Above: Mostly naked, completely shaved guy, who frolicks with arthropods and mollusks. You'll be seeing a lot of him.
Most of the time when I watch a science documentary, I don’t notice scientific errors, although they’re often there. I’m not a scientist, and even in my areas of interest (paleontology and evolution) I’m not an expert by any means.
But last night I stumbled across an exceptionally bad science documentary. Although I’m no expert, this documentary left me slack-jawed and breathless. I was struck dumb by how stupid, and just plain wrong it was!
It’s produced by Discovery Channel, and it’s called Origins: The Battle for Earth.
Reading that name should raise all sorts of red flags by itself. Over an extremely painful 50 minutes, you will learn that:
- Both Anomalocarids and Opabinids were definitely Arthropods (wrong)
- Pikiaia gracilens, a direct human ancester, and it was almost hunted to extinction during the Cambrian (dubious at best)
- Harry Whittington apparently did not reconstruct Anomalocaris in the ’80′s, so we had no idea what it looked like until Des Collins found the first full specimen in the ’90′s (wrong)
- Humans “beat” both arthropods and mollusks to “win” Evolution (hilariously wrong)
- If Pikaia had been wiped out in the Cambrian, an intelligent, human-sized super-wasp species would have developed, and lived in sky-scraper-style hives on the waterfront (bizzare, hilarious, and almost certainly wrong)
This train-wreck is too massive to deal with in a single post, so here’s what I’m going to do. The movie is split into 6 parts on Youtube, so I’m going to devote a post to each part. I’ll post about one part every day between now and Friday. Check back every day for a new part! The Youtube video will be embedded in the bottom of each post, for your enjoyment.
Part #1 – The Stage is Set (Poorly)
The first thing to realize about this documentary is that it really tries to “dramatize” Evolution. I guess the producers didn’t think anyone would be interested in the Evolution of humanity as it actually occured, so they decided to turn it into an epic battle for survival between vertebrates, arthropods, and mollusks.
But they also assumed that “the masses” wouldn’t be able to remember the scientific terms for these 3 groups, so they refer to vertebrates as “us,” arthropods as “mega-bugs,” and mollusks as “super-snails.” It’s stupid and childish, but there you have it, Discovery Channel nomenclature.
The documentary seeks to answer that timeless question, how did humans “win” Evolution and become the “dominant” form of life on Earth? They freely compare the “dominance” of humans with that of “super-bugs,” as if a single species can be compared with an entire phylum (arthropoda). The entire documentary is a mess like this.
Now let’s look at some some specific issues in part 1. The numbers in brackets are the time in the video that the quotes occur.
“We tend to assume that we humans are the pinnacle of evolution, natural rulers of the planet. ” (0:07)
No, we don’t.
Opabinia: “This five-eyed paddle steamer carried a vicious mouth at the end of an elephant-like trunk.” (3:23)
Opabinia did not have a mouth at the end of its proboscis. It had a pair of grasping claws, which it used to grab food, and place it into its mouth. If they’d actually fact-checked they could have gotten this tidbit right. Moving on…
“Amazingly [complex animals] appeared almost overnight…”(3:57)
If by overnight, you mean over the course of several million years. Since they seem to assume that their viewers are pretty dumb, they should make things clearer.
“The dominant group today, which includes us, are the vertebrates…” (6:51)
I’m not sure how they decided vertebrates are dominant, considering how many more arthropods there are. I guess they actually do believe that humans are the pinnacle of evolution (see quote 1).
“Standing here in the 21st century, the notion that [arthropods and mollusks] ever competed with us for mastery of the Earth seems ludicrous, but new evidence reveals that we were almost wiped from the face of the Earth, by a bunch of bugs and snails” (7:40)
What is really ludicrous is that they assume we are masters of the earth. We’re smart, but our survivability is pathetic compared to say, arthropods. In fact, as we wipe ourselves out through global warming and other symptoms of our “mastery,” arthropods will be just fine.
That’s all for part 1. There are more dubious statements, but the whole thing is so dumb, it can be hard to pick out the parts that are dumb and wrong.
Here is the video:
I’d love you hear what you all thing of this mess. Please leave a comment! And remember, check back tomorrow for the next part!