Sunday, October 11, 2009

Darwinian drama

This year, Darwin would have been 200, and his "Origin of Species", a 150 years old. Hurrah. There have been a plethora or conferences, books, paraphernalia and, most recently, films celebrating (and cashing in) on these glorious anniversaries.

With the mountains of scholarship devoted to documenting Darwin's eventful life, and his own copious written records, from meticulously catalogued notes on earthworms to moving letters about his favourite child's last days alive, one would think that it would be easy to find something both accurate and engaging to dramatise. What one does not expect, is an unfortunate hybrid of Hollywood and hallucination-- both on the parts of Darwin and the creators of "Creation", one of the most recent Darwin films.

"The Creation" opens with a sentence claiming to present how the Origin came to be written. However, it barely mentions the dramatic events surrounding the arrival of Wallace's letter, which, by independently presenting Darwin's theory of natural selection, precipitated a joint reading of their ideas at the Linnean Society, and, soon afterwards, the Origin. Nor does it even mention Charles Lyell, author of books that contributed greatly to Darwin's formulating natural selection, and one of Darwin's closest friends, who advises him to publish before he is scooped.

Instead, "Creation" explores Darwin's reaction to the death of his favourite daughter, and his crisis of faith, which threatens a happy marriage with his first cousin, Emma. These are interesting themes to explore, especially as the current polarised debates pitting religion against evolution tend to obscure the fact that many people find different and nuanced ways to reconcile the two, and that Darwin was by no means an evil and evangelical atheist. Unfortunately, one is plunged into a one-sided and melodramatic demonstration of Darwin's mental agonies over the cruelty of nature, his loss of faith and the death of his favourite child, Annie, at the age of 10. By sheer force of repetition, these horrors become surprisingly saccharine and soporific. I rapidly found myself drowned in such a torrent of flashbacks and flash-forwards that it was tricky to know when and where anything was happening -- in Darwin's mind or in his life? Before Annie's death or after? Staged scenes of "nature red in tooth and claw", such as a fox killing a rabbit about 3 feet from Darwin and his whispering brood were so improbable they were funny rather than moving, while shots of Emma staring, pained, at her raving husband for the umpteenth time got positively tiresome. It would help if some of the acting was, at least, convincing, but it isn't. As a result of all this agonising improbability and confusion, "Creation" isn't just historically inaccurate, it is dramatically hopeless.

My friends and I emerged from "Creation" stunned and wondering if it were, perhaps, a creationist spoof. To our surprise, there are actually reports that American creationists fought to repress its release in their country. They don't know what they are missing. To paraphrase Darwin badly, there is an irony in this view of (Darwin's) life, with its several creations, having been originally breathed into a few fancies or into one; and that, whilst society has gone cycling on according to the fluid laws of humankind, from so interesting a beginning endless forms most silly and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

In contrast, "Darwin's Darkest Hour" by NOVA is less original, but makes good use of some of the more dramatic moments in the history of how the Origin came to be written, and presents quite a few important historical and scientific points clearly and accurately. For instance, we learn that Darwin did not have a eureka moment when he set foot on the Galapagos, but that back in London, an ornithologist named John Gould presented Darwin with his own specimens reclassified, so that birds Darwin had labelled warblers and blackbirds were actually 13 closely related species of what we now know of as Darwin's finches. This information, combined with Gould's news that Darwin's three mockingbird varieties, each collected from a separate island, were distinct species, made Darwin question the immutability and separate creation of species. If all the finches were formed via special creation, why would such closely related forms so close together in space look so different? And why would a Creator bother to make slightly different mockingbirds for three similar little islands in the same archipelago?

"Darwin's Darkest Hour" also shows evidence of careful research and an attempt to be accurate and balanced. A lot of the props are clearly designed to reflect the Darwin home, from Darwin's copious letter-writing, to his frequent games of backgammon with his wife, and his plant experiments in both greenhouse and drawing room. Both films present Darwin the experimenter, but whereas Darwin in "Creation" is generally retching over dead pigeons, the NOVA Darwin also has blessed (and historically documented) moments of good health, during which he conducts experiments on seed dispersal or bee instinct with his children. One gets a real sense that Darwin was a rather fun father to have, who inspired and deserved the devotion and admiration of all his children. "The Creation" attempts to portray Darwin as Dad, but gets so caught up trying to emphasise his love for the dead Annie, one gets the false impression that he barely noticed his other children.

The only real truck I have with NOVA's dramatisation is the relationship between Emma and Charles. It might as well be taking place in New York today. The couple were close, true, but Emma is unlikely to have masterminded the entire scheme to rescue Darwin's scientific priority after Wallace's letter appears in 1858. Anyone watching "Darwin's Darkest Hour" would be left imagining that Emma was so dynamic, supportive and positively bossy, that she reminded Darwin of his 1844 essay on natural selection and urges him to write to his good friends Lyell and Hooker, asking them to publish this together with Wallace's letter. Although Darwin did indeed write to these friends, and they did indeed excerpt his essay to be read to the Linnean Society together with Wallace's letter, it is unlikely that Emma would have orchestrated the entire effort. That said, perhaps one could allow for a little dramatic licence if an unrealistically young, svelte, feminist Emma makes the whole film more palatable to modern audiences. Charles is also surprisingly glamorous, but
Henry Ian Cusick does an excellent job of conveying Darwin's many conflicting emotions without making him a complete nut.

In short, I would recommend that anyone who isn't familiar with the Darwin story watch the NOVA film, and that anyone who is not a creationist trying to poke fun at Darwin or the possessor of a very strong stomach should avoid "Creation".

Darwin's Darkest Hour:


  1. Good to see you starting with a bang! Breathlessly awaiting future fireworks! mlcj

  2. love it -- evolutionary biology meets media studies!