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Extinction coefficient

A Flock of Dodos

Bill Hanage 4 March 2007

Flightless: Dodos fails to inspire

Surely it is our experiments that should determine whether we are right, not Johnnie Cochran

Two things everyone knows about the dodo: it is extinct, and it was stupid. In popular mythology this dumpy, flightless relative of the pigeon has somehow become associated with the intellectually sub-normal, together with images of trustingly walking into the arms of hungry sailors and shortly after rotating on a spit over the cooking fire.

There are several problems with this story. The supposed stupidity is in fact a consequence of evolution on an island with no large land-based predators – in fact, the same reason dodos were flightless. Do we think ostriches are stupid? No, if anything we think they are pretty mean Mo-Fo’s with sharp beaks. The assumption that dodos were stupid seems another rather sad example of humans equating ‘funny looking’, with ‘thick’. Especially if the species we’re insulting doesn’t fight back. And by most accounts, dodos tasted pretty bad, and so human predation may well have been a side issue in their downfall (this was not the case for their less famous neighbour on extinction row, Steller’s sea cow. This enormous cold water relative of the dugong was hunted to extinction within three decades of its discovery. Though considering that the original species description made specific mention of how good they tasted, this might have been expected).

These two universally accepted pieces of dodo studies, one fact and one myth, underlie the rather ambiguous take on modern biology in the USA, and its battles with the Intelligent Design movement, offered by Randy Olson in his well-reviewed documentary A Flock of Dodos. Olson was a biologist for many years, studying with among others the late great Steven Jay Gould, before jumping ship for the rich pastures of independent documentary film-making. He considers himself to be an ‘evolutionist’, and even has a baseball cap proclaiming this. But if you’re a biologist expecting this to be a rip-roaring theologian bashing rise, you’re in for a shock.

While it is clear which side Olson is on, he is more interested in trying to explore why it is that Darwinism, a theory which has to count among the most successful in scientific history, has had such difficulty in persuading people and Joe Public in particular of its veracity. His answer is not comfortable viewing. Both aspects of the dodo in his title are called upon. While the Intelligent Design crowd may be ignorant, even stupid, it is the scientists who are not adapting to the current environment and, by implication, risking extinction.

How are they guilty of this? Well, while Intelligent Design advocates (often literally advocates, for there is a high concentration of lawyers in this group) are weak on scientific evidence – submitting their claims to testing, or in fact even coming up with testable claims – they are strong on public relations. Sensing a wider unease in society, they link this to evolution, using skilful presentation, quality networking, and a considerable budget. In contrast, Olson seems to suggest, scientists cannot be bothered to explain themselves to the public. Moreover, they come across as negative and sniping, treating their opponents without respect.

This is an interesting and important point to make. But I’m not sure I totally agree with it. In the first place, the validity of a scientific point should not be determined by the glossiness of the public relations exercise behind it. The difficulty lies in the fact that there is a very low level of understanding in the public at large about what makes a good scientific theory. This is a consequence of poor science education, which is scarcely likely to get better when science educators have to fight Intelligent Design in the courts. Not in the lab, note – not in the field collecting fossils or in the pages of scientific journals, but in the courts. A future where science is determined by lawyers is a frightening one. Surely it is our experiments that should determine whether we are right, not Johnnie Cochran.

The scales are further biased by the inexplicable decision to represent evolutionary biologists with a bunch of guys who, apparently, used to be mates with Steve Gould, playing poker. Not a professional science communicator, or the lawyer who represented the parents in the Dover School Board trial (which would surely be a fairer comparison), but a bunch of guys arguing, drinking, gambling and unsurprisingly declaring their opponents to be idiots.

It is apparently wrong to call people idiots. Even if they believe manifest hogwash. This belief is a version of the popular notion that an opinion is inviolate and must be respected no matter how silly or baseless it is. In implying this is so, the film does a grave disservice to science. Nature does not care what our opinions are. It just is, and responds to our attempts to probe it according to certain rules we try to understand.

If this film is animated by a spirit, it is not that of God or Darwin, but Michael Moore. Many of the signatures of the Great One are here, including the folksy delivery and the cosy family-based approach, in this case epitomised by Olson’s mother who goes by the name ‘Muffy Moose’ – so good I find it hard to believe she hasn’t changed it for the movie. We also have the baseball cap (albeit with ‘Evolutionist’ on it). In one hilarious scene, Olson shares some lemonade at the house of a strongly religious member of the Kansas School Board, and is asked politely to remove the cap. The hosts then declare how good it is to live in a country where things can be discussed openly. They also say ‘If you love evolution go back to California!’). But by far the most irritating gimmick in this film is the badly animated dodos that appear from time to time galumphing around and generally lowering the tone. The whole film is about as intellectually rigorous as the high school science project I wrote up in one hour, hungover. It is just going through the motions. I know this makes me sound like a stuck-up Brit. Sorry, guilty as charged.

But hey, it’s my opinion, so you can’t argue with it.