Throughout the course of the 8 hour PBS series we are introduced to Charles Darwin, the man who first unified many observations under the banner of one hypothesis, that of evolution, the theory of evolution by natural selection itself and the way that theory has impacted biological science since.
The first episode, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, takes a dramatized approach to the life of Darwin and intersperses it with experts in their fields discussing the profound effect the theory has had on how we see and understand the world. It feels somewhat disconnected and long, but provides a reasonable introduction to the beginnings of the theory. As a novice, I found it particularly helpful to be introduced to some of the key events and people both for an against Darwin’s initial idea.
The second episode, Great Transformations, explores the most basic evolutionary changes, thus providing a very good introduction to the basic concept from early organisms to present life, including humanity. It presents a great interconnectedness between all of life.
The third Episode, Extinctions, presents a challenge. It points out that the vast majority of species that have ever inhabited earth have become extinct through natural processes. It moves into the current activities of humanity and makes the case for our activities resulting in the next mass extinctions.
The fourth episode was the most profound for me. The Evolutionary Arms Race looks at the processes of natural selection and survival of the fittest. It explores the delicate balance and race that goes on between competing organisms. It draws heavily on the battle between humankind and the micro-organisms that we ourselves are battling against such as HIV/AIDS. It notes the evolving nature of some of the things we are fighting against and does a good job of clearly representing the ‘race’ between humanity and some of the micro-organisms that are killing us.
The fifth episode, Why Sex?, explores the question about why sex is the predominant form of reproduction. It makes the argument that sexual reproduction produces genetic diversity that results in better chances of a species surviving. The exploration of the strength of monogamy and gender roles was of particular interest.
The following episode – The Mind’s Big Bang, was extremely fascinating. It looked at the explosion of the human mind and the sudden development of creativity, innovation, society, technology and culture amongst humanity. It’s an area still somewhat shrouded in mystery, but as with all things, the answers are slowly revealing themselves.
The last episode, What About God?, was the episode closest to home for me. It represented the tension between ideas competing for room in the science class. As a Christian who affirms evolution I felt much sympathy for the many students represented in the episode and the tensions they are dealing with.
The strength of the DVD series is its overall approach to not only discussing the ideas, but to show the experiments and observations that validate the overarching theory of evolution.
It needs to be recognized that this is a beginners guide to the theory, it doesn’t represent some of the more developed research around things like the relationship between the human and chimp genome that points to a common ancestor – information that would be valuable to those engaged in debates about the validity of the theory.
The DVD series points to the PBS website where more information can be obtained. I am yet to delve into what is on the website.
I would recommend this to anyone with an interest in the topic. It took me a long time to work my way through but filled in a lot of gaps and answered many things I had wondered about.
This, in my opinion, is the best DVD on the topic of evolution. 8 hours to convey the single most significant scientific idea about biological development is nothing to be sneezed at. I would argue that it should be essential viewing for many students looking at the topic
Publisher: Siren Entertainment
Run time: 480mins
Release date: 16/04/2008