In late May, 200 attractive Earth-shaped invitations landed quietly in mailboxes across North America. They announced, "The director of the National Museum of Natural History and Discovery Institute cordially invite you to the national premiere and evening reception of The Privileged Planet: The Search for Purpose in the Universe."

The Smithsonian Institution (SI), the well-known museum with an evolutionary outlook, had given Discovery Institute (DI), which promotes Intelligent Design (ID), approval to show a new film produced by California-based Illustra Media. The film is based on a book by philosopher Jay Richards and Iowa State University astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez. The Privileged Planet (Regnery, 2004) explicitly contradicts the views of late astronomer and skeptic Carl Sagan, whose "pale blue dot" theme was featured in the immensely popular Cosmos.

DI's $16,000 donation came with the right to invite 200 people to the film and reception on June 23.

DI had already shown the film at the Museum of Flight in its hometown, Seattle, in October 2004. However, the Smithsonian requires that the institution's director cosponsor all fundraising events for outside groups.

After information about the premiere first surfaced in blogs on May 25, controversy raged. The New York Times picked up the story, announcing that the film was "against evolution." The film says nothing about evolution, but many responded to internet-based denunciations and assailed the Smithsonian for permitting it.

The Smithsonian quickly disavowed the film, saying, "[The film] takes a philosophical bent rather than a clear statement of the science, and that's where we part ways with them." The Smithsonian further announced that it was returning the donation. The film still could be shown, but without the Smithsonian's imprimatur.

Days before the event, the Smithsonian quietly informed DI that it was keeping $5,000 of the $16,000 donation, for "expenses."

Reactions to the showing varied.

Jewish mathematician David Berlinski, a well-known critic of Darwinism, told Christianity Today, "I thought the uproar was indecent. I am in general 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."

Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education, which promotes Darwinian evolution, said "the outcome is about as good as could be expected. The DI got its party, and the SI didn't have to sponsor it."

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Not everyone was happy, however. Todd Peterson, a biologist who works for the federal government, told CT, "That the Smithsonian as an institution pulled its support is really indicative of society today. That scientists centuries ago had no problem putting science and theism on the table at the same time is historical. That we cannot do so today is degenerative or retrograde."

O'Leary, a Toronto-based journalist, broke this story at her website,

Related Elsewhere:

O'Leary's Post-Darwinist weblog has a review of The Privileged Planet and several articles about the controversy. (Here's the full collection of related posts.)

The Privileged Planet site has information about the film and the book.

Other articles on the controversy include:

Museum quits as film sponsor (The New York Times, June 3, 2005)
Smithsonian distances itself from controversial film (The Washington Post, June 2, 2005)
Smithsonian to screen a movie that makes a case against evolution (The New York Times, May 27, 2005)
False science (Editorial, The Boston Globe, June 26, 2005)
Dissing Darwin (Editorial, The Washington Post, June 3, 2005)
Assistant professor premiers film at institute (Ames [Ia.] Tribune, June 1, 2005)

The Discovery Institute, which sponsored the film, has several articles on the controversy, including a response from The Privileged Planet book co-author Guillermo Gonzalez and photos from the Smithsonian premiere.

James Randi and Panda's Thumb were among the chief online critics of the Smithsonian screening.

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