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Darwin's brightest hour

Chris Reardon / NGT
Henry Ian Cusick portrays Charles Darwin in "Darwin's Darkest Hour."


This year serves as a double anniversary for Charles Darwin: It's been 200 years since the birth of the naturalist, as was noted widely back in February.

Now there's a second wave of books and broadcasts that serve to mark the 150th anniversary of Darwin's masterwork, "On the Origin of Species."

The tangled genesis of that work is the focus of "Darwin's Darkest Hour," a two-hour docudrama premiering tonight on PBS.

The show features a little more star power and a little less laboratory time than you usually see in a science documentary on public TV, and that's because the "Nova" / National Geographic production team went with a scripted approach that's reminiscent of a Jane Austen adaptation.

Henry Ian Cusick (who plays Desmond in the TV series "Lost") plays Charles Darwin, and Frances O'Connor (who starred in a film based on Austen's "Mansfield Park") plays his wife, Emma.

If you're looking for an Austeneque romance, however, you're watching on the wrong night. The show finds a way to blend the joys and sorrows of the Darwins' family life (including the untimely loss of two children) with the key turning point of Darwin's scientific career. It's not exactly a spoiler to note that other biologists - principally Alfred Russel Wallace - were on the same trail that Darwin was, and that Darwin had to cope with the prospect of being scooped on the theory he spent 20 years nailing down.

As the story traces Darwin's doubts and decisions, you get an overview of the scientist's professional development, told through flashbacks as well as on-screen exposition. The show even touches upon the beginnings of the decades-long evolution-vs.-religion debate, couched in dialogue lifted from Charles and Emma's actual writings.

Charles, for example, marvels that "from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved." Emma, meanwhile, worries about the implications of her husband's theory for religious faith - but in the end sticks with her view that "honest and conscientious doubts cannot be a sin."

If "Darwin's Darkest Hour" leads viewers to seek out more of the true story behind evolutionary biology's past and present, there are much brighter hours ahead.

Here's just a sampling of recently published books about Darwin and evolution:

Stay tuned for more to read and think about next week.

Update for 8:40 p.m. ET: No discussion of Darwin depictions would be complete without mentioning "Creation," the big-screen biography of the biologist. For a while, it looked as if the film wouldn't be distributed in the United States - and that sparked all sorts of hemming and hawing over America's creationist bent. However, the movie was picked up by Newmarket Films last month and is now slated for December release. A few years ago, Newmarket made a splash when it distributed Mel Gibson's controversial gospel film, "The Passion of the Christ."


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