About the productive life of Charles Darwin
Review by Larry Flammer
Creation - a book by Randal Keynes, great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin - was first published in 2001 as Annie's Box: Charles Darwin, His Daughter and Human Evolution. Creation is now a motion picture in limited release in the USA as of January 29, 2010. Read the book, see the movie, and enjoy a much deeper insight into Charles Darwin, his life and tribulations that were entwined in the creation of his opus, The Origin of Species, along with his many other later publications.
The book: Using much of the rich collection of letters, family biographies and other records of Darwin's life, Keynes takes us into a deeply personal and intimate look at Darwin's deepest thoughts and sufferings, his close interactions with friends and within his growing family, religious beliefs, and natural selection, and the complex interplay among all of these elements. You come away with a much deeper appreciation for his inner conflicts and the real world context, while being driven by the increasingly compelling evidence pointing to natural selection and the importance of bringing that insight to the world. Something new that I learned was how much Darwin was thinking about human evolution very early in his ideas about natural selection, especially the evolution of human behavior and the likely animal origins of our senses of morality and sympathy. It wasn't until his later life that he devoted much of his writing to those aspects, along with studies of plant movements and heredity, and the value of worms, always showing how natural selection so nicely explains why the natural world is as it is. This widely explanatory role of natural selection is often missing in most textbook accounts of the subject.
The movie effectively and poignantly captured the intimacy of the book. It was well cast and beautifully acted by the entire cast. While watching, I found myself transported back in time, watching the real characters, and sharing their experiences and their emotions. My only criticism is that many of the flashbacks were not clearly transitioned, so the sequences of events were often confusing. Having read the book before seeing the movie was very helpful, but the telescoping of some events along with the unclear flashbacks still contributed to some confusion. There were also a few events in the film that were not a part of the book, and I suspect they were added for "artistic" purposes to convey certain points. I was also a bit disappointed that Down House and the village church were not used in the filming, having visited there recently. Nevertheless, the counterparts selected did contain some similar features, and did not detract from the story.
The classroom: As a teacher, I would hesitate taking precious time to show this entire1 hour 48 minute film to my high school biology classes. Much of the film (and the book) revolves around the deep sadness surrounding the untimely death of Annie after ten years of being such a delightful, loving and deeply loved daughter. Although death due to various diseases was very common in those days, I'm afraid that this element of the film could be rather depressing to many students, perhaps overshadowing the useful awareness of Darwin's gentle kindness and enviable fatherliness, and the interplay between his chronic illness, his religious views and those of his wife's, and his drive to write about the compelling evidence for natural selection. I would, however, recommend that students watch the film, and/or read the book, and I would offer extra credit for writing an insightful report on either experience, citing specific parts that impressed, and new insights gained. Elements of evolution in general, and natural selection in particular, were included in both the film and the book, but not enough to make those concepts any clearer. They were not the focus of the story.
When it becomes available online or on DVD, I recommend that
teachers watch the film looking for short segments that could
be shown to the class and discussed. It is a powerful film,
and it would be helpful for students to witness a fair sampling
of Darwin's humanness and the difficulties he faced in producing