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.

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