"Evolution" means change. But the theory of evolution means war - at least for certain religious groups that take Genesis literally. And the new seven-part, eight-hour series on PBS, Evolution, does its best not only to explain Charles Darwin's theory of the origins of material life, but to take seriously conservative Christians' religious objections to it.
The two-hour opener is a kind of " 'Masterpiece Theatre' meets 'Nova,' " as one publicity agent puts it. We are introduced to Darwin, a 19th-century gentleman of leisure who loved his wife and children dearly - and was so considerate of his wife's religious feeling that he put off publishing "The Origin of the Species" for years.
He also feared the derision that he knew would come with his dangerous ideas about a common ancestry, variation, and natural selection. (He didn't know about the mechanics of genetic mutation - later discovered by Gregor Mendel.)
Laced throughout the biography are modern illustrations of Darwin's discoveries. Because the theory of evolution is the cornerstone of modern biology, the series details how it has been applied, particularly to medical research.
Episode 2 takes on the diversity of life on earth, and investigates the evolutionary ideas of the journey of sea creatures to land and land mammals back to the seas, as well as the emergence of primates and humans.
Later episodes go on to explore the five mass extinctions that have occurred over the life of the planet, new ideas about "survival of the fittest" (cooperation is seen to be as important as competition), and symbiosis among different species. One whole episode is devoted to sex, asserting that the driving force behind culture itself may be sex (certainly a controversial hypothesis).
The emergence of the modern brain is called "The Mind's Big Bang": Some 50,000 years ago, there was an explosion of social, technological, and creative expression - all explained as "adaptive."
The last hour is devoted to the social and religious rejection of the theory of evolution. "What About God?" outlines the struggle in schools waged by conservative Christian parents for the right to have "creationism" taught as an alternative to evolution.
Students of science at a conservative Christian college discuss their own struggles with their faith and with what they are learning about science.
In the 1920s, the Scopes "Monkey Trial" put the issue on the map: Should evolution be taught in schools?
"Today, about the same number of states are caught in the same dilemma," Paula Apsell, director of WGBH TV's Boston Science Unit, told the Television Critic's Association in July. "Evolution is a subject with ramifications that extend into schools, into churches, and into the ballot box. It touches people's most deeply held beliefs. The controversy over evolution is one that challenges the nature of science itself."
Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, adds: "Right now we do have evolution in the curriculum, but we cannot count on the textbook publishers and the teachers and the educational establishment to be able to continue defending it."
Part of the problem is poor public relations. Scientists are among the most respected citizens of the world. Their intelligence and discipline give them authority and stature. While about a third of all scientists report believing in some form of higher power, two-thirds do not. Some of the most famous of those (Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins) have addressed the issues of the meaning of life, handing down what amounts to theological pronouncements.
When they presume to chase God out of the heavens, as it were, those who have had religious experiences will naturally object.
"It's an exhilarating tonic to have someone shove a microphone in your face, because suddenly you become the authority," says evolutionary biologist Dr. Kenneth Miller, author of "Finding Darwin's God."
"The temptation to expound, not just on the results of your latest experiment, but on the ultimate meaning of life, is overwhelming."
Too few scientists, Dr. Miller says, make very clear when they're speaking as scientists exercising scientific judgment and when they're exercising philosophical judgment, personal taste, or religious preference.
A number of scientists in the scientific community have been outspoken in their criticism of religion, and it has often lead to a supposition that science itself is hostile to religion.
"But I'd like to say that Western science is born, if you will, out of Western religion," Miller says. "The whole scientific impulse comes out of Western religion, and it's a very important thing to understand."