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The Privileged Planet:

Showdown at the Smithsonian

Jerry Bergman, Ph.D.
© 2007 Creation Research Society.  All Rights Reserved.
This article first appeared in the January/February 2007 issue of
Creation Matters, a newsletter published by the Creation Research Society

After a favorable initial internal review, the Smithsonian announced it would show a movie   titled The Privileged Planet (Illustra Media, 2004) in Baird Auditorium at the Natural Museum   of History in June of 2005 (Stokes, 2005).  When the announcement was made, protests from the media, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, were strident and immediate. 

The media, as usual, were often inaccurate when covering this story.  For example, The New York Times incorrectly claimed that the film was “intended to undercut evolution” (Schwartz, 2005).  The next step was to alert the academic community to stay away from the film—for example, an archeology doctoral student reported that an email had been sent to the entire department of anthropology at George Washington University, “warning” everyone to not watch the movie (Steiner, 2005). 

Nguyen (2005) noted that once the news was out about the Smithsonian’s plan to show the film, it spread across the internet to “especially those dedicated to the evolution debate.”  Pro-evolution websites, atheist websites, and others, including those of humanists, organized a campaign to send emails and letters and to make phone calls protesting the film’s showing (for example, see Gilberti, 2005). Within only a week the Smithsonian “had yielded to liberal opinion” (Tucker, 2005).

This response to the film clearly implicates as having a religious agenda many of those involved in opposing intelligent design.  It also illustrates their absolute intolerance of a worldview with which they disagree, a worldview which implies that purpose exists for the universe, and that the earth is indeed a “privileged planet.”  Such a view hardly seems threatening to the vast majority of the population.  Only those who have philosophical objections to this conclusion, and who wish to advocate their own agenda, would object to the film.

The Darwinist community was alerted to the film’s showing when some persons received invitations that included the Discovery Institute’s name (a pro-intelligent design group, the film’s original sponsor), and which indicated that the event was “co-sponsored” by the Museum’s director.  This “shocked” Darwinists because “ ‘it looked as though the Smithsonian was supporting Intelligent Design’ ” (Brumfiel, 2005).  The Museum immediately tried to reverse its decision to allow the film’s showing.  Laurence Krauss, who instead of doing science seems to spend much of his time fighting any attempt to support theism with scientific fact, stated that “the Smithsonian was duped.”  Jay Richards of the Discovery Institute responded by noting that they had “followed the invitation template that the Smithsonian provided” in preparing the invitations (Brumfiel, 2005; see also Richards, 2005). 

The mainline media claimed that the Smithsonian was “caving in to” religious fundamentalists—even though the film was not produced by religious fundamentalists and is not specifically about religion.  The film simply argues that the conditions on our planet (and in our solar system) are rare in the universe, and that the earth lies in one of the few inhabitable locations in the galaxy.  As Gonzalez noted, the film does not try to prove the existence of God, but merely shows “‘some purpose to the universe’” (DuCharme, 2004). 

Obviously, this goal is unacceptable to the Museum and its supporters.  The film says nothing about religion, evolution, Darwin, or even intelligent design.  Nonetheless, “[w]ithin a week, the Smithsonian had yielded to pressure from Darwinists to censor the film…It canceled its ‘co-sponsorship’ of the event and gave back Discovery’s $16,000 contribution” to the Museum (Tucker, 2005). 

The film’s showing was actually to be only a private screening, but the storm of protest caused the Museum’s director, Christian Samper, to announce that “the content of the film is not consistent with the mission of the Smithsonian Institution’s scientific research.”  Nonetheless, because they had signed an “iron clad contract” to show the film, in the end they elected to carry out their legal obligation; breaking the contract could have resulted in litigation (O’Leary, 2005). 

Why Privileged?

The film is based on a book (Gonzalez and Richards, 2004) which is co-authored by Professor Guillermo Gonzalez, a highly-credentialed, well-published (over 60 professional journal publications) astronomer at Iowa State University.  The book argues that there may be many billions of stars, and even possibly many millions of planets, but many conditions must be met before a planet is able to host life.  For example, the planet must be in a temperate orbit (the temperature range must be approximately between 0°F and 100°F), and must also have a liquid ocean.  These requirements are not met on any other known planet.  In fact, most planets are infernos!  

