Darwin’s Struggle: On The Origin of Species

Last night we went to see a film that goes by the title Creation. It is a majestic name for a film that was, in fact, gentle and slow-paced in the best tradition of English period dramas.

The film dramatizes Charles Darwin’s struggle to come to terms with the idea of publishing On The Origin Of Species – the book about his observations on evolution.

The film shows him struggling with the thought of the damage he might do to the glue that held society together in the 1850s – that glue being religion.

Darwin feared what would happen if the religious source of morality was shown to be simply wrong.

He feared that people would be terribly undermined and lost if they were to read that life is no more than an accident of evolution.

Personal Life
The film also shows Darwin fighting to come to terms with the death of his eldest daughter Annie, who died at age 10.

The Darwins have several children, but Annie was special to Charles Darwin. She was precocious and curious about everything. Even at her young age she was his companion in his scientific analysis. So her death hit him very badly.

Darwin felt responsible for her death because it was he who allowed her to play about on the beach on a chilly day.

As the film portrays it, he seemed to have feared that he had angered God – the God in which he did not believe – and that the death of Annie was his punishment for failing to believe in God.

The film shows the death of Annie driving Darwin’s wife Emma further towards religion.

And it shows how Annie’s death drives a wedge between them as they skirt around any meaningful communication about the things that really matter to them most.

Illness
Darwin is shown slipping into chronic illness. The smile that lighted up the lives of his family is replaced by a skull-like caricature and Darwin retreats mentally from his family.

Communication
With the pressure to publish his findings weighing on him, the gulf between him and Emma became too great to bear.

Things come to a head and the pair bring their differences into the open and find that each of them blames themself for Annie’s death.

This watershed helps the pair become reconciled. But they still have to face the fact of Annie’s death. So we see them sitting rigidly n their sadness, as though propping each other up.

Time Is A Great Healer
Time passes and we see this feeling give way to a renewed optimism where the couple again find pleasure in each other’s company.

The family is brought back together and the children are glad to have their father back – their father with the impish smile who teaches them through it that a kindly independence of spirit is the mark of humanity.

Publish And Be Damned
With their new-found closeness, they still have one matter to resolve – should Darwin publish his book?

The outcome is that Darwin hands over the decision about whether to publish On The Origin Of Species to his wife.

Is The Manuscript Destroyed
Darwin sees his wife tending a fire in the garden and we see from his reaction that he is nor really prepared to hand over the reins of the decision about publication to his wife or to anyone.

He knows at heart that the book must be published because he wants to free the world from dogma and superstition.

In that he was a true 19th Century gentleman scientist.

The World Then
The world has moved on and religious beliefs have in the main accommodated Darwin’s findings. God and science seem to coexist more easily in the 21st Century than they in the 19th.

A Footnote in History
The film is beautifully detailed. Darwin’s study with its bottles and specimens littering the desk, the outhouse with its prepared bird skeletons – it is all very convincing. And the film is affecting – when Darwin cries at one point over the death of Annie, one cries with him.

The World One Hundred And Fifty Years Later
In the film, Darwin is shown with his children in the woods, listening and watching intently. We see a fox and a badger and a rabbit.

The bitter truth is that in the 150 years since the publication of On the Origin of Species, mankind has managed to wipe out a substantial part of the wildlife whose evolution Darwin had so carefully shown.

Had Darwin published today, perhaps his book would have to be entitled, On the Origin of {Fewer} Species.

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