'Flock of Dodos' and the Debate over Intelligent Design Filmmaker Randy Olson discusses his new documentary, which premiers this weekend at the Tribeca Film Festival. Flock of Dodos tackles the ongoing debate between evolutionary biologists and those who espouse intelligent design.
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'Flock of Dodos' and the Debate over Intelligent Design

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'Flock of Dodos' and the Debate over Intelligent Design

'Flock of Dodos' and the Debate over Intelligent Design

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FLOCK OF DODOS is a new documentary that gets its world premiere this weekend at the Tribecca Film Festival in New York. The subject is the ongoing debate between evolutionary biologists and those who espouse intelligent design.

Not a topic that usually packs them in at the box office. Filmmaker and evolutionary biologist Randy Olson hopes to change that in part by adding a bit of humor to the discussion.

(Soundbite of FLOCK OF DODOS)

Unidentified Man #1: I don't believe that we actually just descended from apes.

Unidentified Woman: I do not believe in any way, shape, or form, we descended from apes.

Unidentified Man #2: I didn't believe that until I met my uncle, who had more back hair than I had facial hair. So yeah, I kind of believe that now.

CONAN: Olson also wants to make a point, which is this, that the scientists whose job it is to explain evolution are risking extinction themselves by their failure to connect with actual American people.

Did somebody say Dodo?

Randy Olson joins us now from NPR's bureau in New York City. Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. RANDY OLSON (Filmmaker and evolutionary biologist): Thanks very much. Great to be here.

CONAN: Evolution, intelligent design, not usually considered a bucket of yuks.

Mr. OLSON: Certainly a challenge to make it a little bit lighter and enjoyable. You could see what a challenge it was last summer. THE DAILY SHOW did an entire week on the subject and it wasn't the funniest of weeks and at the end of it Jon Stewart sad that we learned something this week. We learned that instead of doing four nights on this subject, we should have only done two.

CONAN: Evolution everywhere isn't there? Yet, what are the points you're trying to make? You're an evolutionary biologist. You make no bones where you're coming from in this debate. What you're deploring, in a way, is the inability of your fellow scientists to be able to explain themselves.

Mr. OLSON: Absolutely. It's kind of a long-term pattern. Science has always had a difficult time when it comes to communications and I think that this issue in particular is really a manifestation of their inability to communicate what is 150 years of pretty cut-and-dried knowledge about the mechanism of evolution and how it's widely accepted.

CONAN: Now one of the people you talked to is Thomas Givnish, who is a plant evolutionist from the University of Wisconsin. And you talked to him, one of the things he talks about is the way he sees the other side in this debate.

(Soundbite of FLOCK OF DODOS)

Dr. THOMAS GIVNISH (University of Wisconsin): This is a big controversy, because some people think the earth was created 6,000 years ago, contrary to all statistical and geological evidence. And because a small number of people who frankly are yahoos, who know nothing, are ignoramuses, they really do not understand modern science. Because of that, public education is interfered with.

CONAN: Obvious contempt there for the other side, which you suggest in this film is not very useful.

Mr. OLSON: It's one of the shortcomings. It has been for the past few years from the evolution side, is the tendency to kind of rise above in this issue and condescend to the intelligent designers. And I'd heard about that for awhile and then we actually saw it in this wonderful poker game that we staged.

But I should add that Tom Givnish is a long-time friend of mine. He was actually a member of my advisory committee when I was a graduate student, so he was a good sport in this whole thing.

CONAN: We're talking with Randy Olson, director of the film FLOCK OF DODOS that screens this week at the Tribecca Film Festival in New York.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

By contrast to your evolutionary poker players there, you find a lot of the people on the other side, the intelligent designers, if you will, rather charming.

Mr. OLSON: Well it's, there's a long-term pattern of that as well. If you take a look at INHERIT THE WIND, a famous movie, you see that the creationists there had the same sorts of basic personality skills. And it works to their benefit. They end up connecting with the broader audience because they are kind of more easygoing and just kind of lighter about it all.

CONAN: And you talk about, you describe various court decisions, including the one recent one in Dover, Pennsylvania. And the various, the scientists keep winning on points, yet losing support in the American public.

