NCSE Gives ‘Favorable’ Review of The Voyage the Shook the World

(but with painfully predictable paradigm patting)


The Voyage the Shook the World

It took over a year, but the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) followed through with their undertaking to review our documentary on the life and legacy of Charles Darwin, Darwin: the Voyage that Shook the World.1 The review2 was surprisingly friendly, considering what a staunch opponent of creationism the NCSE has been over the years and what they had said about the movie previously.3

Founded by atheists, and now headed by atheist Eugenie Scott, the NCSE is at the forefront of attacking creation in the public sphere anywhere and everywhere they can, but especially in the educational arena.

They certainly took exception to much of what was in the video, but they did so without the invective typically heaped upon us by the likes of Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, and others. Perhaps this was due to the tone we struck in the movie. We presented our case in as matter-of-fact a manner as possible, without emotional pleas, and treated Darwin and other evolutionists with respect. Even though they missed the big picture, they seem to have replied in kind, until one realizes that they resorted to many slights of our characters.

They comment favorably on the production quality, saying “The film features excellent cinematography, high quality graphics and effects and re-enactments of scenes from Darwin’s life by actors in period dress,” but right away attempt to chip away at our conclusions by saying the creationists in the film have “little or no historical training” (this is an ad hominem argument; attacking the man rather than the argument). While the creationists are mostly scientists, not historians, it does not mean the historical statements coming from their side are therefore inaccurate. Are scientists not allowed to read history books? Are we unable to get an accurate understanding of history? And, once we read such books, are we not allowed to use that historical understanding to shape our views? Using their logic, historians should never comment on scientific issues. Of course, the NCSE authors’ credentials indicate they are qualified to comment in both realms, so, according to their logic, poor saps like us are locked out. Darwin himself very often strayed outside his field, which was originally geology, to write on subjects as diverse as coral reefs, pollination in orchids, and human emotions.4 In fact, it is common practice for most secular scientists today to at least occasionally branch out of their fields of expertise, and this very often leads to new and productive collaborations, publications, and leads for new research.

Nevertheless, CMI extensively featured three recognized Darwin historians in the film and we believe that their testimonies backed up the statements made by the creationists/non-evolutionists interviewed. That probably explains the attempt by the NCSE authors to discount the input by the historians (see below).

In the film, it is sometimes difficult to tell the evolutionist and the creationist apart, mostly because the evolutionists said some surprising things, not because we took them out of context.

NCSE also complains that the creationists are not identified as such. But neither are the evolutionists. We chose to present the facts without muddying the waters with biased phraseology in the credentials. Most of the evolutionists were employed by secular universities and this was included in their credentials, as is common practice. Several, but not all, of the creationists we interviewed happened to not work in a collegiate setting, hence the absence of current affiliation. In those cases, we noted from which university they obtained their degree. This included the two CMI scientists and Cornelius Hunter, but these were not the only non-evolutionists interviewed. In the film, it is sometimes difficult to tell the evolutionist and the creationist apart, mostly because the evolutionists said some surprising things, not because we took them out of context.5

Strangely, even though the project was spearheaded by a geologist, our Dr Emil Silvestru (who worked as an associate professor at Babes-Bolyai’ University in Romania, and was the head scientist at the world’s first Speleological Institute in Cluj), and spends more time on Darwin’s geology than on Darwin’s biology, they reserve most of the criticism for the section on the Galápagos, which deals with the evidences relating to biological evolution. They brush aside Emil’s discussion on megafloods, their effects on geological formations, and their history within geological interpretation. They also avoid our main point that Darwin drew several incorrect conclusions, based on his acceptance of the now outdated (but still widely influential) Lyellian view of geology, and that Darwin completely disavowed any potential flood to explain the formation of the Santa Cruz river valley, for example. Thus, faulty theory caused Darwin to draw conclusions that conflicted with the facts.

The reviewers also complain that not all of the geological arguments of the other side (theirs) are presented. But this is not fair play on their part; we would like to see even one evolutionist documentary (and that’s nearly all documentaries) that even refers (accurately) to any creationist arguments, let alone presents them in earnest.

In their critique of the Galápagos section, they lump many ideas into one very long paragraph. This makes it very difficult to discuss, so below are significant sections of that paragraph, followed by our response.

NCSE: The film claims that in Darwin’s time, science argued for gradual change, fixity of species, and an old earth, while religion argued for rapid catastrophic change, mutability of species, and a young earth. This is an historically inaccurate, and over-simplistic, portrayal of the myriad of positions that were held regarding these issues.

