THE INVITATION was straightforward enough: "The Director of the National Museum of Natural History and Discovery Institute are happy to announce the national premiere and private evening reception for The Privileged Planet: The Search for Purpose in the Universe," on June 23. But for the museum's directors, the decision to allow this film to be shown in one of their auditoriums turned out not to be straightforward at all. The Museum of Natural History is known, among other things, for its collection of fossils and its displays describing Darwin's theory of evolution. The Seattle-based Discovery Institute, by contrast, is known for its efforts to undermine the teaching of Darwinism in schools and to promote the theory of "intelligent design" -- life is so complicated it must have been designed by an intelligent creator.
For these reasons, the Smithsonian and its Museum of Natural History should have been wary of this project. But the film itself also should have given them pause. The museum's policy, according to its spokesman, is to allow private groups to use its auditorium for a fee -- in this case, $16,000 -- so long as the material shown is not religious or political in content. While "The Privileged Planet" is an extremely sophisticated religious film, it is a religious film nevertheless. 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 the result of chance and chemistry. Neither God nor evolution is mentioned. Nevertheless, the film is consistent with the Discovery Institute's general aim, which is to drive a wedge into the scientific consensus about the origins of life and the universe and to give a patina of scientific credibility to the idea of an intelligent creator.
The museum was naive or negligent not to recognize this, and more naive not to anticipate the backlash. When news of the film showing recently began circulating, one Web site that supports intelligent design asked enthusiastically whether this meant the Smithsonian was "warming up" to the theory of an intelligent creator. In a newspaper interview, Bruce Chapman, president of the Discovery Institute, also said how delighted he was that the Museum of Natural History would "co-sponsor" the event despite the fact that the evening was intended to be a private affair. This is precisely how the intelligent design movement has gotten as far as it has: by advocating outwardly inoffensive ideas in ever-more prestigious places, thereby giving the movement scientific validity. This week, after protests from within and outside the museum, the directors returned the $16,000 auditorium rental fee and issued a statement declaring that "the content of the film is not consistent with the mission of the Smithsonian Institution's scientific research." It's an embarrassing about-face, but not as embarrassing as the original decision.