Another requirement is a moon that massages the oceans to circulate nutrients, helping to stabilize the planet.  Another of the many requirements is that planet earth must be a certain distance from the sun, and from other stars—an ideal place in the galaxy known as a sweet spot.  The film also stresses that the earth is privileged because it exists in a position to provide the best overall conditions for scientific discovery  Interestingly, a few years earlier Professor Peter Ward had coauthored a book titled Rare Earth that advocates almost the same idea (Ward and Brownlee, 2000).  This best seller received rave reviews and, as far as I am aware, virtually no criticism.  Ward was a colleague of Gonzalez when he wrote this book. 

Why the Controversy?

Why was the film so controversial?  Tucker (2005) concluded that it was because the empirical evidence presented in the film leads to one conclusion—our planet is not only designed for life, but it is also designed with a “purpose,” namely to produce a species like humans.  The idea that there is purpose behind the universe is what causes so many prominent scientists to go ballistic—and it is this idea that was unacceptable to the Smithsonian.  Most leading scientists teach that life has no purpose or meaning, except that which we ourselves give to it.  We are simply living on an ordinary planet, one of many that exist in our average galaxy, which is one of many galaxies in the known universe. 

Orthodox science also teaches that life ultimately evolved here because of time, natural law, and chance, and will soon disappear.  Tucker (2005), an opponent of The Privileged Planet’s implication of purpose, maintained that “[i]nstead of arguing that everything on earth has been ‘designed’ for some mysterious ‘purpose,’ I think it’s much more instructive to look at some of God’s little errors.”  Tucker then tried to argue that one of God’s “little errors” is the fact that ice floats—for which “[t]here doesn’t seem to be any real explanation.”  In fact, it is well known why ice floats—a subject typically covered in introductory chemistry classes.

The film does not overtly make the case for intelligent design but, at best, only “makes a subtle argument for intelligent design,” suggesting that, even if the film only implies intelligent design, this evidence cannot be presented in a public venue (Bhattacharjee, 2005).  The Smithsonian claimed that presenting information supporting intelligent design—and they have never argued that the information is incorrect—“violates the museum’s scientific and educational missions” (Bhattacharjee, 2005).  The Museum, “after heavy criticisms from its scientists and outsiders…promises it won’t happen again.”  Museum spokesman Randall Kremer admitted that the “major problem with the film is the wrap-up” because it “takes a philosophical bent.” 

The objectionable “philosophical bent” is the view “that the suitability of Earth as a habitat for scientific observation is evidence that the universe was designed for human beings…” (Bhattacharjee, 2005).  The Museum apparently has no qualms about presenting other films with clear philosophical overtures, such as the late Carl Sagan’s film that concluded that the “Cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be” (Gonzalez, 2005); i.e., that only matter exists—nothing else.  The Smithsonian, in 1997, even featured a “Cosmos Revisited” show in memory of Carl Sagan.  Interestingly, while The Privileged Planet supports its view with empirical facts, Sagan did not support his faith statement with any evidence.  In fact, his claim about the cosmos cannot even be tested scientifically.

Thus, the Smithsonian has not only presented Sagan’s materialistic philosophy, but it has also blocked the presentation of any scientific arguments that suggest a contrary conclusion.  For this reason, Sheppard (2005) called the Smithsonian “one of the greatest Evolutionary propaganda machines in the world”.  Jewish mathematician David Berlinski said he thought the “uproar was indecent,” and that he was “appalled but not surprised by the willingness of academics to give up every principle of free speech and honest debate whenever they think they can do so without paying a price” (O’Leary, 2005).  DuCharme (2004) noted that the controversial film (The Privileged Planet) is “a rebuttal of astronomer Carl Sagan’s principle of mediocrity” which states that the earth’s small size and its unimportant position proves that “our planet is insignificant in the universe.”