Actually, we made no such claim and, in their overly simplistic summary, NCSE has misrepresented our statements. What we said was that most scientists of the day were arguing for fixity of species and centers of creation, based on the views of Aristotle, and that their strident defense of fixity of species overturned the biblical position of a rapid dispersal of animal life from the region of the Middle East after the Flood. Sadly, this overturning of biblical precept also occurred among much of the church leadership (so ‘religion’ did not on the whole stand for the biblical position). We are quite well aware of the diversity of opinion among scientists and the populace at the time, and specifically discussed one person in particular, but there was, in fact, one overriding theory to which most people held (Aristotelian fixity of species), which we presented.

NCSE: Many of the claims made in this section are made by Rob Carter who is identified as “(PhD, University of Miami) Marine Biologist and Geneticist” rather than as the employee of CMI that he is. Carter makes seemingly scientific points while on location dressed in field gear—the viewer is clearly expected to believe that he has engaged in field work germane to the issue of speciation, when in fact his research was on fluorescent proteins in Cnidaria.

As stated above, the credentials are accurate, as are those of the other interviewees. Also, as any fair-skinned person like me who has travelled in the tropics knows, a wide-brimmed hat is essential. There was no duplicitous intent to dress me in “field gear”. In fact, I have owned that hat for many years and regularly wear it when in “the field” (that is, out in the sun). They seem to be grasping at straws even for an ad hominem attack. Why did they not make the same claims regarding Dr. Silvestru’s attire? Their accusation is almost childish.

NCSE: Indeed, despite this biological training, Carter is not afraid to make historical claims. He states that Darwin’s contemporary Edward Blyth had a “fully fledged theory of natural selection” and that “Darwin got Blyth’s first paper when Darwin was in South America, so when he came here to the Galápagos, he had Blyth’s idea of natural selection and Lyell’s idea of geology on his mind … Secondly, while Blyth did indeed have a theory of selection, historians—despite the claim made by Loren Eisley (1959)—have been unable to demonstrate that Darwin had read Blyth’s paper of January 1835 before visiting the archipelago in September, or had indeed for that matter read Blyth’s paper before 1837-’38.6 In short, Carter is being inaccurate—or disingenuous—in his presentations of historical “facts”.
Photo by Steve MurrayThe Voyage the Shook the World

Blyth’s ideas on natural selection were, indeed, “fully-fledged”, and supported change over time, even if they did not support Darwin’s grand view of microbes-to-man evolution. As to when Darwin read Blyth’s 1835 paper, there is a diversity of opinion on the topic. He was in communication with England during his time in South America (amounting to several years), sent large crates of specimens back to England, and sent and received professional correspondence as well as personal letters. He even received Lyell’s second and third volumes of Principles of Geology while ‘in the field’. It was certainly possible to also receive copies of a very popular scientific journal. After the voyage was over, he was in at least occasional correspondence with Blyth up to and beyond the publication of Origin.7 Did Darwin start his notebook “B” on transmutation in 1837 after returning from the voyage and reading Blyth’s papers of 1835, 1836, and 1837? In any case, we do know that he eventually read and studied Blyth,8 especially since he highly complimented Blyth in the opening chapter of Origin. If I was mistaken about the timing, mea culpa, but the minor point is that Blyth preceded Darwin and that Darwin was familiar with his work. The main point of my argument was that there is a popular conception that Darwin invented his theory of evolution according to natural selection while on the Galápagos, which he certainly did not. In fact, he missed it entirely.

NCSE: The documentary goes on to claim that Darwin was misled by his reliance on Lyell’s gradualism to initially miss the evidence for natural selection in the Galápagos islands [sic?], in particular with regards [sic] the avian specimens he collected.

Actually, what we said was that despite Lyell’s geology Darwin still missed it. A reliance on Lyell’s gradualism could have led to the idea that all things must come from a common ancestor. We did not say that Lyell misled Darwin regarding the biology. In the midst of a discussion of his first inklings that species varied from place to place, he says in his journal (1839):

“ … it never occurred to me, that the productions of islands only a few miles apart, and placed under the same physical conditions, would be dissimilar.”9

Strangely, only a few pages earlier, Darwin asserts that other people familiar with the animals noticed differences from one island to the next, specifically among the tortoises:

“It was confidently asserted, that the tortoises coming from different islands in the archipelago were slightly different in form; and that in certain islands they attained a larger average size than in others. Mr. Lawson maintained that he could at once tell from which island any one was brought.”10

He expands his discussions in the 1845 version to include tortoises, birds, and lizards with this statement (emphasis added):

