Grandeur in Life and Genius

Benjamin Radford

Creation, directed by Jon Amiel. 2010. Screenplay by John Collee based on the biography by Randal Keynes. 108 minutes.

The image most people have of Charles Darwin is that of an old man with a long white beard sitting in a chair, perhaps lost in contemplation about the common ancestry between apes and humans. That’s a valid but very narrow view of this multifaceted, brilliant scientist.

In fact, Darwin was much more than that. As the new film Creation shows, he was a devoted family man. He was a semi-reclusive, frail scientist who spent much of his time watching animals and scribbling his observations in notebooks. He was also an adventurer and explorer, an author, and the man whose work serves as the foundation for modern biology. Darwin’s contemporary, explorer and scientist Sir Richard Francis Burton, praised On the Origin of Species in 1863 as “the best and wisest book of this, or, perhaps, of any age.” A century later, evolutionary biologist (and Russian Orthodox Christian) Theodosius Dobzhansky famously noted: “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

Creation tells the true story of the circumstances surrounding Darwin’s crowning creation, On the Origin of Species. The film is not really about Darwin writing the book—that would be cinematic suicide (as any screenwriter can tell you, watching someone write a book is about as dramatic and interesting as watching someone read one). Nor is the film a biography of Darwin’s life, though several of his earlier adventures on the HMS Beagle and elsewhere are told in flashback as stories to his children. Instead the film is about one of the world’s greatest scientists and his family, about how he was deeply in love with a religious woman who profoundly disagreed with much of his life’s work and the revolutionary theory it birthed.

Darwin (played by Paul Bettany) struggles to write his books as he battles poor health, internal and external pressures, and personal demons, especially regarding his wife, Emma (Jennifer Connelly), and his brightest daughter Annie (Martha West). In one of the most moving and impassioned scenes, we see Darwin’s fury after Annie is punished in Sunday school for questioning her vicar and asking about dinosaurs. Darwin’s outrage is palpable as he prepares to confront the priest about punishing his daughter for simply speaking a self-evident scientific truth—not blasphemous impertinence.

Charles Darwin was clearly a man as enamored with his family as with his study of the world around him. Darwin explains the naturalistic world to his children: how a camera works, how the geological strata of rocks tell a story of what happened millions of years ago, and so on. Several fanciful segments appear, essentially miniature documentaries depicting nature’s life cycles. Rarely has a film so effectively conveyed a wonderful, humanistic sense of the magic and awe of science.

When Annie dies, Darwin is devastated and struggles to find the faith in himself to complete his book. While Emma takes solace in the idea that their beloved daughter is in heaven with God, Charles can’t bring himself to share her comforting belief. Nor is he willing to accept the insulting and feeble “comfort” that Annie’s death is part of some greater divine plan; he has studied nature’s cruelties and is too much a scientist to pretend that his family is exempt from them.

While Charles struggles with personal demons, the rest of the world waits for the product of his work. In one pivotal scene, Thomas Huxley (a piss-and-vinegar-brimming Toby Jones) confronts Darwin, urging him to complete his long-gestating book. When Darwin says he needs more time and more evidence, Huxley barks: “Mr. Darwin, either you are being disingenuous, or you do not fully understand your own theory. Evidently what is true of the barnacle is true of all creatures—even humans. Clearly the Almighty can no longer claim to have authored all species in under a week. You’ve killed God, sir. You’ve killed God.” Darwin is unnerved by this bold, confrontational statement, but Huxley continues: “Science is at war with religion—and when we win, we’ll finally be rid of those damned Archbishops and their threats of eternal punishment!” One hundred and fifty years later the archbishops are still around, and the “debate” continues.

Never before has the threat of Darwin’s ideas to creationism been so clearly depicted in a mainstream movie. While other films have downplayed or glossed over the friction between On the Origin of Species and the Bible, Creation tackles it head-on. Stephen Jay Gould’s conciliatory notion of the non-overlapping magisteria of science and religion is out the window; here we have the bare-knuckled, Richard Dawkins view.

Though the Church of England did not officially denounce Darwin or his books upon publication in 1859, many senior Anglicans and bishops were hostile to Darwin’s ideas and challenged them at public debates. In 2008, the Reverend Malcolm Brown, head of the Church of England’s public affairs department, issued a statement that the church owes Charles Darwin a belated apology for its initial reaction to On the Origin of Species, and “by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand [Darwin] still.”

In an interview with The Guardian, Paul Bettany said, “Darwin was a social conservative who had a revolutionary idea, and it was very difficult for him. I think once he had this idea, he couldn’t help seeing how it fit like a glove everywhere he looked, in the indifferent cruelty of nature. I don’t think it is a film about atheism, but for me, as an atheist, to have a viable alternative is incredibly important. The difficulty of looking at a system like natural selection if you have any sort of moral sense yourself, is almost what makes it beautiful. It’s a spur to try and rise above our own nature. Human beings have brains that are big enough to take them out of that brutality, and that is a faith of sorts, because it’s in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. . . . Darwin is a hero of mine and I think in the absence of Jesus, he’s a really useful hero to have.”

Creation premiered on the opening night of the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival in September. At the time, Creation producer Jeremy Thomas lamented the fact that the film had not yet found a distributor in the United States. “It has got a deal everywhere else in the world but in the U.S., and it’s because of what the film is about. People have been saying this is the best film they’ve seen all year, yet nobody in the U.S. has picked it up.” That issue may or may not have been exaggerated for publicity, but in any event Creation was eventually picked up by Newmarket Films—perhaps ironically best known for releasing Mel Gibson’s controversial 2004 religious gorefest The Passion of the Christ.

There was some pre-release controversy over the film., a Web site that reviews films from a Christian perspective, bashed the film as “a one-sided bit of propaganda” and claimed that “evolutionists have yet to produce any tangible evidence of intermediary species.” This patently false statement of course betrays a willful and profound ignorance of the archaeological record; Movieguide’s writers even trotted out the long-discredited idea that “evolution scientists have never produced an adequate explanation for the creation of the human eye,” as if that question has not been effectively refuted countless times. Though the film takes a strong and powerful stand for science over creationism, it is not overtly anti-Christian in tone, and it seems unlikely to generate the same furor that Passion of the Christ did.

The performances in Creation are as remarkable as the script. Paul Bettany evokes Charles Darwin with seemingly effortless ease and truly inhabits the role. His Darwin is deeply conflicted: afraid of how his ideas might hurt those he loves, and wracked with guilt that he might have contributed to Annie’s death. Jennifer Connelly is wonderful as Emma, depicting not only her strength and devotion to Charles but her own conflicted devotion to her faith and her husband’s work.

The film was directed by Jon Amiel from a screenplay written by John Collee, which in turn evolved from the biography Annie’s Box, written by one of Darwin’s great-great grandsons. Though Creation has been well received, some early reviewers groused that the film is boring; perhaps they were expecting the story of the theory of evolution would be told amidst action-packed swashbuckling and explosions. Creation is beautiful and powerful, with great performances and important ideas about faith, love, loss, and truth.

Benjamin Radford

Benjamin Radford is an investigator and research fellow with the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, and creator of Playing Gods: The Board Game of Divine Domination.

Creation, directed by Jon Amiel. 2010. Screenplay by John Collee based on the biography by Randal Keynes. 108 minutes. The image most people have of Charles Darwin is that of an old man with a long white beard sitting in a chair, perhaps lost in contemplation about the common ancestry between apes and humans. That’s …

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