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Darwin's difficult 'Creation'

Newmarket Films
Click for video: Naturalist Charles Darwin (Paul Bettany) studies an orangutan
named Jenny in a scene from "Creation." Click on the image to watch a trailer.


Charles Darwin's inner demons - and his inner angels - come to light in a film that traces the roots of his 150-year-old masterwork, "The Origin of Species." The movie version of the story, titled "Creation," dwells on the personal conflicts and travails that helped shape Darwin's thinking on the theory of evolution.

"Creation" goes into limited U.S. release today, months after the filmmakers spoke out about their own conflicts and travails. Last September, when the movie made its debut in dozens of other countries, director Jeremy Thomas complained that the film had no U.S. distributor.

"It is unbelievable to us that this is still a really hot potato in America," he told The Telegraph. "There's still a great belief that [God] made the world in six days."

Less than two weeks later, however, the U.S. distribution rights were picked up by Newmarket Films - which was ironic, because five years earlier the same company handled  "The Passion of the Christ," Mel Gibson's worshipful (and graphic) tale of Jesus' death and resurrection.

"Creation," which received a much better review on msnbc.com than Mel Gibson's movie did, could be subtitled "The Passion of Charles Darwin." It shows the British naturalist as deeply conflicted over the implications of his ideas about natural selection and the "struggle for existence." The idea that nature was at war with itself, bereft of divine providence, ran counter to the prevailing views in mid-19th-century England - and particularly the view of his deeply religious wife (and first cousin).

 

Newmarket Films
  Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany are a couple off screen as well as on screen as Emma and Charles Darwin in "Creation."


Charles Darwin is played by Paul Bettany - who is also starring as the Archangel Michael in "Legion," another film with religious overtones that is making its debut this week. Bettany's wife, Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Connelly, portrays the evolutionist's wife, Emma.

The unease in Darwin's marriage isn't the only thing contributing to Darwin's angst. He must suffer through the cloying brand of Christianity championed by his erstwhile pastor, as well as the urgings of scientific colleagues who are only too happy to get rid of the Man Upstairs. (One scene shows Darwin wincing when fellow biologist Thomas Huxley, who came to be known as "Darwin's bulldog," gleefully tells him, "You've killed God, sir!")

The source of Darwin's deepest sorrow is the death of his 10-year-old daughter, Annie, in 1851. "Creation" depicts Darwin as literally haunted by the girl, who suffered from scarlet fever and tuberculosis (or consumption, as it was known back then) and was subjected to dousing, scrubbing, sweating and other medical treatments that seem extreme today.

Did Annie's travails sharpen Darwin's own views on the struggle for existence by the time "The Origin of Species" was published in 1859? Randal Keynes, Darwin's great-great-grandson, thinks so - and he argues the case in the biography on which the movie is based.

Keynes' book was originally released in Britain in 2001 under the title "Annie's Box," and was later published in the United States as "Darwin, His Daughter and Human Evolution." Now the book is being republished as a paperback movie tie-in, titled "Creation: The True Story of Charles Darwin."

Keynes and I discussed the true story of Darwin, as reflected in his book as well as the movie, during a wide-ranging interview earlier this month. Here's an edited transcript of our chat:

Cosmic Log: In the book, you draw out the idea that the personal tragedy Darwin went through helped sharpen what he wrote in "The Origin of Species." Can you talk about how that was reflected in the movie?

Randal Keynes: Neither the book nor the movie suggests that Darwin drew directly from his experience of Annie's childhood and loss for any of the ideas in the book. What I would say is that Annie's death must have been one of the elements, because it was his most powerful experience of death and bereavement. …   That must have been important in his thinking about pain, and loss, and struggle.

It was therefore an element in his thinking about the "struggle for existence." I mention how it was, in certain passages of his writings about the struggle for existence, that he used different language after his experience from what he had written before.

But that's not the most important point, I think. The experiences of life with Annie and her death were important to Darwin in his idea about the natural origin of the human moral sense. He came to hold the view that the human moral sense arises not from principles laid down by God or anyone else, but in a complicated way from how we care about other people who are important to us – which is a natural instinct. How we develop our thinking about people who are important to us, and how we should treat them when we have language to communicate, and set ourselves rules, and so on.

If you read what Darwin said about the natural origin of the human moral sense in "The Descent of Man," his second great book, you find again echoes of things he learned from his life with Annie.

The very important thing about "The Origin of Species" is that he avoids talking about human nature in it. He knows just how explosive any suggestion that humans are part of the pattern of evolution would be. He puts nothing explicit into "The Origin of Species," he just leaves it as an unspoken implication. When he finds that other people haven't gone on to tease out the implications for humans in the theory of evolution, he decides, "OK, I'm going to write the second book, 'The Descent of Man.'" He explains there that humans are a part of the story.

Q: Right, you mention in the book that he was hoping that Alfred Russel Wallace, an evolutionary theorist who was a contemporary and something of a rival, would write something about that.

A: But he didn't.

Q: What really struck me about the movie was how grim Darwin's life experiences sometimes became. I'm not sure that comes through so much in the book – just those dark depths of grimness.

