Cambrian Confusion: Some answers, more questions

Yesterday I questioned the path by which Simon Conway Morris and James Valentine, two evolutionary biologists, came to appear in the new creationist film Darwin's Dilemma. Created by Illustra Media, a film company that has worked closely with the Discovery Institute, the film claims that the "Cambrian Explosion" provides evidence for intelligent design. I now have more information.

Simon Conway Morris was interviewed for the film. In an e-mail by Lad Allen, the producer of Darwin's Dilemma, the filmmaker provided evidence that he had interviewed Conway Morris on November 14, 2006. The questions focused on Conway Morris' expertise about Cambrian fossils. Said Allen;

I want to assure you that you [Conway Morris] are, in no way, represented as a proponent or supporter of intelligent design. Instead, your role in the film is that of one of the world's foremost experts on the Burgess Shale. You explain how the Burgess fossils were discovered, why they are so unique, and what they reveal about the biological explosion of complex animal life on earth. I thought you did an outstanding job.

Conway Morris stated that, at the time of the interview, he was unaware that he was participating in a creationist documentary. He also did not know of the relationship between Illustra Media and the Discovery Institute. (As Allen notes in his e-mail, Illustra Media is a separate legal entity from the Discovery Institute. Even so, Illustra has worked closely with Discovery Institute fellows to create the films The Privileged Planet, Unlocking the Mystery of Life, and Darwin's Dilemma, all of which also feature interviews with Discovery Institute fellows. Fellow Stephen C. Meyer was integral to the development of Darwin's Dilemma.) To reiterate, Conway Morris has stated that he did not know that his interview was going to be used for a creationist documentary until the release of the film this week.

How Illustra obtained the James Valentine video has yet to be confirmed. At the present time rumor has it that Valentine's segment came from an interview filmed by an outfit other than Illustra. It may be that previously-existing video of Valentine was simply co-opted for the new project. Expect more on this in the near future.

The question on where Conway Morris' interview came from has now been resolved, but the details of Valentine's are still unknown. Both paleontologists were interviewed about scientific subjects by creationist film outfits and it appears that they were unaware of the ends to which their interviews would be used. This is a shame. Such tactics on the part of creationist filmmakers make scientists reluctant to give out interviews, a tragedy during a time when we need more scientists reaching out to the public.

I have also been made aware that others are looking into Darwin's Dilemma. Expect to hear more about it soon.

Post-script: Something appears to have gone wrong with the commenting system (I have been trying to respond since last night), so I will respond here.

Granted, I do not have as much experience with the media as some of the esteemed commentators below, but I decided to go ahead with this story after Conway Morris said he could not recall being interviewed (and would not have given permission for footage of himself to appear in a pro-ID documentary). Valentine knew that an interview with him had been used in creationist documentaries but did not know that the film crew that interviewed him was going to use the footage in that way. Once I wrote the previous post, however, I had to write a second post to update the story with the new information presented above. It would have been irresponsible not to.

I had expected that it was standard practice for film crews to tell scientists what programs their interviews would end up in. Perhaps I was mistaken, and Conway Morris should have checked up on what Illustra Media was beforehand. (I know I would have looked into the previous work of people coming to interview me if I were in the same position.) Even so, I still think that it is dishonest for a creationist film crew to conduct an interview with a scientist for a project that the scientist might not agree to be in if they knew what it was. Furthermore, it may be that Valentine's interview has been recycled from a previous source. This has yet to be confirmed, but I think it is a bit shady for a film company to include an old interview into their film (which they said they conducted themselves) in order to give their product more clout, especially without notifying the scientist in that interview.

As I said, perhaps this is all "standard practice", but if that is so it is a bit frightening. Either way, I think (at the least) Illustra withheld information from one interviewee so that they could get him to appear in a film he might otherwise refuse to participate in. Conway Morris is not blameless in this, he should have been aware of who he was being interviewed by, but I would still think (hope?) that media companies would be forthright with what they were going to do with the interviews they film.

More like this

One of my biggest pet peeves is when someone starts out a comment by saying something like 'no disrespect to anyone...' and then goes on to make the kind of high minded, pompous statements 'corax' makes above.

First thing, friend, those folks you've told to 'grow up' for the most part use their own, real names. In other words, they don't hide behind internet handles but actually take some responsibility for what they say. To my way of thinking, that's what 'grownups' do.

Secondly, as to the substance of your point, why don't you do some further 'homework' yourself before you start making pronouncements. Take a look, for example, at the film's website, where Conway Morris and Valentine are presented as if they were willing and informed participants--even collaborators--in the production. If that isn't dishonest, I don't know what is. I promise you that both of these scientists are perfectly experienced dealing with the media--I would say more experienced than you, only while I know both of them I don't know who the hell you are--but their experience has been with outfits like PBS, BBC, etc. who don't lie about or hide their true motives or identity.

