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[whitespace] Science Friction

Scientist dissects the tiny brains behind 'Evolution'

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Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation.

For a full 100 minutes, Dr. Timothy Ferris has been silently suffering in the theater seat beside me. That's the amount of time that slips away forever while the new science-fiction farce Evolution unspools its unfunny way from start to finish. With the stone-faced demeanor of a stoic man enduring a particularly unpleasant medical procedure--not unlike the massive enema that David Duchovny administers to a giant alien organism near the climax of the film--Ferris waits patiently, heroically even, for the credits to roll.

When they finally do, Ferris leaps to his feet, and runs for the door.

I'm right behind him.

Evolution, by Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman, features Duchovny, Julianne Moore and Orlando Jones as scientists trying to save the world from rapidly evolving aliens. These freaky E.T.s--cellular hitchhikers on the earth-bound meteorite that opens the film with its first and only real bang--have a real knack for evolution, morphing from worms and insects to pink gorillas and dinosaurs in a matter of days.

This, of course, is a threat to life as we know it, and inspires our jargon-spouting scientist heroes to launch a counter-attack in the form of loud, stupid pratfalls and lame fart jokes. Perhaps this is an attempt to drive the aliens away in embarrassment and disgust, as it appears to have done with Dr. Ferris, now determinedly leading the way through the packed lobby toward the exit and the comparatively painless streets of San Francisco.

A world-renowned lecturer, filmmaker, teacher and author, Ferris could be described as the P.T. Barnum of science, a skilled and entertaining popularizer of modern scientific thought. His stack of best-sellers (The Whole Shebang, Coming of Age in the Milky Way) and T.V. programs (PBS' The Creation of the Universe) support the claim that Ferris knows how to sell science, not by bringing it down to level of the masses, but by entertainingly nudging the masses up to higher and higher levels of scientific understanding.

In his new book, Life Beyond Earth (Simon & Schuster; $40.00), a coffee-table extravaganza based on Ferris' hit PBS' documentary of the same name, the author tackles the question of whether or not we are alone in the universe.

It's the same theme as in Evolution, only explored in a way that tantalizes the intelligence rather than insulting it. The film does, however, contain a smattering of scientific phrases and ideas--from mitosis to panspermia--that at least hints at the mysteries of the scientific world.

As Ferris works his way through the crowd, I point this out, reluctantly repeating Ivan Reitman's claim that "everything in the film is based on actual science."

"Yes. Well," Ferris retorts, "so's oral surgery."

One quick drive down the street later, we've ensconced ourselves in the bar of a quiet restaurant, where Ferris sips a vodka as I attempt to salvage the evening by asking if there was anything--anything at all--that was interesting, scientifically, about Evolution.

"No," he replies.

The ensuing silence spreads out like a million frisky flatworms hell-bent on planetary domination.

"I'm not offended," he finally says with a generous smile. "It's true that there's virtually no real science in this film, but I wasn't really offended by the contempt it shows for science, because it's a script that shows equal opportunity contempt for everyone: police officers, protesters, male scientists, women scientists, military personnel. And of course, the audience."

The audience especially, which should be warned that they will be subjected to piles of pseudo-scientific nonsense that some people might end up accepting as fact.

"In my understanding of evolution," I remark, "species evolve, in part, in response to specific environmental threats. They evolve by adapting to their surroundings. But in the movie they just . . evolve. Because they feel like it."

"You know," Ferris replies, with a laugh, "it's almost absurd to seriously critique the science in a movie this bad. So for the benefit of anyone who might have gone to see Evolution instead of studying for their biology final, the fundamental error in Evolution is that evolution is shown as a purposive process that builds in deliberate steps from so-called lower to higher life forms, from single-celled organisms to primates."

In regards to the alien life forms that do evolve in the film: though somewhat cool looking, they were all slightly altered version of things we've seen before: slugs, mosquitoes, dragons, pug dogs. Apparently, our imaginations are fairly limited in our views of what space might really be inhabited with.

I mention this.

"You may have noticed that in neither the new book, nor the film, did we make any attempt to show a depiction of an alien," Ferris says. "I certainly would have welcomed doing so, had anyone ever done it in a way that was sufficiently imaginative, so that some teenager looking at it would have his or her imagination expanded and say, 'Wow. What a concept. Imagine the richness and diversity of life out there." But I've never seen such a thing.

"And the reason is just what you suggest," he adds. "Our human imagination is very effective at recombining and making short-leap derivations from reality, but it doesn't actually go much beyond that. We're dependent on reality, even in our imaginations.

"I've never seen any imaginary aliens that were even as exotic as a lantern fish from the deep ocean, and they live here in Earth," he adds. "Try a transparent fluke with two rows of party lights that run down in sequence."

Dr. Ferris laughs.

"Now that's an alien."

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From the June 14-20, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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