“[at this point in his travels, 1835] I have not as yet noticed by far the most remarkable feature in the natural history of this archipelago; it is, that the different islands to a considerable extent are inhabited by a different set of beings. My attention was first called to this fact by the Vice-Governor, Mr. Lawson, declaring that the tortoises differed from the different islands, and that he could with certainty tell from which island any one was brought. I did not for some time pay sufficient attention to this statement, and I had already partially mingled together the collections from two of the islands. I never dreamed that islands, about fifty or sixty miles apart, and most of them in sight of each other, formed of precisely the same rocks, placed under a quite similar climate, rising to a nearly equal height, would have been differently tenanted; but we shall soon see that this is the case. It is the fate of most voyagers, no sooner to discover what is most interesting in any locality, than they are hurried from it; but I ought, perhaps, to be thankful that I obtained sufficient materials to establish this most remarkable fact in the distribution of organic beings.”11

Or, in other words, he figured things out after the fact, as we attest in the film. And, it sounds like he is trying to build up his own reputation over time to secure priority for the transmutation idea, but he cannot quite pull it off so he muddies the waters with vague language.

Continuing with the NCSE article (parentheses in the original):

NCSE: (It is perhaps worth noting here that implicit in the claim is that Darwin somehow plagiarized the idea of natural selection from Blyth, a creationist who saw selection as a purely negative force that maintained the type.)

We do not claim, even implicitly, that Darwin plagiarized anyone in the movie, but, if we did, we would not be the first.12 Darwin was surrounded by people who did not believe the Bible13 and who wanted a different explanation to how things came to be. This includes many who were toying with evolutionary ideas, including his influential grandfather, and he readily incorporated much of this cultural material into his theory.

NCSE: The problems here are twofold. First, natural selection is in no way self-evident from the collections that Darwin—or indeed any other naturalist—could have made. What Darwin observed on his voyage was variation and in particular patterns of variation—the processes behind the patterns would only come to him when back in England.
Darwin did not conceive of natural selection as a mechanism to explain the observed variations until after his trip was over. That is our point entirely. Good for them to have noticed.

He did not need to go back to England to ruminate on it; he missed the point entirely. Darwin did not conceive of natural selection as a mechanism to explain the observed variations until after his trip was over. That is our point entirely. Good for them to have noticed.

The article goes on to deal with our treatment of “change over time”, which is a common but lame definition of evolution,14 our rejection of common ancestry for humans and other primates,15 the fact that informed evolutionary scientists reject the change we believe in as being too rapid,16 our statements that there are limits to biological change,17 our claim for the absence of a mechanism for the addition of biological information over time,18 the rise of neocatastrophism in secular geology (and, no, the Grand Canyon does not prove long periods of time),19 and our failure to mention the supposed great amounts of evidence for common ancestry,20 the great age of the earth,21 and human evolution. Our purpose was to discuss Darwin, his life, and his legacy. And, we had 53 minutes in which to do it. We covered a lot of territory in that short amount of time and inquisitive people can easily find our answers to those objections on creation.com, as the abundant links above testify. The study guide that we produced to accompany the film encourages the exploration of some of these issues.

In a brief comment about geologic change the authors attempt to blend operational and historical science:

NCSE: The film correctly points out that a role for catastrophes has been found in geology, but not to the exclusion of mostly uniformitarian processes over very long periods of time such as may be found in the Grand Canyon.

We have pointed out many times that known and observed catastrophic events in our own lifetimes have shaped similar geologic features as found in the Grand Canyon.22 Thus, present processes can inform us about past events. But note that they resort to uniformitarianism in the same breath. If rapid erosion caused by flowing water can be seen today, and if this can be used to explain larger features (e.g., the Channeled Scablands, the Santa Cruz River Valley, etc.) with a simple scaling up of intensity, why do we need to appeal to long ages and slow and gradual processes to explain even larger features (e.g., Grand Canyon and vast planation surfaces)?

They also react to our treatment of Darwin’s racism, claiming this was due to his religious and cultural milieu rather than his science. But his science was actually running counter to some significant trends of reformation occurring in his day, including the rise of mass missionary activity from England (and Europe) to Africa, Asia, and the Americas, and the eradication of slavery in the British Empire by the likes of the devout Christian, Wilberforce.23 In fact, the outright racism in his 1871 book The Descent of Man24 is a logical outworking of his evolutionary beliefs, where he splits people up into several distinct species or subspecies, claims whites are at the top and darker people below them, that blacks and browns cannot attain the obvious moral superiority of whites because they are on a lower rung of the evolutionary ladder, and that whites will eventually exterminate the darker skinned races though ‘survival of the fittest’ (and, implicitly, that this will be good for the advancement of the human species). None other than the evolutionist Steven Jay Gould admitted,

“Biological arguments for racism may have been common before 1850, but they increased by orders of magnitude following the acceptance of evolutionary theory.”25

Racist views can fit comfortably in an evolutionary worldview but not within a consistent biblical one.26 It is true that Darwin rejected slavery. He and his family were actively involved in emancipation efforts both in England and in America.27 Yet his plain words in The Descent of Man about the eventual extermination of blacks and browns at the hand of whites, and his vacillation about whether or not blacks, browns and whites are separate species argues against him ultimately believing in racial equality.28 Darwin was a complex and sometimes inconsistent man, but his theory demands that some groups within a species are superior to others, and he was well aware of the implications of his work.

