I recorded the TV show Evolve:Eyes, which aired on the History Channel last night, and I watched it today. Last night during the original airing, I was in LA watching the Dodgers with my family. I think my son was quite taken with professional baseball. This was not his first game (I had to make sure that for both kids, their first game was in Milwaukee, where mine was), but I don’t think my son remembers seeing the Brewers in Miller Park. So when we walked through the gate of Dodger Stadium, I saw the awe in his eyes, as he took in the stadium’s brightness, the impossibly green grass, and as we heard 40,000 fans cheer together. There is something to be said for appearance and spectacle, which can make even things like playing baseball games seem important.
This was the primary strength that I found in the History Channel show Evolve:Eyes; it looked really slick; it had its share of spectacle. There were fantastic graphics. Three dimensional eye figures exploding into component lens, cornea, and retina. The linear progression of eye evolution was re-told graphically, a few photoreceptors morphing into a deepening pit. Then a lens appeared, until the human eye had “evolved” right before my own eyes.
There were also dramatic film sequences of real scientists. There was a re-enactment of my friend (we were postdocs together in Chicago) Nate Dominy of UCSC doing his field research observing primates (I’m guessing they filmed Nate in Santa Cruz with binoculars and cut in footage of primates). There was footage of my friend Chris Kirk (haven’t seen him for a while, but we were grad students at Duke at the same time) pulling eye balls out of jars, complete with lab coat (most biologists I know don’t wear lab coats, unless they’re being filmed, or maybe if their pulling eyeballs out of a smelly formalin/ethanol solution). And there was footage of my colleague Alex Goodell collecting Polyorchus (a cnidarian) and shining LED lights on them to watch their behavior: green light, then blue, illuminating the tank and animal like neon lights in the dark. Scott Edwards, alone in an arid landscape, artistically filmed full-body and off-center, commented on how many times eyes evolved, my proverbial red herring, deciding to re-tell the take of a fellow Harvard-man, the late Ernst Mayr. Spectacle. Beautiful.
But all was not positive from my perspective. Namely, the show fell into the two most common traps that plague the understanding of evolution by the public. 1) Evolution is not adaptive story telling and 2) Evolution has not progressed in a direct line from simple to complex; evolution most certainly does not culminate with the human species. In nature, humans are no more special than bacteria. We are just another twig on the great tree of life (that was for Eisen).
Very little of this show was actually about evolution, and most of the “evolution” that was mentioned did not explain the actual science behind it (there were of course some excpetions). Instead, there was a lot of adaptive storytelling. Eagles evolved amazing vision to allow them to be better hunters. I don’t doubt this is true, but this show very often simply asserted and explained current function, with little mention of how evolution of those traits proceeded. Jellyfish try to escape UV/blue because it is damaging. Again, this may be true, but it was simply asserted in the show. Evolution was simply assumed, with little mention of how we actually have established that evolution works.
But the most egregious to me was how the narrative and graphics re-enforced the non-existent linear progression from jellyfish to humans. In fact, the graphics were a line, shown between stories, proceeding from 600 million years ago to present day primates. In this hypothetical line, first came the “jellyfish” (they actually showed a hydromedusan). The camera simulated the “primitive” jelly’s blurry vision, far inferior to our own, no mention of the cubomedusan’s highly complex eye. Next came the trilobites, whose calcite compound eyes are among the oldest fossil eyes. (To the show’s credit, they did mention that trilobites are not direct ancestors of living arthropods, a slight nod to “tree thinking”. Also, the Cambrian and trilobite animations were pretty cool. More spectacle.)
Then came the vertebrates. Not much mention of fish, instead we jump to dinosaurs. More flash here, tremendous spectacle, shining lasers on models of T. rex, the icon of charismatic species. Then the story moves up the ladder to early mammals, “primitive mammals” eeking out an existence, with only “black and white” vision, living in the shadow of dinosaurs. Then the great KT event knocks out rex and mammals can finally flourish. This next bit really got me. They compare human (and some other primates’) vision to that of early mammals, saying how great we are to be able to see red. What a shallow point of comparison, just to inflate the human ego, and maintain the march of progress up to humans! Why not compare to our eyes to stomatopods (mantis shrimps), who see circular polarized light, and have upwards of 12-chromatic compared to our tri-chromatic vision. Or even compare us to adult maggots (i.e. flies), who see polarized and UV light that we cannot detect. In my book, the evolutionary ladder of eyes proceeds up to mantis shrimp, not humans.
But perhaps I am being a bit too critical, expecting too much nuance from a show aimed to keep viewers from switching to, say, ESPN to see how the Dodgers are doing (they won by the way). Spectacle can be something to celebrate!
After the Dodger’s game last night, I could tell my son was inspired by spectacle, not by nuance. In fact, I doubt he got any nuances of the game. He was oblivious to strategic pitching changes; clueless about a rare call that gave the Dodgers an extra run in a tight game (the Giant's left fielder juggled the ball out of play, something I’ve never seen, after many years of watching baseball, e.g. I’ve seen in person a triple play, and Ricky Henderson’s record breaking stolen base). No, it wasn’t nuance that compelled my son to ask when he gets to start soccer, and if I can video record his games so we can watch them on TV. It was spectacle, fan screaming, light flashing, ice cream in a Dodger helmet spectacle.
So who am I to complain if somewhere, some kid is taken by the spectacle of eye evolution, as so vividly portrayed last night? Taken by the idea of shining lasers on T. rex, or neon LED’s on pulsating jellyfish in dark rooms? Maybe an African-American kid saw Scott Edwards on TV last night, and dreamed a dream of studying evolution. Maybe the child of an anti-evolutionist now has some questions.
There is a place for spectacle. If spectacle can inspire, nuance can come later.