Mr. OLSON: That seems to be the basic pattern. And, they also developed a strategy about a year ago. As I got ready to make this film I talked to some evolutionists and they said don't touch it. Stay away from the subject. It's going to die on its own. They're going nowhere, they've got no substance.

Well, I didn't think that was the case and in August it was pretty much proven not to be the case when they scored the cover of Time magazine for intelligent design. And after that there was kind of a tidal wave of media attention. So they've already basically won the first round of the whole debate with evolutionists.

CONAN: I wonder, this is obviously an element of the culture wars and a hot button issue, but do you think scientists can sort of communicate any better bout the health risks of tobacco or AIDS, for that matter?

Mr. OLSON: Well, there's, what's very clear that's happening right now is, Chris Mooney had a book two years ago called THE REPUBLICAN WAR ON SCIENCE and there was an article in the New Yorker about a month ago from Michael Specter also on this subject, the politicization of science that's gone on in the last few years, and that's where it's becoming a real serious concern. I think in the past communications was a bit more of an option for scientists, and if they didn't communicate that well there wasn't much of a price to be paid. But today it's become very serious.

CONAN: Let me ask you a little bit about, you're obviously trying to market this movie, you nervous about its premiere?

Mr. OLSON: We took it out and had ten advanced screenings, mostly on college campuses, and they all were kind of played to sold out audiences and overflow crowds. And everybody gets a lot of fun out of it. The film covers so many different disciplines. It's not just science and religion, but also communications and journalism and government.

And the net result is that every one of the screenings we had a panel discussion that went on, in the case of some places like Florida State, it went for almost two hours with 250 people sitting there hashing through the subject. Everybody has got something to say on this. It very much is a mirror of the culture wars going on today.

CONAN: And so you're hoping that some distributor is going to see this and say, I'd like to put that in every art house in the country.

Mr. OLSON: Well they're welcome to make an offer. We'll be open to it.

CONAN: When you think about marketing this, just asking you a question as a filmmaker now, what are the relative advantages? I mean, did you try to get it into the Sundance Festival? Is Tribecca better or worse?

Mr. OLSON: Oh, Tribecca is tremendous and, no, we didn't have it done in time really. So, the timing worked out perfectly and this seems to be the year that Tribecca's really jumped up. This is their fifth annual festival and they seem to have gone, by all kind of opinions, there are more bigger films coming here, more distributors and buyers than everybody. So this seems to be the big year for Tribecca so we couldn't be any more thrilled than we are.

CONAN: And, once it's in and you've scheduled the premiere and all of that, do you just screen the film and then sit there and cross your fingers and hope you get a phone call?

Mr. OLSON: Well we actually have a sales agent, who's quite a character himself, named Jeff Dowd, who was the guy that THE BIG LEBOWSKI was based on. The Dude. And he's I charge of that whole department. So he'll be here wrangling that side for us.

CONAN: So he's already had his picture made about him. So you think he can sell yours?

Mr. OLSON: Exactly. And it's the perfect match: The Dude meets The Dodos.

CONAN: Now, you're there with, also with the likes of Stephen Soderberg, Morgan Freeman, Rosie Perez, you had the debut of FLIGHT 93 last night. There's a lot of big events going on. Are you afraid you'll sort of get shuffled under the rug?

Mr. OLSON: Well, you know, I went to the movie last night, which was excellent, but it did leave a little bit of, you know, kind of subdued feeling. So tomorrow afternoon we're going to try and lighten things. We've got three Dodo costumes that are showing up and actors that are going to be outfitted and that will be showing up all around town. And we'll see what kind of attention that draws.

CONAN: Maybe archaeopteryx will come up next.

Mr. OLSON: Part of the sequel.

CONAN: Randy Olson, thanks very much. Good luck with the FLOCK OF DODOS, which makes its premiere this week at the Tribecca Film Festival in New York City.

Mr. OLSON: Thanks. I'm sure we'll have fun.

CONAN: Randy Olson joined us from NPR's bureau in New York City. And his film screens, as we mentioned, later this week in New York.

I'm Neal Conan. This is NPR News, and this is TALK OF THE NATION.

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