Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Review: The Voyage that Shook the World

The Voyage that Shook the World
Con Dios Productions, 2009. 52 minutes.
Reviewed by
Jim Lippard and John M Lynch

The documentary under The Voyage that Shook the Worldreview is a 52-minute, professionally produced work, funded by Creation Ministries International (CMI), that promotes CMI’s own creationist researchers as correcting Darwin’s mistakes and biases with a view to setting science straight. This picture is drawn by studiously avoiding any explicit mention of creationism, but instead presenting vignettes from Darwin’s life with reputable historians making legitimate points and creationists (with little or no historical training) offering alternative historical and scientific views. The film features excellent cinematography, high-quality graphics and effects, and re-enactments of scenes from Darwin’s life by actors in period dress. There is not much acting to judge — most of it appears for visual effect during narration or interview voiceovers — but we saw nothing to criticize in that regard.

The documentary begins reasonably enough, with the only initial hint that it might not be a mainstream production being the emphasis that is put on Darwin “making up stories” as a child. The first interviewees to appear are well-known professional historians — Peter Bowler, Sandra Herbert, Janet Browne. Several creationists appear quickly thereafter, though they are not identified as such. While CMI’s web page about the film describes the backgrounds of the interview subjects, the film uses on-screen credentials that put recognized experts with well-established reputations on a par with relative unknowns who haven’t established their reputations. For example, Emil Silvestru is identified by his PhD and as a “geologist and speleologist,” but not revealed is that he works full-time for CMI. Silvestru argues for a young earth and the creation of geological features by “a flood,” mentioning the Channeled Scablands of eastern Washington as an example of the work of catastrophic forces. He also makes a polystrate tree fossil argument for rapid deposition in a particular case. Both are examples of the film shying away from common creationist generalizations — he doesn’t argue that the Grand Canyon was similarly rapidly formed, or that all cases of polystrate tree fossils are evidence of rapid deposition, though the viewer may be expected to make the incorrect inference.

Many of the problems with the documentary are exhibited in the approximately ten-minute segment dealing with the Galápagos. The film claims that in Darwin’s time, science argued for gradual change, fixity of species, and an old earth, while religion argued for rapid catastrophic change, mutability of species, and a young earth. This is an historically inaccurate, and over-simplistic, portrayal of the myriad of positions that were held regarding these issues. Many of the claims made in this section are made by Rob Carter who is identified as “(PhD, University of Miami) Marine Biologist and Geneticist” rather than as the employee of CMI that he is. Carter makes seemingly scientific points while on location dressed in field gear — the viewer is clearly expected to believe that he has engaged in field work germane to the issue of speciation, when in fact his research was on fluorescent proteins in Cnidaria. Indeed, despite this biological training, Carter is not afraid to make historical claims. He states that Darwin’s contemporary Edward Blyth had a “fully fledged theory of natural selection” and that “Darwin got Blyth’s first paper when Darwin was in South America, so when he came here to the Galápagos, he had Blyth’s idea of natural selection and Lyell’s idea of geology on his mind”. The documentary goes on to claim that Darwin was misled by his reliance on Lyell’s gradualism to initially miss the evidence for natural selection in the Galápagos islands, in particular with regards the avian specimens he collected. (It is perhaps worth noting here that implicit in the claim is that Darwin somehow plagiarized the idea of natural selection from Blyth, a creationist who saw selection as a purely negative force that maintained the type.) The problems here are twofold. First, natural selection is in no way self-evident from the collections that Darwin — or indeed any other naturalist — could have made. What Darwin observed on his voyage was variation and in particular patterns of variation — the processes behind the patterns would only come to him when back in England. Secondly, while Blyth did indeed have a theory of selection, historians — despite the claim made by Loren Eiseley (1959) — have been unable to demonstrate that Darwin had read Blyth’s paper of January 1835 before visiting the archipelago in September, or had indeed for that matter read Blyth's paper before 1837-'38. In short, Carter is being inaccurate — or disingenuous — in his presentations of historical “facts”.

Voyage defends the view that species change can occur, even across genera, though it avoids addressing the possible implications for humans and other primates. Its version of the religious view is that the wide diversity and geographical dispersal of living things emerged in the last few thousand years since the flood of Noah, with a rapidity of evolution that evolutionary scientists would reject as implausible. The film gives cases of rapid morphological changes in finch beak sizes, and hybridization between land and marine iguanas in the Galápagos. Carter asserts that the latter is evidence of a young age for the Galápagos, since otherwise the species would have mixed rather than remaining distinct. At this point, more typical creationist views are made explicit, with arguments that there are “apparent limits” to biological change, “as any pigeon breeder knows,” and that it is impossible for evolution to generate new information. Finnish creationist biochemist Matti Leisola asserts that random mutation cannot generate new information or novel structures, that introducing randomness “causes information to disappear,” and that we only see new information arise from intelligent sources. He fails to provide evidence for his assertions and to specify what notion of information he is using. He goes on to say that genetic engineering originally promised the ability to make arbitrary changes to organisms, but now promises much less — while we can create bacteria that produce insulin, we can’t change bacteria into anything but bacteria. We wonder what his view is of synthetic biology.

The film correctly points out that a role for catastrophes has been found in geology, but not to the exclusion of mostly uniformitarian processes over very long periods of time, such as may be found in the Grand Canyon. Likewise, it is correct in pointing out that there have been bursts of rapid biological change (but again, not to the exclusion of gradual changes), and that biology has turned out to be more complex than originally suspected. But these discoveries, made by evolutionary scientists, have not generated support for the creationist worldview, which has been remarkable for its lack of scientific fruitfulness. The biggest failing of the film is its omission of a complete picture, including its omission of any indication of the overwhelming evidence in support of common ancestry, the great age of the earth, and for human evolution.

At one point, the film touches on Darwin’s racism, and suggests that this was a result of his evolutionary views, as opposed to religion which teaches the common origins of all human beings from Adam and Eve. But both views teach the common ancestry of all human beings, and there was no scarcity of racist religious believers in the mid-19th century. Darwin’s views on race were a product of his social and cultural context, not his views on evolution. The film’s suggested dichotomy of evolution-supporting racists versus religious creationist non-racists is a false one, particularly given recent books by Adrian Desmond and James Moore (2009) and David Livingstone (2008).

Near the end of the film, it is stated that in Darwin’s time, science was only beginning to emerge from philosophy, and that Darwin’s project was philosophical and anti-religious as much as it was scientific (a position probably inspired by Cornelius Hunter, who appears in the documentary identified as a “Molecular Biophysicist & Author” rather than as the Fellow of the Discovery Institute that he is). The film concludes by stating that there are opposing views of evolution and creation, and that “some suggest that they can coexist, but Darwin himself resisted this position.” This appears to be a case where the filmmakers want the viewer to side with Darwin, in opposition to accommodationism between evolution and religion. The final statement of the film is that questions about how we came to be here and why we are here refuse to go away.

In all, the film is somewhat better than we expected it would be, and the film can be described as trying to downplay or even hide its own creationism, probably in hopes of functioning as a Trojan horse. As such, it omits key evidence for evolution, and suggests that the viewer infer the reasonability of creationism from the selective evidence that is presented. In its favor, it does depict scientific research and discovery in a largely positive light, which may encourage young viewers to become interested in scientific questions. If so, perhaps some of them will come to discover a more complete picture, with the assistance of online sites such as the NCSE’s and the TalkOrigins Archive.

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.