Darwin Takes Center Stage

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Is there a scientist in history more misunderstood in modern times than Charles Darwin? His seminal work, The Origin of Species, revolutionized the biological sciences and led to a tension between science and religion that still exists today. The story is ripe for the biopic treatment, and director Jon Amiel obliges with Creation, debuting tomorrow at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The film’s stellar cast includes Paul Bettany as Darwin and Jennifer Connelly as his wife (and cousin) Emma. It tells the story of “a global revolution played out within the confines of a small English village; a passionate marriage torn apart by the most dangerous idea in history; and a theory saved from extinction by the logic of a child.”

The child in question is Darwin’s beloved daughter, Annie, who died when she 10, possibly of tuberculosis. Creation is based on the bestselling biography by Randal Keynes (Darwin’s great-great-nephew), Annie’s Box, which paints an exquisite picture of Darwin the man, as well as Darwin the scientist. (Annie’s box was a writing case made of red moroccan leather, into which treasured mementos from her life were placed after she died.)

Indeed, according to Keynes, Darwin’s “private life and science were all of a piece.” Annie’s death affected him deeply; his theory of evolution was well-developed by the time she died, and among other concerns, Darwin worried that he may have passed on genetic weaknesses to his daughter that ultimately led to her death. Although he rarely mentioned Annie for much of his life, in an interview some 35 years later, he could still recall her very first smile when she was just 8 weeks old. Any parent could relate.

It’s a compelling story of a human being who happens to be a scientist, as well as demonstrating what it cost Darwin to be true to his scientific instincts. Among other themes, the film details the inevitable conflict between Darwin’s stubborn adherence to natural selection and his wife’s religious devotion, not to mention the local community. Science is rife with these wonderful human stories. May Creation be just one of many more films that tell them. (h/t: Razib of Gene Expressions)

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.