It’s the double celebration year, and for this amateur Darwinologist, the best is yet to come. The release this week of the film Creation is a unique occasion when my two biggest obsessions, movies and evolution finally converge.
- Production year: 2009
- Country: UK
- Directors: Jon Amiel
- Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Jennifer Connelly, Jeremy Northam, Paul Bettany, Toby Jones
Creation is a fictionalised account of Charles Darwin’s middle age, it spans the time between the death of his daughter and the publication of the Origin of Species. It’s based on Annie’s Box, a book by his great-great-grandson Randal Keynes, and thus has the absolute seal of approval of the guardians of Darwin’s estate. That the chronology is not entirely accurate, and that it features Annie’s ghost as a device appears to have troubled some hardy Darwinologists.
I find this behaviour perplexing, and it does nothing to promote understanding of Darwin’s work. Instead it makes scientists look like wallies. The science is accurate, but Creation is a story. Keynes’s book beautifully distils the essence of Darwin’s emotional life, framed around the writing of the Origin.
I’ve attended three screenings, and although the reactions have been overwhelmingly positive, nits have been picked about dramatic license. Was the relationship between Charles and his wife Emma that passionate? Why did they make Thomas Huxley out to be what some might now call a «militant atheist»? Many have expressed to me surprise that it is far less about the science and more about Darwin’s family life.
Why is this surprising? It’s fascinating that people are so possessive about Darwin. A Beautiful Mind, the Oscar-hoarding biopic about the troubled mathematician John Nash, suffered similar dissent about diversion from historical fact. Paul Bettany (who is Darwin in Creation) plays a figment of Nash’s schizophrenic imagination – a ghost if you will. But Nash is not as significant a figure as Darwin. I think there are two reasons for this possessive defence of evolution’s figurehead. First, he recorded every aspect of his life and work, and it has been scrutinised in meticulous detail. This allows a real sense of ownership of his work and legacy.
The more obvious reason is the ongoing controversy prompted by his uncovering the truth. Tiresome though it is, creationism continues to be popular, despite no one sensible giving it any credence. Creationist voices are disproportionately loud, though representing a minority of religious belief. And who can blame Darwin’s supporters for spirited protection of his legacy facing such crude attacks? Next month, a prominent creationist called Ray Comfort will be handing out 100,000 copies of the Origin at universities around the US on the 150th anniversary of its publication. Problem? These copies will have a 50 page introduction in which Comfort will allude to Darwin’s alleged racism (he was in fact a staunch abolitionist), misogyny, and how evolution lead to nazism. This is a pre-emptive epic fail, Godwin-style. Comfort – aka the Banana Guy – is known for his dazzlingly wrong-witted ontological argument using that fruit. Of course, the delicious banana was largely designed. By banana farmers.
Darwin was a humble man. In chapter six of Origin, Difficulties for the Theory, he detailed the bits he could not fathom, and encouraged future scientists to address them. Thanks for the invitation; we did. Bettany’s portrayal of Darwin should help dispel the insistence by creationists that he was an ogre who killed God and paved the way to genocidal atrocities. He did neither. The Genesis account of creation was already largely out of favour well before 1859: natural selection was simply the mechanism to remove any doubt. Although Darwin did display some characteristics which were of his time (and not acceptable now), Bettany’s Darwin shows him to be most un-Victorian: affectionate, emotional and an adoring dad. I believe this portrayal: Darwin kitted out Down House with a two-part wooden slide to place on top of its central stairway. Letters indicate that Mrs D was partial to a bit of indoor slide action along with his kids.
It’s important to keep in perspective that Darwin is far less important than his work. We know that Alfred Russel Wallace came up with the same idea. Natural selection was awaiting discovery for 4bn years. But Creation is a film, for an audience who primarily want to be entertained. I don’t think they will be disappointed. But it’s important because it shows the man Darwin, not as a figurehead. Here, he is heartbroken by Annie’s death, and the implications of his work, not just for the world, but for his marriage. It shows how hard he struggled with uncovering the truth that the universe is utterly indifferent, that nature is red in tooth and claw, when the prevailing view was that benevolence and mystery from a capricious God were all-powerful. Having studied and written about Darwin for most of my adult life, it’s testament to the quality of this film that I now can only picture him as Paul Bettany.
Despite rumours to the contrary, I am confident that Creation will get a US release; all that gossip will have done the film no harm at all. Creation is a film about family dynamics in the face of tragedy and progress. The science in it is watertight, and we should expect nothing less. But we should also be grateful that this film is moving and beautiful, just like the creation Darwin so luminously untangled. Creationists the world over deserve to see it.
Adam Rutherford, an editor at the science journal Nature.