The reviewers make an additional incorrect statement:

NCSE: Near the end of the film, it is stated that in Darwin’s time, science was only beginning to emerge from philosophy, and that Darwin’s project was philosophical and anti-religious as much as it was scientific (a position probably inspired by Cornelius Hunter, who appears in the documentary identified as a “Molecular Biophysicist & Author” rather than as the Fellow of the Discovery Institute that he is).

It was, in fact, a well-known evolutionist, Dr. Philip Currie, who made the statement that science was a branch of philosophy at that time (Actually, it still is, as anyone with a doctor of philosophy degree [PhD] can attest. Only in modern times has naturalism become the only philosophical position allowed in dealing with origins). Hunter was but one of several people commenting on the relationship between science and philosophy. Also, after Hunter graduated as a molecular biophysicist, did he cease to be qualified as one just because he works with Discovery Institute?

The review wraps up with a few compliments and a few extra criticisms, including a question of whether we were trying to hide our creationism (if so, we would hardly have discussed and promoted the film on creation.com!), and whether we designed this as a “Trojan horse” (NCSE is obviously concerned with the wedge strategy of the Intelligent Design movement29 ). We clearly meant this documentary to be broadly acceptable so that it would get a hearing in the marketplace of ideas; obviously NCSE does not like ideas other than Darwinism getting a hearing.

They also say we omitted key evidences for evolution (but we don’t believe there are any that stand scientific scrutiny!) and that we hoped the viewer might, “infer the reasonability of creationism from the selective evidence that is presented.” Rather, our purpose in making this film was to assess Darwin in as balanced a way as possible (unlike almost any other quality documentary on the subject), by interviewing creationists and evolutionists, by visiting some of the places he went, by looking into his heritage and contemporary culture, and by seeing if his ideas have withstood the test of time. We wrapped up the film with the following open-ended statement:

He died knowing his voyage shook the world. But questions about where we come from, and why we’re here, refuse to go away.

We ended this way because our goal was to get people to think about the man and his legacy and to spark discussion, something not normally encouraged in documentaries dealing with Darwin or evolution (the NCSE works hard to try to stifle all questioning of Darwinism).

Most disappointing of all was their repetition of the claims that the Darwin historians were misrepresented in the film. In the print version of the article, they included a side bar that included excerpts from an open letter from several of the interviewees, which we rebutted on our website in July 2009. By presenting only one side of the story (half truths), they imply that CMI’s movie cannot be trusted because we were not honest. This is particularly surprising and disappointing because one of the authors of NCSE’s article, Jim Lippard, actually investigated these claims of misrepresentation after we published full transcripts of the interviews on our site. His conclusion was that CMI had represented them fairly and he published the findings on his blog. He wrote:

CMI takes issue, however, with the two specific allegations by Bowler and Herbert that their words in the interviews were taken out of context and misrepresented in what appears in the film. To rebut them, CMI’s website publishes more extensive quotations from these two historians and compares them to how they were edited and placed in the context of the film.

Although I haven’t yet had an opportunity to view the screener copy of the film in my possession, the CMI rebuttal appears to be sound with respect to those two specific allegations. The CMI web page concludes by noting that each of the participants was given their raw footage, as well as a copy of the film, and ends by saying, “We are hopeful that it will turn out to have been a case of not having checked the raw footage sent to them, instead relying on memory. We would be delighted to publish news of a retraction of either or both of these two claims in this space, should that occur.”30

Yet, Mr Lippard did not allude to his previous exoneration of CMI in the NCSE piece.

I suppose we should thank the two authors and the NCSE for this, albeit rather late, added exposure, but, strangely, they did not include a link to our site or the movie! In the online version, the “Purchase this book online” link leads to the amazon.com main page, not to the product page and not to CMI’s webstore (later, they did include one link to creation.com in the sidebar of the printed version, which could lead people to the DVD, but not easily). Perhaps they were afraid someone would find our response to their review. Or maybe they are concerned that The Voyage really is a fair treatment of the subject matter and that people might think about the issue of origins for themselves rather than just blindly accept evolutionism.

