I’ve seen Creation, the new Darwin film starring Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connolly, twice now. The first was a pre-opening showing followed by a discussion with Randal Keynes, Darwin’s great-great grandson and author of the book on which the movie was based. The second was on opening weekend, after which Ken Miller, author of Finding Darwin’s God, and I led a discussion with the audience.
Cambridge’s celebrated Kendall Square Theater was full on opening weekend and almost everyone stayed for a lively discussion after. The question on everyone’s mind, of course, was whether or not Paul Bettany’s Darwin was authentic.
It was great to see Darwin on the big screen. There are many grand episodes in the history of science that would make wonderful movies, but they rarely get more than a low budget PBS/BBC treatment. The Galileo Trial, Newton’s tortured youth, Kepler’s rescue of his mother from being burned as a witch, Darwin’s various struggles, the strange story of the quantum, the development of the atomic bomb and other stories from science all seem worthy of Hollywood’s attention. But, probably because scriptwriters are “humanities” types who hated science and math in high school, we never see these stories. Apparently the “madness of King George” is a better story than the brilliant and eccentric Kepler’s extraordinary defense of his mother against charges of witchcraft.
So kudos to the producers who gave us the first big screen look at the most controversial scientist in history. And kudos for making Darwin into a sympathetic and fully human character, in contrast to the sinister portraits provided by so many of his anti-evolutionary critics. The human drama in the film, as Darwin wrestles heroically with his family relationships, is more than enough to call Creation a “chick flick.” My wife was eager to see it a second time, just one week after seeing it for the first time. It has much to offer. That said, however, I found Creation disappointing on a couple of fronts, missing two thirds of the full story.
Darwin’s life was animated by three long enduring struggles, intertwined in the coarse braid that was to be his life. One of these struggles is told with passion in the film and that is the story of how the great scientist wrestled with the gap that his theory of origins opened up between him and his wife. Emma Darwin was a devout Christian who spent a lifetime watching in dismay as her husband developed a theory about origins that seemed to undermine faith in God. Her devotion to Charles through these long troubled decades, punctuated by the tragic death of three of their ten children, is surely one of history’s great love stories. And this part of the story is richly captured by Bettany and Connolly who, incidentally, are married in real life.
The first struggle that is missing from Creation is Darwin’s heroic effort to develop his theory. Because Darwin wrote openly, elegantly, and extensively throughout his life, historians have constructed a fascinating narrative of how he arrived at the idea of natural selection—what Daniel Dennett has called the “the best idea anybody ever had.” This narrative is exciting on its own terms as evolution, like a mirage on the horizon, began to take shape through the dark glass of Darwin’s scientific imagination. Viewers of Creation, unfortunately, learn virtually nothing about Darwin’s theory, other than its enduring ability to upset religious believers. Many of them will no doubt exit the theater thinking that scientific theories drop, fully formed, out of the sky.
The second missing struggle is Darwin’s life-long wrestling with his religious beliefs. Bettany’s Darwin seems to have never had any religious beliefs. The first time we see Darwin interacting with religion at all is when he forgets to wait for grace before he starts eating his soup. Having grown up in a home, like Darwin’s, where family meals were treasured and always preceded by grace, this behavior seems highly implausible to me. The real Charles Darwin had a life-long and very genuine struggle with his faith. He spent three years studying theology at Edinburgh, preparing for the Anglican priesthood; he took a Bible on the Beagle with him and was once ridiculed for quoting it to the sailors; he had lengthy correspondences with leading Christian thinkers about the theological implications of natural selection. Darwin refused to sign on to the more aggressive materialism that swirled about him as he became increasingly famous. He refused, for example, to let Karl Marx’s son-in-law dedicate an anti-religious book to him.
Darwin’s correspondence shows ongoing reflection on traditional theological problems and a faith that waxed and waned over his long and tumultuous life. He objected to the label “atheist” as implying certain knowledge that he thought nobody could reasonably possess. “I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of God” he said, shortly before his death in 1882. He was never able imagine a world without God. “I cannot persuade myself that electricity acts, that the tree grows, that man aspires to loftiest conceptions all from blind, brute force,” he wrote to the American biologist Asa Gray in 1860. At the same time, he could not imagine that a providential creator could possibly be the cause of an “innocent and good man” who “stands under a tree and is killed by a flash of lightning.” I suspect that many religious believers today would stand with Darwin on both of these points. James Moore, one of Darwin’s most intimate biographers, described Darwin as a “muddled theist to the end.”
By all means, go see Creation if for no reason other than to meet a fully human Darwin, without horns. But maybe also pick up a good biography, like Adrian Desmond and James Moore’s magisterial Darwin: Life of a Tormented Evolutionist, to get the full picture.
Editor's Notes: To learn more about Darwin's life and his work, be sure to visit The Darwin Correspondence Project, which compiles over 6,000 of his letters and offers details for 9,000 more.