on 17 July 2016
Parents will tell their children they love them all equally because it’s the right thing to do and keeps the family happy and harmonious. But it’s seldom true, as it’s not in the nature of things to be equal. Darwin knew this better than most. Slight variations (mutations) in a species endow it with an edge in the struggle to compete and survive, so some individuals within a given population will always be better equipped than others to cope with life challenges. This is less apparent in modern humans where culture, not nature, is the overriding force that determines the terms for living. Even so, some qualities in individuals will stand out compared to those of others, influencing preference.
Among his 10 children, sired over many years, Darwin preferred Annie (b. 1841), his first daughter and second child. She was precocious, curious, thoughtful, affectionate. She loved to play with Papa and walk with him in the garden at Down House where he liked to do his thinking and reflecting. But she was astute enough to leave him alone in his study when he was working, which meant reading and writing. She was wise for her years and Darwin loved and valued her for it.
His spiritual crisis had been building for years. He knew from all his work and study that the Christian Bible’s pronouncements on natural history were inaccurate and naïve. But Emma, his faithful wife, was a devout believer, and so were millions of others in the Victorian England of his day, even scientists. He was a quiet and retiring man, not outspoken and controversial. But he knew what the conclusions of The Origin of Species pointed toward, even if man was hardly mentioned in its pages. So he dithered for over 20 years, sitting on the theory, perhaps even hoping someone else would come to the same conclusions he had. That opportunity arose in 1858 when Wallace’s letter and abstract from Malaya reached Darwin. When Darwin made this known to Hooker, Lyell and Huxley, each of them strongly urged him to publish, knowing the theory was his original insight and achievement. Without these eminent and influential scientific friends, all of them loyal to him and his ideas, would he have had the courage to publish? Of course it’s pointless to speculate. The truth is he had these friends and they stood by him. In fact it was Hooker, and especially Huxley, who defended Darwin at the famous Oxford debate in 1860, some months after the The Origin had been published in November 1859.
Throughout his life, even during the time when he was technically studying to become a clergyman during his early Cambridge days before the Beagle voyage, Darwin had assiduously avoided religious debate, preferring to see the natural world as separate from whatever supernatural worlds there might be. He never saw the relevance of comparing the two, and thus made peace with their incompatibilities (such as they seemed), concentrating on the material world around him — on its insects, plants, rain forests, earthworms, barnacles, pigeons, coral reefs, earthquakes and the beaks of finches. But were these diversions? Was the act of collecting more evidence to support his theory a form of procrastination? Probably. But the psychological complexity he faced wasn’t just philosophical, great as it was. It was also personal and emotional.
Annie, his dear precious girl, would bring these worlds into collision for Darwin. Her death was catastrophic for him, his grief all-consuming. At age 10 she was taken from him, killed by scarlet fever. He could no longer see and touch her, laugh and sing and play with her. The light of his life, as he had called her, had gone out. He accepted the truth and fact of it. He had to. He was practical and rational. There are no ghosts. But the religious placebos millions use to dull the pain of grief had no effect on him. Their effect, in fact, was the opposite. Annie’s death was the last straw. After it he lost the last remnants of faith he might have had in the veracity of Scripture. His atheism was the quiet sort, calm and tranquil. He knew Emma devoutly prayed for him, she believing they would be reunited in heaven after their deaths. Annie was waiting there too for them. What joys death promised them in the hereafter! Darwin loved and valued Emma, and thus was tormented by the thought their worldviews seemed irreconcilable.
This film dramatises a series of loves: Darwin’s love for Emma, for his daughter Annie, and for his scientific work. It is based on the Randal Keynes book, Annie’s Box (2001). The origins of this book are interesting too. Randal Keynes is a descendant of both Darwin and John Maynard Keynes, the famous economist. Annie’s box of keepsakes (crayons, drawings, shells, rocks, ribbons and many trinkets) was discovered by Randal in the late 1990s in a chest of drawers bequeathed to him by his grandmother — a discovery that astounded him. Here in his possession was the very box, the personal repository of items precious to Darwin’s favourite child. In it were artefacts that revealed her passions and imaginings. Darwin would write of her and this box after her death, saying she used to cut out “delicate bits of paper to put away in her workbox, threading ribbons, and sewing small things for her dolls and make-believe worlds.”