Sorry, but your anonymous concern trolling doesn't score many points here. If you think creationist outfits like Illustra Media are on the up and up--or are doing anything more honorable than 'lying for Christ'--they you're the one who's sadly naive.

By David Sepkoski (not verified) on 18 Sep 2009 #permalink

Conway Morris is a Christian, and also holds eccentric teleological views on evolution which look as if they owe something to Teilhard de Chardin (though I haven't looked into them in detail). So it's possible that the film maker thought it would be possible to persuade him to say something that could be edited to sound sympathetic to creationism (NB. I'm sure SCM hates creationism with the best of us, it's just that he's not an orthodox modern synthesist). The dishonesty of these people is breathtaking.

Such duplicitous, despicable tactics by "Christians" pushing ID\creationism have become par for the course. Their habit of tricking scientists into appearing in their films couldn't be because thay can't find very many legitimate scientists to openly support their views, could it?

By Raymond Minton (not verified) on 17 Sep 2009 #permalink

Hypothetically, it shouldn't make a difference that a creationist outfit put the film together, if the questions are straight and the answers not edited to present a misleading argument.

But then, one would expect that they'd be clear about who is producing the film and for what purposes.

Dishonesty in small things does not necessarily mean dishonesty in all things, but it suggests dishonesty in all things.

I'll echo Ed Darrell in that I wouldn't have a major problem with this if the interview is really used straight, simply to talk about the discovery of the Burgess Shale, as Allen claims. It's still a little sketchy for what purports to be a scientific documentary (Borat may do far worse, but then, Cohen isn't claiming to have a monopoly on the truth, is he?) but it would not be enraging.

At that point, the fact that these folks made a pro-creationist film in the first place becomes the most despicable thing. :D

No direspect to anyone here, but some of the remarks (particularly to the previous post on the subject) reveal just how naive some people are in dealing with the media.

While it would always be wrong to edit an interview in such a way as to misrepresent the views of the interviewee, it is not uncommon for interviewees to not know the agendas of the producers etc - and unless the interviewee has been lied to in order to get the interview they have really no business complaining. Put simply, if your not used to dealing with the media you should be very careful when giving any interviews, and if you haven't done your homework beforehand then frankly you have no one to blame but yourself.

The childish remarks about 'lying for christ' suggest the commentors need to do some growing up and not be too quick to jump to conclusions when the facts are not known.

Brian, I really enjoy your blog and agree with you on a great many issues, but in this case I am struggling to find what the fuss is actually about.

@corax: I, as a Christian, would definite call this kind of behaviour on the part Illustra "lying for Christ. Omitting the information about what type of project they were shooting for when they interview an expert in the field who is most likely to be critical of the producers' stance, perhaps even critical enough to refuse, can only be an intentional ommission. It's not like forgetting to tell your interviewee that you're using Zuiko instead of Zeiss lenses or that your camera operator is a vegetarian.

This is just, IMNSHO, a further example, following upon "Expelled", of how the movers and shakers in the Creationist/ID movement are deliberately and systematically dishonest.

I, too, am a Christian. After several years of weighing the evidence of evolution, as well as listening to the arguments made by proponents of the Creationist/ID (C/ID) movement, I have come to conclude, sadly, that this type of disingenuous approach is typical for them.

I'm not sure whether I have a huge problem that the filmmaker did not reveal their position up front. In and of itself, that may not be wrong. However, after reviewing a lot of ID material, it is clear to me that they "cherry-pick" quotes from scientists who fundamentally disagree with C/ID -- often, from Christian evolutionists -- and then quote them out of context to make it appear that they either support C/ID, or are unsure of their own position on evolution.

Such deceitful tactics reflects very poorly on Christians in general, and does not speak well of people who claim to have "The Truth" on their side. Very disappointing :(

I must also bring up the fact that "RICHARD DAWKINS" has repeatedly done what you have claimed. So if you claim they are wrong then the same must go for him. He repeatedly edits ALL of his media cutting out any attempt by the person he is debating to have a view. I have not seen "Darwin's Dilemma" but as I said THEY ALL DO IT. So stop pointing fingers Like all anti-life, anti-human ideologies evolution has been politicized and legalized which should be a telling indication of its meaning to society as a religious doctrine.

By Sam Barns (not verified) on 22 Jan 2010 #permalink

There are different types of pains in human body. Sometimes when we wake up, we can feel a crick on our neck and we may have difficulty to get rid of it. Sometimes, unconsciously as a result of staying under air flow, suffering pain occur on our shoulders, colic, knees and different parts of our body.

I think she is just a wannabeeee-this seems so wrong and look at the room she is doing the video in!!!I think that she is a very strange girl looking for fame herself up. She appears to be like my 10 yr old daughter and not like a tru PA whose job it is NOT to say those things and to let the celebrity be the one on screen.
for more info please visit:

By Carmeluke326 (not verified) on 22 May 2011 #permalink