A: The movie is doing quite a lot in combining strands and weaving them into the picture that the movie presents. It takes a number of elements in Darwin's life, in the way that movies always do, and puts together things that were actually some way from each other.

Q: It would be good for people to know that. After seeing the movie, I looked back and found that Darwin was indeed troubled by illness for a large part of his life. But I see what you're saying: that some of the parts of the story may have come from a later phase in Darwin's life, after "The Origin of Species" was written.

A: Or at other times during the writing. As a Darwinist, I would say that for every important element in the film, there is a source in Darwin's life and writing and in our knowledge about him. The source material doesn't fit together in precisely the way that it does in the film. I think that the film is not a work of historical biography.

The film works by giving an impression of basic truths, a history of a person's life and situation. The impression very often can go beyond what there is chapter and verse for in the historical record – because it depends on the imagination that we use in interpreting what we learn about the person. You make guesses about what that person is feeling and doing. It's part of human nature, part of the way we understand people.

Q: So you feel that the film captures the essence of Darwin's life and work?

A: The film does that. I think it's right to present Darwin as a man of passion as they do. A man under pressure, and sometimes buckling under the pressure. It's really valuable to show him that way after 100 years of portrayal of him as this bearded prophet with no humanity at all. Some people make it sound as if he just produced this theory out of thin air by the objective marshaling of evidence. That just doesn't get to the heart of the excitement of the theory, or the difficulties that Darwin had in working it out. It's right to show Darwin in this new way, because that is closer to the true nature of the man than this stereotype.

Q: We should probably talk about the controversy that surrounded the release of the film. At one time, there was talk that this film was too hot for the United States to handle. What's your perspective? I have a feeling that the controversy was overblown … or perhaps not?

A: It's difficult for me, because I'm not familiar with the ins and outs of the controversy in the States. The position is so different in Britain on the science vs. religion issue that I'm reluctant to make guesses about what's going on in the minds of different people in the States. I have been struck by how these issues became much more difficult, I think, within the last decade. I wouldn't want to comment on the reasons. It seems to me that it all happened during the Bush administration, but it's really not for me to comment on the administration.

It does seem to me that the issue of science vs. religion became poisonous because it developed a political dimension. I saw this with the history of the wonderful exhibition that the American Museum of Natural History put on.

The staff of the museum felt it would be wonderful to follow their exhibition on Einstein, which was a great success, with a similar exhibition on Darwin. In about 2000, they put to their board a proposal for a blockbuster exhibition on Darwin. The board said, 'Wonderful,' and commissioned them to produce this exhibition. I met the organizers when they came over to London and helped them by putting them in touch with the people who had the material they wanted. …

By the time the exhibition was ready to open, the climate of opinion on Darwin had changed. The clouds had darkened, and there was lightning in them. … When the museum sought corporate sponsorship for the exhibition, they found that, for the first time in their history, they couldn't find a corporation that was prepared to sponsor the exhibition. Each corporation felt that if we back this exhibition we may get flak, and there are other exhibitions that we could back instead. So let's just pass on this one.

The museum had seen that change from the time that they commissioned the exhibition to the time when it was ready to open. They were afraid there would be demonstrations. When it opened, they were ready for lightning and storms. But possibly partly because it opened in New York, they had a wonderful reception. The exhibition was a triumph, and it toured around the States, and Canada, and around the world.

You got that change of climate from 2000 to 2004 or 2005, showing in the lack of sponsorship. That is exactly what the film found. Very possibly it was a repeat of the failure of the exhibition to get sponsorship. It's not that the potential backers were against evolution. It's simply that there were other films that were safer bets.

What has turned out in both cases is that the fears weren't fully realized. People went to the exhibition. They enjoyed it. They'll go to the film. They'll love it. Other people will reject it. That's their choice.

Q: We've just finished up the big year for the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth as well as the 150th anniversary of the publication of "The Origin of Species." Now that there has been that spotlight on Darwin, do you have a sense of what the next year, the next decade, the next century might bring when it comes to reconsidering Darwin and his legacy?

A: During the year of Darwin, many more people came to realize what the film shows about his character and the value of what he did - in standing out against people who wanted to reject his idea just because they didn't like it. The year has also brought home to many more people the value of his legacy in education.

I very much hope that people won't now forget about Darwin again, because they've learned during the past year just how interesting a person he was, and how valuable his example is in science education, in education about the natural world and natural life.

They will hold onto that idea, I think. Over the next 10 to 20 years, we'll be able to use his legacy to help people to understand important things about the matters that are covered in his theory.

Keynes' "Creation," a.k.a. "Darwin, His Daughter and Evolution," has been around long enough to qualify as a selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club, which highlights books with cosmic themes that have been around long enough to show up at your local library or used-book shop.

As an alternate selection, you might consider "The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online." The Web site offers "The Origin of Species" as well as "The Descent of Man," of course, but I think my favorite read of the week would be Charles Darwin's Beagle Diary, which was edited by Keynes' father, Richard Darwin Keynes.

More about Darwin and the saga of evolution:


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