Field of Science

Olivia Judson on "Creation"

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Olivia Judson is a science writer and research associate at Imperial College London who has written excellent articles on biology and evolution for the NYT as well as the entertaining and informative book "Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to all Creation". She seems to like the new movie on Charles Darwin, "Creation", in which the real life couple of Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany star as Darwin's wife Emma and Charles. Interestingly Bettany did a fine job playing a Darwin-like naturalist and doctor in the film "Master and Commander".

Darwin's relationship with his wife was admirable and interesting because although she was always devoutly religious and he increasingly was not, their marriage was largely warm and affectionate throughout their lives. In typical scientific fashion, he had drawn up a list of pros and cons before marrying her and decided the pros outweighed the cons. Emma who had taken piano lessons from Chopin provided marital stability while Charles labored over The Origin.

In the movie, I think Connelly is too attractive to play Emma but that's a relatively minor point. My greater concern was with the scientific accuracy in the movie and whether it might turn out to be overwrought and unduly dramatised. However Judson largely mitigates my fears.
Unlike most biographies of Darwin, its central event is not the publication of the “Origin,” but the death of Darwin’s adored eldest daughter, Annie, at the age of 10. She died in 1851 after nine months of a mysterious illness; at the time of her death, she was not at home, but in the English spa town of Malvern, where she had been sent for treatment.

Annie’s death is also the central event of this beautifully shot film. For “Creation” is not a didactic film: its main aim is not the public understanding of Darwin’s ideas, but a portrait of a bereaved man and his family. The man just happens to be one of the most important thinkers in human history.

Which isn’t to say that Darwin’s ideas don’t feature. We see him dissecting barnacles, preparing pigeon skeletons, meeting pigeon breeders and talking to scientific colleagues. He visits the London zoo, where he plays a mouth organ to Jenny, an orangutan; at home, he takes notes on Annie as a baby (Does she laugh? Does she recognize herself in the mirror?). He teaches his children about geology and beetles, makes them laugh with tales of his adventures in South America, and shows them how to walk silently in a forest so as to sneak up on wild animals.

At the same time, we see his view of nature — a wasteful, cruel, violent place, where wasps lay their eggs in the living flesh of caterpillars, chicks fall from the nest and die of starvation, and the fox kills and eats the rabbit.

But all this is merely the backdrop to the story of a man convulsed by grief.
Thus the movie really seems to focus on Darwin's relationship with his family and especially with his beloved and favorite daughter who unfortunately died an untimely death as a child. According to most accounts, this was a focal point in Darwin's conversion to being a non-believer and the movie seems to dwell on the pain and conflict that Darwin experienced during this event.

It's probably easy to forget that along with being one of the greatest minds in history, Darwin was also an unsually kind, modest and gentle soul and a devoted family man. Seems like this movie will do a good job of underscoring this fact as well as entertaining audiences with some of Darwin's scientific explorations.

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