Okay, we're regrouping after spring break, and finishing up with some of our thinking about images of scientists, with a focus on the 1950s. One juxtaposition I thought I would try out this semester was science television for kids -- Watch Mr. Wizard, Don Herbert's classic series that ran from 1951 to 1964 in its initial incarnation -- and science television for grown-ups -- Frank Capra's Hemo, the Magnificent (1957), the second of three documentaries on current scientific knowledge that he wrote and directed (he also produced a fourth), underwritten by Bell Telephone Laboratories.
I still think it is an interesting pair to use as a point of comparison but we never got to that discussion because I ended up giving over more time to an aspect of Hemo that turned out to be really puzzling for those who watched it: the fact that a documentary on a scientific topic -- blood and human physiology -- contained a key subtheme about the compatibility of science and religion, and made a number of deliberate religious references that assumed both the correctness of evolutionary theory and its compatibility with a sense of the divine, and, indeed, with Christianity.
There's a lot going on in Hemo, but when I've shown it a time or two before what audiences usually find most startling are the religious references woven throughout the presentation, so I was prepared for that. But I haven't watched it with students since the recent ratcheting-up of the hostility toward the teaching of evolution that has re-emerged with such power due to the shift of framing opposition to evolution as promoting "intelligent design" (the period, for many of the students, of their junior high school and/or high school years). In discussing with my students how such a view as Capra's could seem commonsensical in the 1950s but so odd to our sensibilities today, it turned out that it was kind of hard for the students to find a way to begin to unravel the question because the existence of the film itself, with its easy self-assurance about the the mutual embrace of two realms most of the students have been continually told are at war with each other, seemed so improbable.
It was almost like we had come upon some strange creature out of a medieval bestiary that had a lion's head and a eagle's body and horse's legs or whatever -- a hybrid entity that shouldn't exist because it was full of category mistakes. But there it was, a memento of 1950s popular culture that reached a large and approving American television audience in its 9 p.m. broadcast slot on CBS (beating out the other shows on NBC and ABC) and that also had a vigorous afterlife on the a-v circuit in public schools throughout the U.S. (I first saw it myself in a high school physiology class in tenth grade, I think, circa 1974). But then Capra himself was a hybrid figure -- he earned an undergraduate degree from Cal Tech in chemical engineering in 1918, went on to a celebrated career in the arts as a film director, and was a deeply committed Catholic. (See the excellent chapter discussing Capra and the Bell Science films, "'Almost a Message From God Himself,'" in Jame's Gilbert's fascinating book, Redeeming Culture: American Religion in an Age of Science / U of Chicago Press, 1997).
The plot structure of the film is that a writer has created a set of cartoon figures -- forest creatures and a Greek God, Hemo, who is the personification of blood -- who come to life on a "magic screen". These representatives of the "soul" (art, and poetry, and nature itself) interact with Mr. Fiction Writer (a cigarette-smoking shirtsleeves wise-guy type who stands in for the general public) and with Dr. Research (yes, that's his name . . . he is actually an English professor from USC named Frank Baxter, balding, bespectacled, dressed in a gray flannel suit), as we are guided through the technicalities of how our heart works and the ins and outs of the circulatory system. The topic wouldn't seem to lend itself to much more than a discussion of body mechanics (which it does, by creating a fascinatingly baroque world of anthropomorphized mechanical animations to display human physiology in all of its cyborg glory -- but that's another story for another day).
Christianity pervades Hemo in ways both large and small. The film is framed at the beginning and at the end by biblical quotations, opening with an epigraph from Leviticus: "For the Life of the Flesh is in the blood." It ends with Hemo making a grand declaration:
"One of your greatest physicists, Max Planck, said that over the temple of science should be written the words: 'Ye must have faith.' Your great Apostle Paul wrote to his new church in Thessalonica: 'Prove all things: hold fast that which is good.' A scientist says, 'have faith.' A saint says, 'prove all things.' Together they spell 'hope.'"
And there are side-by-side images of (St.?) Planck and (Dr.?) Paul (with a cross), emerging from a dark background as a radiant luminosity spills forth and a musical hallelujah chorus jubilates. Can I hear an amen? Amen. Thanks.
Even more interesting to me is how the core mythos of the film merges the scientific and the divine through the vehicle of the concept of humanity's ancient ocean ancestry. The pivotal moment in the film occurs when Hemo challenges Dr. Research to describe him correctly in two words or else reveal science's profound ignorance of the truth despite knowing many facts. Dr. Research's confident response is that "the two words that best describe you and connect you with the mystical origins and traditions of life are: sea water." He offers a theory that our bodily fluid possesses the same attributes "of sea water as it was nearly 400 million years ago when life emerged from the sea and began to crawl on land." He explains that:
'A billion and a half or two billion years ago life is presumed to have originated in the warmth of tropical waters as a minute single-celled aquatic organism . . . [this] primeval cell absorbed its food and oxygen directly from the sea and passed out its carbon dioxide and other wastes to the warm ocean. . . Then something wonderful happened, obeying a great plan not given to us to know, groups of these cells came together to live as colonies and new animals were born.'