Why the Museum Changed its Mind

Following an initial screening by Hans Dieter-Sues, the Museum’s associate director for research and collections, the film was approved for showing.  After the media storm, the Museum did a second review which, according to anthropologist Richard Potts, determined that the “film fell within the Museum’s guidelines for such events” (Bhattacharjee, 2005).

But “after dozens of calls and emails from researchers and the public,” the Museum decided to “issue a statement disavowing the event” (Brumfiel, 2005).  Even though it would require breaking an “iron clad contract…some Museum scientists wanted the event canceled” (Bhattacharjee, 2005).  After the storm of protest, the Museum argued that the film was “trying to situate science within the wider realm of belief,” concluding that the film is “metaphysical and religiously based.”  As we noted previously, Carl Sagan’s conclusion was clearly metaphysical and religiously based—yet no storm of protest ensued (and if there had been, the protesters would have been roundly condemned by the media and the science establishment).

A Washington Post editorial (Anonymous, 2005) concluded that, although The Privileged Planet is an “extremely sophisticated religious film it is a religious film nonetheless. It uses scientific information—the apparently ‘perfect’ position of Earth in its orbit and in its galaxy, the uniqueness of its atmosphere—to answer, affirmatively, the philosophical question of whether life on Earth was part of a grand design, and not just a result of chance and chemistry” as taught by Darwinists.

The film also caused the Museum to reevaluate its policy and broaden its definition of religious content—now any evidence that supports theism will be banned in the future.  Evidently only evidence that supports atheism can be presented.  Of course, in a state institution such as the Smithsonian this approach clearly expresses unconstitutional hostility toward theism and support to the contrary religious position, atheism.

The Opposition 

Consideration of the opposition to showing the film is especially informative about the nature of the objections to it.  Jerry Coyne, who also spends much of his time ensuring that criticism of Darwinism, and especially criticism of Darwinism philosophy, is prevented from reaching the public, was also active in motivating his followers on the evoldir newsgroup to actively oppose the film’s showing.  He wrote to thank those who had emailed the Museum’s director (who, in turn, emailed back to those persons the message that the Smithsonian was taking steps to make sure this never happens again) to protest the showing of the film.  Coyne (2005), obviously not hiding either his political or religious motives, added that “it looks as if we have won a small skirmish in the continuing battle against ID.”

James Randi, after posting an article about showing the film, stated that “the volume of mail I received on this matter has been staggering” (Randi, 2005).  He actually offered $20,000 to the Smithsonian to not show the film.  His reason for wanting the film banned was because the Smithsonian is “dedicated to promoting science, and not supporting religious claims.”  He obviously would not object if the Smithsonian showed a film that supported his religious claims—it is only the claims of others to which he objects.  His “bribe,” he admitted, “looked like an attempt to suppress free expression of an opinion.”  However, to defend himself, Randi stated that the Smithsonian should come up with an alternative presentation—one that would “demonstrate their dedication to the support of legitimate science,” by which he meant support for Darwinism and the idea that the earth is not a special place in the universe. 

It is clear that Randi and others want to censor ideas with which they disagree, that they want to control information presented to other people, and that they do not want to give others the privilege of viewing the film and making their own judgment.  Randi argued that the public is not intellectually able to make their own judgments in this area—thus suggesting that Randi and his cohorts must make the judgment for them.  Of note is the fact that the University of Toronto allowed people to make up their own minds showing the Privileged Planet without  controversy (O’Leary, 2005a).

Randi repeatedly implied that the conclusion that life in the universe is the result of the outworking of natural law, chance, time, and other factors is “science,” but the idea that the universe is the result of purpose and design is “superstition.”  He equated evidence for the role of intelligence in shaping the design of the physical universe with mythology, and equated Darwinism with science and rationality.  Randi concluded that “we should be fighting back by using every means at hand short of making the ID people into martyrs, which suppressing this film just might have done” (Randi, 2005).  

