PBS's 'Evolution' Prompts a New Sort of Trial

Washington Post
Friday, July 27, 2001; Page C07

Lisa de Moraes

PASADENA, Calif., July 26. There's nothing like the sight of creationists and evolutionists lustily whacking away at each other among palm trees decorated with plush toy chimpanzees to get the old juices flowing in the early morning.

That is why PBS's breakfast Q&A today on its upcoming "Evolution" series was such a welcome pick-me-up after more than two mind-numbing weeks here at the summer television press tour.

PBS had spared no expense to set the scene, decorating a ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel with a model baby elephant and giraffe, as well as a tiger, a zebra, a pond filled with "crocodiles," and palm trees. Each table was covered in faux-zebra cloth and adorned with an orchid and palm tree centerpiece, through which critics had to peer to see the panelists until waiters finally cleared them away.

Things got so out of hand, NBC could've made a reality series out of it.

Among the panelists was the legendary primatologist Jane Goodall, appearing via satellite, as well as "Evolution" executive producer Richard Hutton; Kenneth Miller, evolutionary biologist and author of "Finding Darwin's God"; and James Moore, co-author of "Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist."

In the audience was Josh Gilder, the former Reagan speechwriter, former editor of the conservative American Spectator magazine and cousin of Darwin critic George Gilder; Josh Gilder was working on a piece for the Weekly Standard. At his side, John Reynolds was taking notes for a piece for the American Spectator, these days owned by George Gilder's Gilder Publications. Suffice it to say, the Gilder contingent was well represented.

Josh Gilder wanted to know if Microsoft co-founder and gazillionaire Paul Allen had funded the project to the tune of 100 percent, including not only the eight-hour TV series -- which was produced by Allen's Clear Blue Sky Productions -- but also the series' ultra-slick Web site and teaching manuals for the "cadres of teachers who are going out to the public school system to explain to them how to counter student questions about evolution." We're just guessing that Gilder knew the answer ahead of time.

Hutton acknowledged that Allen's production company paid for the project in full, at which point Moore jumped in. "There's something like a vulgar Marxist assumption underlying [Gilder's] question," he said, ". . . that the one who holds the purse strings controls the content."

Call me a vulgar Marxist, but it does seem that it would've been better if PBS had spent a dime of its own money to finance this project, so that it didn't look so gosh darned much like Allen was the guy in charge.

But we digress.

Gilder then turned his considerable eloquence on Moore: "You began, of course, earlier in your life, as a seminary student. You were a believer. You are now the foremost biographer of Charles Darwin and have written brilliantly about him. My question is, to what extent was your personal journey away from faith to -- I don't know what you would call yourself now, but away from faith -- how much of that was influenced by Darwinian theory and evolution?"

Moore responded that, having not lived in the United States in many years, he was not accustomed to entertaining such inappropriate questions and that "I'd as soon talk about my sex life as about my particular religious views in public.

"So there you are," he concluded.

At which point Goodall was voted the Weakest Link, her satellite connection mercifully cut off, and the session ended.