believe in evolution or not, but instead ask whether people believe that species evolved by themselves, with the help of a deity of some sort (aka theistic evolution), or that all species appeared as they are or almost as they are today. The positive replies to the first scenario are then used to show how many people accept the theory of evolution as scientists see it in their necessarily secular definition.

Typically, the result looks pretty abysmal, with acceptance of materialistic, natural evolution hovering at a very steady 36 to 38% since 1982, just as ardent creationists maintained around 45% over the same time period according to Gallup. But what about the theistic evolutionists? Their numbers actually increased significantly, from 9% to 14% over the last 27 years. In the scientific establishment, evolution is on par with gravity and the concept of the heliocentric solar system. But popular culture is very frequently and very loudly bombarded by the idea that tradition must trump fact and if it doesn’t, then the fact must be wrong. It’s like the old British joke about a man caught cheating with his best friend’s wife pleading his case. “Who are you going to believe here Reginald? Me or your eyes?” Spiked with the threat of eternal damnation as punishment for disagreement, a religious appeal against objective science prompts a lot of people to choose not to believe their eyes. Theistic evolution is as far as they will feel comfortable going with their scientific conceptualization of nature.

But now, what about those 45% of ardent denialists? Why is a developed country that is one of the leaders in scientific innovation and sophisticated technology, home to so many people who reject the basis for the facts that fuel its flourishing biotech industry? Part of the blame has to go to a school system which requires each state to make its own standards which will often fall victim to rabidly anti-scientific groups which undermine the quality of education for the purpose of feeling good about themselves and affirming their beliefs. Having a nationwide standard which requires a solid background in biology and teachers with the credentials to teach scientific disciplines would dramatically slash that number in just a decade. Nationwide education standards are part of why Europeans feel a lot more comfortable with the theory. More of them get exposed to biology in school despite the fact that creationists there can be just as vociferously anti-evolution as in the U.S.

All in all, evolution isn’t really a controversy in America as much as it’s a cultural debate in which one side has facts and evidence while the other hurls fire and brimstone at anyone who is willing to consider evolution as a perfectly plausible concept. A film about Charles Darwin would be no more controversial than your typical, run of the mill science museum which mentions his contribution as the seed that launched evolution from a then obscure concept being knocked around by some naturalists, to a hypothesis refined enough to be studied by prominent scientists. A real controversy would be a documentary on a major new discovery that’s being billed as the one, definitive proof of evolution, like the absurd media circus over Ida. A low budget drama about the life of a Victorian naturalist isn’t enough to get creationists seriously riled up and the idea that vast throngs of atheists will flock to see this movie because of some sort of Darwin fetish would be equally erroneous. But it seems that controversy is exactly what Thomas was after and his creationist bating in the media seems to be a reflection of his disappointment that the film was nowhere as controversial as he hoped.

# science // controversy / culture war / entertainment / evolution / movies

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