Evolution at 20

NCSE Board President Kenneth R. Miller recalls the importance and impact of the milestone PBS/NOVA documentary series Evolution, which first aired 20 years ago.

Evolution documentary series

The opening scene is unforgettable. In 1833, Charles Darwin hikes across the Argentinian plain to view the newly unearthed fossil skull of an extinct mammal. “I wonder why these creatures no longer exist,” he remarks. Robert FitzRoy, captain of the Beagle, credulously suggests, “Perhaps the Ark was too small to allow them entry and they perished in the Flood.” In response, a somewhat impudent young Charles laughs in his face.

FitzRoy is astonished. “Do you mock me or the Bible?”

“Neither” Charles pleads. FitzRoy responds sternly: “What sort of clergyman will you be, Mr. Darwin?” With a twinkle in his eyes, Charles offers an ironic smile and replies, “Dreadful. Simply dreadful.”

Twenty years ago PBS aired a remarkable 8-hour documentary exploring the theory of evolution. Its 2-hour premiere, scheduled to air during the week of September 11, 2001, was entitled “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,” taking its name from Daniel Dennett’s book of the same name. Woven among dramatic vignettes from the life of Charles Darwin (played by actor Christopher Larkin) were commentaries from the likes of Stephen Jay Gould, Chris Schneider, Daniel Dennett, and Darwin biographer James Moore. The other six programs in the series explored topics such as the evolution of sex, the development of the human brain, great transformations in the history of life, the process of extinction, and, in the final episode, the great question that still bothers many Americans today: “What About God?”

Twenty years ago PBS aired a remarkable 8-hour documentary exploring the theory of evolution.

The polish and professionalism of the series were without equal, and its boldness in presenting even the most complex material in terms that were easy to understand was extraordinary. Even today, when some of its science is a bit outdated, the series stands alone in its ambitious attempt to gather so many scientific strands together under the banner of evolution. In so doing, Evolution makes it clear that evolution is truly the unifying principle of the life sciences — literally nothing in biology makes sense without it.

Neither PBS nor any commercial television network had ever devoted so much time, effort, and care to presenting evolution to an American audience, and as the date for its premiere episode approached, anticipation grew. Despite considerable press buildup and very favorable advance reviews, the airing of the series had to be postponed at the very last minute due to the tragic attacks that took place in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. The 20th anniversary of that awful day will rightly overwhelm any effort to recall the impact of the Evolution series, which finally aired a week after the attacks.

Nonetheless, two decades later the groundbreaking nature of the series is well worth remembering. NOVA, the public television science series, had never before attempted an in-depth exploration of evolution, in part because of its socially controversial nature and in part because it could not find commercial sponsors to back the expenses of production. All of that changed when Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, contacted Paula Apsell, NOVA’s executive producer, and offered to back the project. Allen had become interested in evolution for a variety of reasons, and recognized how rarely the subject had been broached in popular media. He funded the project, assembled a high-profile team of scientific advisors to help to plan the series, and used his considerable resources to assemble a wealth of online and educational resources to accompany the eight hours of prime-time television.

Viewers were not only introduced to the life and times of Charles Darwin, but also to evolution’s role in diseases like AIDS and tuberculosis, to the imperfections of the human eye, to the evolution of remarkable creatures like whales and dolphins, and to the genetic toolkit that made possible the emergence of complex, highly specialized organs in animals like us. It drew an appreciative audience, and individual episodes have been widely used in schools ever since.

Not surprisingly, as news of the series became public, anti-evolution forces did their best to prepare counter-strategies.

Not surprisingly, as news of the series became public, anti-evolution forces did their best to prepare counter-strategies, complaining publicly about the “one-sided” nature of the series, and even publishing a small booklet claiming, falsely, that the series was riddled with errors and misrepresentations. Their claims were easily debunked, their attacks had little effect, and the series has continued to influence American views on evolution and science curricula throughout the nation. 2021 is a particularly meaningful time to remember these eight hours of television, especially as we consider how Americans have changed their views of evolution in the years since.

As a recent article in Salon pointed out, based on a research study that NCSE staff contributed to, Americans were evenly divided on whether humans evolved from earlier species of animals as recently as 2007. In the past decade, however, acceptance of that proposition has steadily increased to the point where a majority of Americans now accept the evolutionary origins of our species. Just as significantly, the number of people who either reject evolution or have no opinion has dropped year after year.

Many factors are likely responsible for this trend. The resounding defeat of “intelligent design” creationism in the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover trial clearly played a part, as did the increasing level of education among American adults, and the prominent place that evolution now occupies in both state and national science education standards. The effect of the Evolution series, however, clearly merits inclusion in any list of positive influences on the level of acceptance of evolution. And, if you haven’t seen the series, it’s absolutely worth your time and attention.

NOVA described the series as “[a] journey into where we’re from, and where we’re going.” Today, as we confront the challenges posed by the continuing evolution of a pandemic respiratory virus, understanding the forces that drove the emergence of that virus and its variants is more important than ever. In so doing, it is worth remembering a television series that helped to move the American public ever closer to an understanding of the process at the very core of life on Earth: Evolution.

Watch all 7 episodes of the series on YouTube:

Episode 1: Darwin's Dangerous Idea

Episode 2: Great Transformations

Episode 3: Extinction

Episode 4: The Evolutionary Arms Race

Episode 5: Why Sex?

Episode 6: The Mind's Big Bang

Episode 7: What About God?

Kenneth R. Miller
Short Bio

Kenneth R. Miller is President of NCSE's Board of Directors and is Professor of Biology and Royce Family Professor for Teaching Excellence at Brown University.