He also wrote to a friend in the days following her death:
“We have lost the joy of the household, and the solace of our old age. She must have known how we loved her…Tears come into my eyes when I think of her sweet ways.”
The film opens with a beautiful montage of images: shoals of fish in the sea, flocks of birds in the sky, swarms of butterflies, herds of cattle and scores of tiny spermatozoa swimming headlong toward a massive egg that looks like a bright sun. Then in voiceover, young Annie speaks to her father:
“Papa. Tell me a story.”
“About what?” he wonders.
“About everything,” she says, a comment which almost sums up Darwin’s thought, his work an attempt to unify our understanding of life in its millions of manifestations.
The above exchange happens of course when Annie is still alive, so it occurred prior to 1851, the year of her death. In one of the next scenes it is already 1858. Hooker and Huxley have come to Down House to urge Darwin to publish. They know his work with some intimacy, understand the truth of it, and feel increasingly it must be published once and for all.
As stated earlier, Wallace’s letter and abstract have arrived from Malaya. This ups the pressure and ante on Darwin. He must come to terms with it, sit down, write his book or let Wallace pre-empt him. But most of the film takes place in the two decades preceding this event: the 1840s when Annie was alive, and the 1850s when she was not.
In the 1840s we see the bliss of his domestic life. Darwin’s theory has been in his mind since at least 1835, the year the Beagle visited the Galapagos Islands on its return voyage to England. But it seems now he’s content to be a good father, husband, and quiet English country gentleman. He takes his family to the seashore where he tells the children stories of his adventures at sea. He also teaches them about creatures along the shore and truths hidden in the local rockfaces: fossils, bones, geological layers in the sediment. He can’t stop teaching and storytelling, his head full of exciting ideas about the natural world.
Annie is the attentive one, the child who wants more than entertainment from Papa. On another occasion Darwin and four of his children, including Annie, visit a local wood. They see a rabbit feeding in a clearing among the trees. Darwin also spies a fox nearby and urges the children to watch carefully, silently. The hungry fox creeps closer to the unsuspecting rabbit, then finally pounces. Etty, Darwin’s second eldest girl, cries upon seeing the pitiful rabbit struggling in the jaws of the fox. Annie consoles her, telling her not to cry and saying to her, “The babies of the fox need to eat the rabbit to live. It’s part of a balance.” Etty stops weeping when she hears this, which demonstrates how well Annie has learned from her father.
But if the 1840s were blissful for Darwin, the 1850s were his torment. Annie’s illness caused a crisis in the family. Conventional cures were not working, and Darwin refused to have his daughter bled by the doctors, rightly reckoning that it would weaken her further. A water cure was recommended at Malvern, a two-day coach ride from Down House in Kent. Darwin would take Annie there. At the time Emma was pregnant again and Darwin made her stay in Kent with the other children. Emma was upset. She wanted to accompany her husband, troubled by a premonition that she would never see Annie again.
Her premonition was right. She never saw her daughter alive again. This drove an emotional wedge between Charles and Emma. He blamed himself for Annie’s death and thought Emma blamed him too. The main crisis in their marriage occurred over this remorse and guilt. But Charles was wrong about Emma. She never blamed him. In fact, she blamed herself, hated herself for staying behind when she knew she needed to be with Annie at that time.
Out of crisis comes insight — or it can. It does so here with them. They reconcile. They tenderly kiss. They even make love again for the first time in years, though this is thankfully only implied in the film, not shown even in simulation (though, interestingly, the actors Paul Bettany as Darwin and Jennifer Connelly as Emma are married in real life and thus probably know all about love).
When Annie appears as a ghost in the film after her death, she haunts her father with questions and comments. Her supernatural form, however, is just an aspect of Darwin’s conscience, a figment of his imagination. Because of her he is forced to answer for himself the many questions already raised by him in his own mind. For instance, at one point Annie consoles him by saying, “It’s only a theory.” In other words, “Do not torment yourself.”
But his reply to her is this:
“No, they’re right. It changes everything. Suppose the whole world stopped believing that God had any sort of plan for us. Nothing mattered. Not love, not trust. Not faith, not honour. Only brute survival. Apart from anything else it could break your mother’s heart.”
