\ Visualizing Evolution: Plagiarism at its Worst

Friday, April 11, 2008

Plagiarism at its Worst

As a professional illustrator, the one thing that truly gets my blood boiling is plagiarism. What's worse is when pieces of scientific art are plagiarized by anti-science propagandists, often creationists, to construct straw-man arguments.

At last year's annual conference of the Association of Medical Illustrators in Bozeman, Montana, I saw many amazing talks and presentations, but only one received a standing ovation.

XVIVO, a scientific illustration and animation studio in Connecticut, showed their 3D animated movie 'Inner Life of a Cell.' I'm sure you've seen it by now, if not, check it out. Medical illustrator David Bolinsky and Dr. Robert Liu presented the animation, explaining how they found innovative ways to use the features of the 3D software such as duplication and textures, as well as animating certain shots backwards, to create their highly complex sequences.

After all the applause, the two animators did have some tough questions to answer, though. The animation is aesthetically gorgeous, and precisely demonstrates inner workings of organelles and molecules in the cell, at multiple scales from cellular to molecular. However, the problem they admitted having was in simplifying these processes so much. They explained this was necessary; in order to see anything at all, certain elements just had to be left out.

For example, in the scene showing transcription of proteins, amino acids seem to fly into the ribosome as if directed by an unseen hand, ushered in one by one in the correct order. In reality, they explained, a sea of amino acids exists in the region of the ribosome, and they automatically fit in place in their correct order as the protein is transcribed. To show the process in real time (which is unbelievably fast), they simply couldn't show that level of complexity.

And herein lies the problem with the video when viewed without narration or explanation. It looks like a constructed machine, but not only that; it looks like every movement is being controlled by some intelligence. I think we all saw what was coming, but I didn't imagine to what extent!

The creationist responses to the YouTube video, where it showed up after the convention, were immediate. I suppose it's difficult for someone with no science background to understand that these 3D models are representations of what's going on in a cell. It's not as if the scientists shrunk themselves down and crawled in there "Fantastic Voyage" style with a nanobot video camera. (Some day, though... some day...)

But here's the really amusing/annoying part. This is a very, VERY well known animation in science illustration and animation circles. It's about the last piece of visualization you want to rip off and not get caught. Maybe it would be slightly more risky to rip off the introductory credits sequence to 'House M.D.' but that's beside the point.

Ripping it off is apparently what the makers of the anti-evolution movie 'Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed' have done.

Check out Pharyngula to read the letter from their lawyer. (By the way, PZ Myer's blog is just about the best evolution blog there is!)

The highlight of the letter:

This letter will also serve as notice to you that XVIVO intends to vigorously and promptly pursue its legal remedies for your copyright infringement, unless and until Premise Media, Rampant Films, and their officers, employees, and agents comply with the following demands:

  1. That Premise Media, Rampant Films, and its officers, employees, and agents remove the infringing segment from all copies of the "Expelled" film prior to its scheduled commercial release on or before April 18, 2008;
  2. That all copies of the "Inner Life" video in your possession or under your control be returned to XVIVO;
  3. That Premise Media notify XVIVO, on or before April 18, 2008, of its compliance with the above demands.

XVIVO, I love you even more than I did. Which was already a lot. It's always great to see the artists standing up for themselves!

Now, they didn't take the animation directly. They were at least smart enough (I guess) to change the colors of the structures.

'Expelled' screenshot on the left. XVIVO's on the right. (Thanks to PZ Myers for the screenshots, wherever you got them!)

As much as I'm debating whether to even watch this documentary on YouTube when and if it becomes available, I am looking forward to seeing what, if any, commentary is provided when showing this animation. Beyond the classic argument from ignorance of "look at how complicated this is! How could this form by chance alone?" I don't expect much at all.

It will be a happy day when XVIVO wins this fight.

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