Close-up: Steve Jones assesses 'Creation'

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Steve Jones is a professor of genetics at UCL and a writer on evolution – the perfect person to assess a new film about Darwin

Creation’ does not live up to its name, fortunately – for it is about Charles Darwin, the man who put paid to the absurd idea that life was breathed into Adam by divine means around 6,000 years ago. The true date of life’s origin is, in fact, 500 times further into the past and the true mechanism of its emergence is not divine intervention but inherited mistakes in copying the genetic message or ‘descent with modification’, as Darwin called it.

Even so, hundreds of millions of Americans and (according to a recent poll) tens of millions of Britons reject his theory – and if a small fraction of them see this anti-creationist movie, it will be a blockbuster. I once said to my publisher that I did not mind if the fact-denying brigade burned my books on evolution as long as they bought them, but alas they show little sign of doing either. Most will no doubt avoid the film.

That’s a pity, because the movie makes a strong, albeit rushed, case for the idea. Darwin’s idea of natural selection is clearly explained, as is his work on life on islands, embryos and more. Even some of his less well-known experiments (such as playing a mouth-organ to an orang-utan at London Zoo) get a look-in. Paul Bettany – previously in that rather less convincing account of history ‘The Da Vinci Code’ – who plays the hero, has an uncanny similarity to Darwin soon after he moved to Down House in Kent. The film has the requisite amount of delicate retching to remind the viewer of his ill health and the fact that he threw up into a chamber pot, sometimes several times a day, and was an obsessive about possible cures, cold showers included.

It does less well with Darwin’s loss of faith and the supposed struggle over Christianity with his wife, Emma (Jennifer Connelly). The last sentence of ‘The Origin of Species’ is often quoted by those who try to reconcile science and religion: ‘There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.’ The C-word, though, is not in the first edition, and it may be that Charles was badgered into putting it in by his wife. Almost everyone now uses the earlier version, which is more or less God free.

Whether the Creator was forced in by a family row or not, His (or Her) presence is irrelevant to the scientific argument, and disguises the real truth: that Darwin – who initially had a vague plan to become a clergyman – began to lose his faith quite early. He could see no evidence of a benign designer when he observed caterpillars being eaten alive from the inside by the grubs of tiny wasps and he and Emma also suffered a wrenching blow when their daughter Annie – one of ten – died aged ten.

Creation’ makes rather too much of Annie’s deathbed agony and Darwin’s rage against what he saw as a non-existent divine being, and there is an odd scene when she is resurrected as a ghost as the manuscript of ‘The Origin’ goes off to print. Darwin wrote about being disgusted by the ‘imposture’ and ‘rubbish’ he observed at a seance at his brother’s house and would, I think, be unimpressed by that filmic device.

All in all, though, it’s a great film about a great man and a greater theory. It has not found a distributor in the US, so those teeming millions can still base their beliefs on Dan Brown’s ‘The Da Vinci Code’ instead.

Author: Steve Jones



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