RANDY OLSON started his career as a marine biologist, got tenure, got bored, and became a filmmaker. Perplexed by some newspaper clips sent by his mother, he decided to explore the controversy over evolution and intelligent design (I.D.). The result is Flock of Dodos, an engaging, sometimes hilarious documentary that skewers both sides of a heated debate.
Olson believes the evolutionists are right, but he also thinks they're overbearing and inept at public relations. Darwin's current defenders, he argues, lack the wit and skill of the late evolutionary champion Stephen Jay Gould and have not come up with a ready slogan to match I.D.s call to "Teach the Controversy." Instead we have spokespeople like the Ph.D. who bellows "I have the floor!" at his colleagues during a polysyllabic poker game. Later we see the same man forgetting what he wanted to say.
The I.D. advocates, by contrast, come across as adept communicators. Michael Behe, one of their most prominent spokesmen, seems low-key and likeable in his plaid shirt. Returning to his native Kansas, the filmmaker chats with cheerfully earnest anti-evolutionists, visiting one elderly education official in her farmhouse kitchen. Besides such folksy sincerity, Olson notes, I.D. enjoys the deep pockets and media acumen of its leading organization, the Seattle-based Discovery Institute.
Yet when it comes to substance, it's the evolutionists who hold the cards. Nature is filled with evidence that organisms were not designed--or at least not intelligently. Whales have hip bones, Olson points out, vestiges of the limbs of walking ancestors. Human hearts have vulnerabilities that could have been designed for the benefit of cardiologists. Rabbits have an inefficient digestive system that requires them to eat their own poop.
Furthermore, I.D. proponents don't always understand what exactly evolutionists believe. Recalling his own embryology studies, for example, Olson rebuts I.D. advocates' claims that current-day evolutionists give credence to "Haeckel's embryos," inaccurate 19th-century drawings.
Repeatedly citing Mount Rushmore, I.D. folks in the film argue that design can be detected. Some features of organisms, they claim, are self-evidently artificial, much like those carved faces. The trouble with this analogy is that we know a lot about how Rushmore was sculpted, and about human works in general, whereas superhuman designers presumably operate in mysterious ways. Often, Olson just lets the I.D...