Charles Darwin and the Human Face of Science

By Finneran, Kevin | Issues in Science and Technology, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Charles Darwin and the Human Face of Science


Finneran, Kevin, Issues in Science and Technology


The latest success in Charles Darwin's victory lap marking his 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species is a starring role in a major motion picture. Creation, a film by Jon Amiel starring real-life husband and wife Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly as Charles and Emma Darwin will open in the United States in January. In what might be a relief to those who have taken their own voyage of the Beagle through a seemingly nonstop series of Darwin conferences and symposia, the film focuses not on the science itself, though there is a little of that, or the religious opposition to Darwin's ideas, though that theme does appear in the context of Charles's relationship with Emma, but on the personal demons with which Darwin must wrestle before he can write and publish his groundbreaking book.

The movie, which is based in part on the book Annie's Box by Darwin's great great grandson Randall Keynes, is a highly dramatized and somewhat fictionalized treatment of this period of Darwin's life. This is not the elder sage Darwin with the biblical beard, but a 40-something Darwin wracked by grief and guilt over the death of his 10-year-old daughter Annie, plagued by mysterious physical and psychological ailments, uncertain about his relationship with his wife, and anxious about the inevitable conflict between his scientific findings and the religious orthodoxy of the day. The drama revolves less around the evidence and analysis of the science than around Darwins sanity and his ability to put his ideas into a book.

Fellow scientists Joseph Hooker (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Thomas Huxley (Toby Jones) make brief appearances, encouraging Darwin to finish and publish his book. Huxley is portrayed as a latter-day Richard Dawkins, eager to take on the religious leaders who put beliefs before scientific evidence. His one brief outburst will provide vicarious thrills for many defenders of evolution who secretly yearn to lash out at religious anti-intellectualism. In exhorting Darwin to publish his findings and advance the cause of rigorous science, Huxley spews his venom: "Clearly the almighty cannot claim to have authored every species in under a week. You've killed God, sir. And I for one say good riddance to the vindictive old bugger. ... 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."

For those of us who want to see science become a more integral part of the culture and to have scientists perceived as human beings, Creation demonstrates that, as always, one must be careful what one wishes for. We want science to be perceived as an ordinary human activity conducted by flesh-and-blood people, but that sometimes means that we want scientists to be seen reading bedtime stories to their kids, attending football games, doing the laundry. It's easy to object to the caricature of the mad or impersonal scientist, but what about the philandering, neurotic, egocentric, greedy, abusive, or racist scientist? You can be sure that if we have more scientists in movies and TV, we will have more unlikable scientists. Just look at the Mozart of Amadeus, or any number of artists, novelists, and musicians that appear in film and fiction.

The Darwin who appears in Creation is not a repulsive figure, but he is a flawed human being who is certainly not a model of mental stability. He is not unfeeling, but his overwrought feelings clearly damage his relationships with his wife and children. In the film, his psychological tensions threaten to prevent him from publishing his landmark book. …

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