Thus it’s one of the great ironies and paradoxes in the history of science that Darwin’s masterpiece was first given by him to his wife Emma to proofread. He tells her if she approves of it, he will publish. If not, he won’t. Naturally, we know what happened. In the film, toward the end, Emma says to Charles, “I am an accomplice now. May God have mercy on both of us.”
These words first appear on the screen at the beginning of the film:
“Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, first published in 1859, has been called the biggest single idea in the history of thought.
This is the story of how it came to be written.”
And what a story it is — wonderful, beautiful, enchanting. It’s also a bittersweet tale of parental affection, devotion and devastation, as well as one of acceptance, reconciliation and triumph. It deserves to be better known and embraced.
on 24 June 2011
Beautifully filmed, great acting, wonderful soundtrack.
Another great bit of British BBC periodical costume drama.
Is this a relatively new phenomena... or have humans been doing this to each other for millenia? I'm referring to the deliberate falsification of historical events for public consumption, designed to be disseminated on a large scale, and perpetrated under the excuse of 'entertainment'?
Perhaps this is the peculiar weakness of our own time?
I become more and more aware of this possibility the older I get.
I know that 'Artistic licence' is the excuse,
but I do start to wonder after watching this film how much of it is deliberate manipulation of public opinion (propaganda) done to serve the agenda of current 'causes'. (E.g. such as the 'Carlos The Jackal film', etc.)
This film CREATION is a good example of that (e.g. was that title deliberately chosen to attract and influence/re-educate 'Creationists' and Christians?)
It's advertised as "The true story of Charles Darwin".
The TRUE story?!! :-0
The whole thrust of the film is that Darwin was an atheist who was cajoled into writing 'On the Origin of Species' as a necessary strategy in a battle against 'religion' and the idea of a 'Creator Deity.
But that is not "true", as Darwin himself stated:
"when I wrote The Origin of Species, my faith in God was as strong as that of a bishop."
The secondary idea appears to be perpetuating the idea that there was - and still is (?) - a battle going on between 'science' and 'religion'.
Thomas Huxley is presented in the film as thinking that science and religion were intrinsically opposed.
Yet here is what Huxley actually wrote about 'science' and 'religion':
"The antagonism between science and religion, about which we hear so much, appears to me to be purely factitious - fabricated, on the one hand, by short-sighted religious people who confound a certain branch of science, theology, with religion; and, on the other, by equally short-sighted scientific people who forget that science takes for its province only that which is susceptible of clear intellectual comprehension". [T.H.Huxley, "The Interpreters of Genesis and the Interpreters of Nature" in Science and Hebrew Tradition, (London: Macmillan, 1904), pp. 160-161.)]
More aspects of the film that are not "true",
- Curiously more than half of the film falsely depicts Darwin talking to an apparition of his deceased daughter Annie and going slightly mad, (tearing down his dovecot/hydrowater tower and running around the garden ordering his invisible dead daughter to 'come back here'.
- The Vicar of Downes is falsely represented and made to be the 'baddie' of the film. A rift in their friendship towards the end of Darwin's life is falsely depicted.
- But I suppose the biggest deviation from fact and what strikes me as the biggest deliberate deception perpetrated under the guise of 'entertainment' has to be the presentation of Darwin as an athiest and his gradual rejection of victorian Christianity falsely shown as him categorically rejecting the concept of a cosmic Creator.
That's quite a bit of 'artistic licence' going on there.
Strikes me as more like lying about the past to win today's perceived 'battles' (viz. Evolution versus I.D perhaps?)
It IS correct that Darwin DID come to consider religion as a tribal survival strategy
Yet at the time of publishing 'On the Origin of Species' (which is where the film ends) he still believed that there was a God who was the "ultimate lawgiver".
And even at the end of his life Darwin never did reject a belief in a Creator God.
He DID gradually cease to believe in and reject Victorian Christianity.
But the two are NOT the same thing (Dawkins appears to make the same mistake).
Contrary to the film's depiction, Darwin remained close friends with the vicar of Downes, John Innes, all his life plus continued to play a leading part in the parish work of his local church.
Darwin wrote: "...[it is] absurd to doubt that a man might be an ardent Theist and an evolutionist".
In 1879 he wrote: "I have NEVER been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. - I think that generally... an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind."
I suppose the BIG question I am pondering is why people in positions of power and control in the media today (the BBC) feel the need to deceive viewers about all that?