Judge Brendan Babish doesn't know much about evolution, but he's got an uncle with more back hair than any gorilla you've ever seen.
Evolutionary Ecologist Randy Olson tries to find out just who is the real "Flock of Dodos."
Flock of Dodos is a documentary on the ongoing debate between the competing scientific theories of evolution and intelligent design, and the people who wage it. It's a film by Randy Olson, who knows a thing or two about the subject, being a Harvard-trained evolutionary biologist himself. His clear knowledge of the subject allow him to make several cogent points throughout the film, and the connections his academic background provide him surely helped land interviews with some of the most intelligent and prominent individuals on both side of the debate. It is Olson's education and access that make this a good film; if only he had restrained some of his irreverent flourishes, it could have been a great one.
Olson starts the film in Kansas, the home of two recent school board battles regarding the teaching of intelligent design. Kansas also happens to be Olson's home state, and he keeps up with the controversy through frequent briefings by his mother, Muffy Olson. She lives in a suburb of Kansas City, and is featured prominently in the film. Muffy is a high-spirited, outspoken women who is simply exasperated by the incompetence of those advocating for intelligence design.
While Olson is able to subdue the frustration he shares with his mother, he too often gives into an irreverence most likely inherited from her. Olson is a serious man, at least in the sense that he is a learned commentator in these debates, and the evolution/intelligent design discussion is certainly in need of more sober voices. However, adorning his film with animated dodo birds, literal pie charts (pie charts shaped like actual pies), and harmonica and banjo musical accompaniments undermine his message.
I should admit, part of this message is not related to the substance of the evolution/intelligent design debate. Olson also explores the public relations aspect on both sides, and how intelligent design advocates are so much more cheerful and concise than their dour, seemingly arrogant evolution counterparts. I assume Olson purposefully crafted an irreverent documentary in response to this observation, in the hopes that its playful tone would rope in fence sitters, those who naturally gravitate towards the argument that is most entertaining. Perhaps he is right, and his film will engage those who would otherwise ignore a more sober exploration of issues; somehow I doubt it.
That said, there is still a lot in Flock of Dodos that will interest people of any ideological stripe. I commend Olson for showing very little condescension or anger while talking with proponents of intelligent design, many of whom have no scientific background, yet feel justified in lecturing a man who has a doctorate in the subject. Because Olson does not show his frustration, we are able to see that intelligent-design advocates are not bug-eyed religious zealots, but, for the most part, friendly, well-meaning individuals. For people like myself, who find the questioning of evolution an inane waste of time and resources, it's important to remember this.
Additionally, there are moments, too few ultimately, where Olson thoroughly debunks an argument made by intelligent design proponents. This is especially important because too often in the media the debate is shown via a proxy from each side, with little consideration given to the actual merits of the case. If anything, Olson should have spent more time deconstructing each and every argument intelligent design advocates throw at him; instead a little too much of the film is spent documenting the history and tenor of the current debate.
Sadly, like most issues in the contemporary culture war, I don't think the battle over evolution is going away anytime soon. As Olson himself wisely demonstrates in Flock of Dodos, interest groups spend a lot of money attempting to advance intelligent design into public schools, and as long as these interest groups are extant, the debate will continue. However, Olson deserves credit for attempting to enlighten those on both sides of the discussion. Here's hoping he finds plenty of listeners.
For a documentary, Flock of Dodos has loads of extras; 90-some minutes worth to be exact. Many of these are especially welcome, because they provide substance to many of the arguments made in the film. The best feature is "Top Ten Questions," which features evolutionary and religious experts answering in great detail common inquiries like "Isn't it only fair to teach the controversy?" and "Is the media doing a good job covering the controversy?" The answers are not merely 30-second sound bites, but often well thought out, 5-10 minute long answers. Ultimately, "Top Ten Questions" runs at just under an hour, but is probably more informative than the feature, though not necessarily as entertaining.
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