Especially telling were the comments on the various internet talk groups.  For example Myers (2005) stated that Intelligent design supporters usually just try to “dazzle the rubes by pretending to put on a white lab coat; this time, they tried to don the whole National Museum of Natural History, and they look ridiculous in it. Keep laughing at these frauds, everyone.”  A student at the University of Cambridge stated, “[t]he Smithsonian has gone absolutely insane…I have just sent the following e-mail to the dear people at the Smithsonian.  I intend upon being a major pain until they give up this nonsense” (Gregory, 2005).  In her letter, she wrote that the Smithsonian was shortsighted, and asked if they realized that they have “done a major disservice to the parents, educators and scientists who have fought tirelessly against this nonsense.”  She concluded, “[d]o you not realize that if ID had anything scientific to say they would publish their ‘findings’ in peer-reviewed journals?”  In fact, Gregory had not seen the film, had not read the book, and was not aware of the published literature in this area, including publications by those who teach at her institution, the University of Cambridge.  Nor is she evidently aware that Gonzalez has published numerous major articles in the peer-reviewed literature supporting his views.

Nguyen (2005) called the film—which largely summarizes astronomical data, and, at best, only implies a conclusion based on these data—“creationism in disguise.”  This is a common ploy to censor—i.e., any evidence against the naturalistic, Darwinist, evolutionary worldview is called “creationism in disguise” and is therefore off limits in public places such as museums.  This name calling is not relevant to whether the facts in the film are true.

Hector Avalos, associate professor of religious studies at Iowa State University and a self-described former fundamentalist, now an evangelical atheist, stated that the film should not be shown because “Intelligent Design is a religious concept cloaked in the language of science” (Oltman, 2005).  In the same report, Avalos described intelligent design as “‘pseudoscience,’” but he did not provide any evidence for this conclusion (as was also true of all of the other critics that I reviewed). In a letter to the campus newspaper, he condemned the film because it is the “old teleological argument...Design implies a Designer” and Christians believe this designer is God (Avalos, 2004).

Gonzalez noted that intelligent design is simply a “‘systematic way of detecting design in nature’” (Grundmeier, 2004).  Yet this very modest proposal generates an enormous amount of hostility.  Professor emeritus at Iowa State University, John Patterson, said it has “no place in science because history has proven these explanations ‘pathetic’” (Grundmeier, 2004).  Interestingly, even atheist John Patterson said that Gonzalez’s book The Privileged Planet is “‘rich with good science in it,’” but added that “‘[i]t is a religious apologetic disguised as science’” (Grundmeier, 2004). 

Webmaster’s Note:
Readers interested in addressing the Smithsonian’s handling of this matter may wish to make use of their contact page.

This sampling of knee-jerk responses to a film they have not seen, and know little or nothing about, by uninformed persons “may have backfired” (Anonymous, 2005a).  Fortunately, the irrational attack against The Privileged Planet has been noted by other scientists.  Tom Ingebritsen, associate professor of genetics and cell biology at Iowa State, wrote that Patterson’s response reflected “a confounding bias against the supernatural,” and that Patterson’s “‘worldview is coloring his [view] of whether intelligent design could be legitimate in science’ ” (Grundmeier, 2004a). 

As Rank (2004) noted, the reaction to the film’s showing has been anything but rational.  In his words, “[p]rominent researchers are scrambling to write articles against it, universities are firing staff members who are publicly advocating it, and Wired Magazine even devoted a cover article to it, affectionately titled ‘The Crusade Against Evolution.’ ”  He added that

[Professor] Avalos, Iowa State’s most beloved atheist, argued against ID science from the philosophical point of view, which was odd, since Avalos is neither a scientist nor a philosopher.  But most ISU students know that Avalos will throw mud at theism whenever possible (if the ISU dietetics program hosted a Christian cooking conference, Avalos would show up with a batch of homemade Atheist cookies).

So much for the goal of rationality and impartial objectivity among scientists.


Anonymous.  2005.  Dissing Darwin, Washington Post, June 3, p. A22.

Anonymous.  2005a.  Smithsonian backs off intelligent design film. World Net Daily, June 4, www.worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=44599 (accessed 28 December 2006).

Avalos, H.  2004.  The flaws in intelligent design.  Iowa State Daily (letter), October 22.

Bhattacharjee, Y.  2005.  Smithsonian gives grudging OK to film backing ID argument.  Science 308:1526.