Published: 8 February 2011


  1. See also the stand-alone website www.thevoyage.tv. Return to text.
  2. Lippard, J., and Lynch, J.M., Review: The Voyage that Shook the World. Reports of the National Center for Science Education 30:22-24, 2010; http://ncse.com/rncse/30/review-voyage-that-shook-world. Return to text.
  3. Darwin historians not misrepresented Return to text.
  4. Darwin was an amazingly productive person, considering his ill health, and wrote on a wide variety of topics. The complete corpus of his works can be found online at http://darwin-online.org.uk/. Return to text.
  5. Did CMI ‘lie’ in making The Voyage?; Darwin historians not misrepresented Return to text.
  6. Originally, the online version of the paper read, “ … historians … have been unable to demonstrate that Darwin had read Blyth’s paper of January 1835 before visiting the archipelago in September, or indeed for that matter had ever read the paper.” (emphasis mine) In the original reading, they blended two separate arguments: 1) did Darwin read the paper prior to traveling to the Galápagos? And 2) did Darwin ever read the paper? The careful reader will note the radical change in meaning between the two versions. If the authors are allowed to correct a printed statement, I suppose I should be allowed to correct a spoken one, but, even then, I am not certain that I misspoke. Return to text.
  7. Prior to the publication of Origin, Blyth wrote to Darwin about Wallace and says, “What think you of Wallace’s paper … ? Good! Upon the whole!…according to his theory, the various domestic races of animals have been fairly developed into species.” (http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-1792). Return to text.
  8. Grigg, R., Darwin’s illegitimate brainchild, Creation 26(2):39–41, 2004; creation.com/brainchild. Return to text.
  9. Darwin, C.R., Narrative of the surveying voyages of His Majesty’s Ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1826 and 1836, describing their examination of the southern shores of South America, and the Beagle’s circumnavigation of the globe. Journal and remarks. 1832–1836. London: Henry Colburn, 1839, p. 474 (at http://darwin-online.org.uk). Return to text.
  10. Ibid, p. 465. Return to text.
  11. Darwin, C.R., Journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the countries visited during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle round the world, under the Command of Capt. Fitz Roy, R.N. 2d edition. London: John Murray, 1835, p. 393–394 (at http://darwin-online.org.uk). Return to text.
  12. Bergman, J., Did Darwin plagiarize his evolution theory? Journal of Creation 16(3):58–63, 2002. Return to text.
  13. As he quotes in his autobiography, “I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.” Barlow, N. (ed.), The autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882. With the original omissions restored. Edited and with appendix and notes by his grand-daughter Nora Barlow. London: Collins, 1958, p. 87 (at http://darwin-online.org.uk). Return to text.
  14. Speciation Q&A; creation.com/speciation Return to text.
  15. Anthropology Q&A; creation.com/anthropology. Return to text.
  16. See ref 14. Return to text.
  17. Williams, A., Molecular limits to natural variation, Journal of Creation 22(2):97–104, 2008. Return to text.
  18. Information Theory Q&A; creation.com/infotheory. Return to text.
  19. Geology Q&A; creation.com/geology. Return to text.
  20. Sarfati J., and Matthews, M., Refuting Evolution 2: Argument: Common design points to common ancestry; creation.com/homology. Return to text.
  21. ‘Young’ age of the Earth & Universe Q&A; creation.com/young. Return to text.
  22. E.g., Silvestru, E., Rapid canyon formation and fossils; creation.com/canyons-and-fossils. Return to text.
  23. Sarfati, J., Anti-slavery activist William Wilberforce: Christian hero; creation.com/wilberforce. Return to text.
  24. Read it for yourself: Darwin, C.R., The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex (London: John Murray), Vol. 1. 1st edition, 1871 (at http://darwin-online.org.uk). Return to text.
  25. Gould, S.J., Ontogeny and Phylogeny, Belknap-Harvard Press, pp. 127–128, 1977. Return to text.
  26. Racism Q&A; creation.com/racism Return to text.
  27. Guyatt, N., Orchids and Lilacs: Darwin, Lincoln and Slavery, The Nation, June 22, 2009; www.thenation.com/article/orchids-and-lilacs-darwin-lincoln-and-slavery. Return to text.
  28. Wieland, C., Was Darwin Racist? creation.com/darwin-racism; See also Racism Q&A. Return to text.
  29. Wieland, C., CMI’s views on the Intelligent Design Movement; creation.com/idm. Return to text.
  30. http://lippard.blogspot.com/2009_07_01_archive.html Return to text.