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Friday, January 14, 2011

How realistic is the film "Creation: The True Story of Charles Darwin"?

Well, don’t go without two hankies, says Michael Flannery,
I saw the movie some time ago and some of the details are a bit hazy but my general impression of the film was that it was heavy on psycho-drama and lite on facts.


The film portrays Darwin as fixated, even hallucinatory, over the death of his beloved daughter Annie. The death of Annie is seen as a crisis of faith for Charles, which some historians would agree with. But the film shows Darwin going in and out of reality ... There's little to substantiate this level of mental disturbance, although a good many very credible historians regard Darwin as surely a troubled neurotic (as do I).


My real problem is that the chronology seems out of order. In particular, the film shows Darwin getting Wallace's famous Ternate letter laying out his theory of natural selection much earlier than he really did. In the film Darwin gets the letter and lapses into a deep and prolonged depression.


In fact, there wasn't time for any of this. Darwin received Wallace's letter on June 18, 1858.


Rather than falling into a funk, as portrayed in the movie, the actual events suggest that Darwin flew into a panic. Calling in his close friends Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker, he asked them what to do. They (all members of the Linnean Society) decided to read Wallace's letter along with Darwin's 1844 sketch and an 1857 letter between Darwin and Asa Gray at the next meeting.


The whole thing was crafted to give Darwin priority, with excerpts from his sketch and letter read first and Wallace's last. That meeting on July 1, 1858 can be regarded as the birth of evolution by natural selection. Obviously, Darwin had to cobble all this together on very short notice.


To make matters worse, Charles and Emma had illness at Down House at the time. His 15 year-old daughter Henrietta would recover but 19 month-old Charlie would die of fever. In fact, Darwin was burying his baby son and couldn't attend the Linnean Society meeting.


NONE OF THIS is in the movie. Instead Darwin is shown moping around depressed over Wallace's preemption until Emma snaps him out of it. Actually, to me the real history would have been far more interesting than this melodrama.
And, cough!, more realistic too. Parents of large families like Charles and Emma were likely well prepared for the fact that some children would probably die, and they deserve credit for sticking it out, not the easy implication that they collapsed like jilted movie stars in the face of an all-too-common heartbreak.

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