As life evolved, so too did our internal bodily fluids, which allowed us to carry the sea that had birthed us at creation's beginning inside of ourselves, as we became kind of like living aquariums containing the Paleozoic sea for all time. As Dr. Research proclaims, "In the beginning, Hemo was the sea."
The idea of the oceanic origins of blood (and of life itself) is an extended sequence in the film, portraying a vision of how evolution proceeded, picturing as well the emergence of sea creatures onto land ("Obeying," Dr. Research relates, "some reason known only to God") as the progenitors (eventually) of human complexity. In response to this grand explanatory theme, Mr. Fiction Writer begins to glower and visibly tense up, you can just feel him itching for a cigarette :-) Greatly disturbed, he gets into Dr. Research's face, protesting: "Now wait a minute, Doc, wait a minute . . . are you trying to say that I'm descended from some kind of sea gnat?" He looks like he's ready to punch out the mild-mannered grandfatherly scientist then and there. Dr. Research reassures him that "you have a human spirit that separates you entirely from the animal world" (with a special dramatic emphasis on the word "human".) And here Mr. Fiction Writer relaxes, pleased, even as Hemo did when Dr. Research correctly identified his essential nature.
The scientist returns to the integrating oceanic rhetoric, summing up the intellectual journey he has taken us on by stating that "there is great mystery and great wonder in the fact that our body -- this temple of the spirit -- is built of billions of highly specialized individual cells like minute tropical sea animals." This extended sequence in itself secures the concept that the search for scientific knowledge is not a threat to religious sensibility as a foundational grounding, even if you had ignored the opening and closing scenes.
As the students pointed out, it would certainly be unusual today for a science documentary to weave religious points throughout the presentation, as it is customary to say that the spiritual and the scientific belong in separate spheres -- an indication, perhaps, of how the early years of television had not settled into the status quo formats that would typify the science documentary genre we are more familiar with today through programs such as NOVA. One student suggested that perhaps the views presented of evolution and faith being compatible were mainstream views back a generation or so ago and might even be the same today -- perhaps it's not the people who changed, but the way the discussion is conducted. Another student, a zoology major, kept shaking his head and he gave a little laugh, explaining how odd it was to see the religious and the scientific brought side by side so graphically at the end with the figures of Planck and Paul . . . but that it also struck home deeply because it came close to describing his own perspective, one that he had never seen articulated so assertively in a public forum before.
When we think that there is only one story to tell -- that of a long endless war between evolutionary thinking and religious understanding -- we mischaracterize the complexity and the diversity of evolutionary ideas in popular culture from the 19th century on out. It almost felt to me this time that if I had described the film to my students, but didn't have it to show them as proof, they wouldn't have believed me that the "amen and evolution" presented in Hemo could have plausibly existed. "In the end," Gilbert notes, "Capra did not have to build bridges between science and religion; they were already there, and he had only to walk his films across them" (p. 223). Recognizing that this bridge in fact has existed in the not-so-distant past and then asking what happened to it is one of the historical questions bequeathed to us, and an example of why thinking about the issue of science and popular culture matters.
For more: For a contemporary take on the Bell Science films, see David Templeton's "Weird Science? Are Dr. Frank Baxter and Those Wacky Bell Science Films Ready for a Comeback?" and for an historical analysis see Gilbert's book Redeeming Science, noted above. The films themselves are available on DVD from Image Entertainment (see also "Our Mr. Sun", Capra's first Bell science film, for similar themes to Hemo). For an excellent introduction to the scientific question of life arising from the oceans, see Carl Zimmer's At the Water's Edge: Fish with Fingers, Whales with Legs, and How Life Came Ashore and Then Went Back to Sea (Free Press, 1999). For a juxtaposition of what exists on both sides of the great divide in current views on evolution and religion, see a discussion of how evolutionary theory (the "e-word") is avoided in science teaching in Arkansas: Jason R. Wiles' thought-provoking exploration, "The missing link: Scientist discovers that evolution is missing from Arkansas classrooms", Arkansas Times, 3/23/2006) . . . and last year's opening of the Museum of Earth History in the Arkansan Ozarks, which contains exhibits that explain how dinosaurs lived in co-existence with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (and how some of the reptilian descendants later found room on Noah's Ark). The funding, design concept, and installation for the museum were provided by the Creation Truth Foundation of Noble, Oklahoma -- for more, see the press release.
Image: Still from Hemo, the Magnificent (animation by William T. Hurtz), http://www.cinefilevideo.com/images/content/hemo_the_magnificent.jpg