Brumfiel, G.  2005.  Evolutionist row makes museum ditch donation.  Nature 435:725.

Coyne, J.  2005.  Thanks to the Smithsonian, a brushfire is out. evoldir (an evolutionary biology newsgroup), June 6.

DuCharme, K.  2004.  Science and philosophy merge in professor’s ‘Privileged Planet.’  Iowa State Daily, March 25.

Gilberti, W.  2005.  An exchange on science, evolution and intelligent design.  World Socialist Web Site, June 27, www.wsws.org/articles/2005/jul2005/evol-j16_prn.shtml  (accessed 23 December 2006).

Gonzalez, G.  2005.  Misrepresenting intelligent design. The Scientist, 19(16):8.

Gonzalez, G. and J.W. Richards.  2004.  The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos Is Designed for Discovery.  Regnery Publishing, Washington, DC.

Gregory, I.  2005. [quoted in J. Randy, “Important Notice.” SWIFT (Online Newsletter of the JREF), May 27,  www.randi.org/jr/052705a.html (accessed 28 December 2006)].

Grundmeier, L.  2004.  A universal debate.  Iowa State Daily, October 12.

Grundmeier, L.  2004a.  Professors question intelligent design theory.  Iowa State Daily, October 15.

Illustra Media.  2004.  The Privileged Planet: The Search for Purpose in the Universe.  (Video, 60 minutes)  Illustra Media, La Habra, CA.

Myers, P.Z.  2005.  James Randi on the Smithsonian/ID business. pharyngula.org, June 3, http://pharyngula.org/index/weblog/comments/james_randi_on_the_smithsonian_di_business/ (accessed 28 December 2006).

Nguyen, T.  2005.  Smithsonian distances itself from controversial film.  Washington Post, June 2; p. C1. 

O’Leary, D.  2005.  Design film sparks angst: Under fire, Smithsonian disavows presentation on intelligent design. Christianity Today 49(8):22.

O’Leary, D.  2005a.  Privileged Planet shown at University of Toronto, without controversy.  christianity.ca (weblog), July 6,  www.christianity.ca/faith/weblog/2005/7.06.html (accessed 23 December 2006).

Oltman, B.  2005.  Film based on professor’s book showing at Smithsonian: Professor’s          ideas gain recognition in film.  Iowa State Daily, June 7.

Randi, J.  2005.  I.D. redux.  SWIFT (Online Newsletter of the JREF), June 3,  www.randi.org/jr/060305be.html#5 (accessed 29 December 2006).

Rank, S.  2004.  Is intelligent design science or creationism 2.0?  Iowa State Daily, October 18.

Richards, J.W.  2005.  Response to William Tucker’s “Are we a privileged planet?  The American Enterprise Online, June 10.

Schwartz, J.  2005.  Smithsonian to screen a movie that makes a case against evolution. The New York Times,  May 28, p. A8.

Sheppard, P.  2005.  The Smithsonian Institution makes “intelligent” decision: Agrees to co-sponsor film premiere that supports design theory.  Answers in Genesis, May 30, www.answersingenesis.org/docs2005/0530Smithsonian.asp (accessed 23 December 2006).

Steiner, D.  2005.  Personal Communication, June 2.

Stokes, T.  2005.  ...And Smithsonian has ID troubles.  The Scientist 19:13.

Tucker, W.  2005.  Are we a privileged planet?  The American Enterprise Online, June 9, www.taemag.com/printVersion/print_article.asp?articleID=18579 (accessed 28 December 2006).

Ward, P.D. and D. Brownlee.  2000.  Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe.  Copernicus, New York, NY.

Jerry Bergman has nine degrees, including in biology, psychology, and evaluation and research, from Wayne State University, in Detroit, Bowling Green State University in Ohio, and Medical College of Ohio in Toledo.  He has taught at Bowling Green State University, the University of Toledo, Medical College of Ohio and at other colleges and universities.  He currently teaches biology, microbiology, biochemistry, and human anatomy at the college level and is a research associate involved in research in the area of cancer genetics.  He has published widely in both popular and scientific journals.  [RETURN TO TOP]

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