GUEST POST: Review of “Creation” by science educator James Williams

James Williams, a lecturer in science education at the University of Sussex, had thoughts about the new Darwin film Creation, and I invited him to share his review here. James, if you remember, gave this nice talk about creationism for the British Humanist Association:

And to James’s review of Creation:

Creation – the ‘myth’ of Darwin’s life

2 October 2009

It promised so much, yet delivered a turkey! The BBC (one of the backers/makers) of the film Creation, starring Paul Bettany, can be relied upon, usually, to deliver a quality account of scientific ideas and concepts, yet in the latest and highly publicised cinema release Creation they failed miserably. It was, in my view, a waste of a good film.

Granted the actors and actresses, especially the girl who played Annie Darwin (Martha West) were very good, they played their parts well and I could appreciate their characterisations. But what let the film down was its attention to the chronology of Darwin’s life. There is no excuse for this. There are probably more Darwin biographies published than exist for any other scientist. Scholars such as Peter Bowler, Janet Browne, James Moore and many others have written the great man’s life in more intricate detail than many people care to have knowledge of.

Granted, the film did give some excellent and accurate portrayals of events, but why deliver them out of sequence and why leave out some important details, yet include others?

Most people, for example, are unaware of Emma Darwin (Charles’s wife) except that she was his first cousin (mentioned in the film) and that she was ‘ultra’ religious – a Unitarian in fact. Very few people know that she was an accomplished pianist (this was evident in the film) who had studied at the Paris Conservatorie under Chopin. Yet in the film also, we are left with the impression that the Darwin family consisted of 5 children when in fact there were ten (not all survived early childhood). Their eldest child – who would have been nearly twenty years of age – didn’t merit a mention.

Annie was the central focus of the film. Annie was, indeed, the apple of Charles’s eye. He adored her. That much is true. The film is based on the book ‘Annie’s Box’ by Randal Keynes (Charles’s great grandson) and I use the term based in loose terms! Annie was born in 1841 and died in 1851 aged nine. The film is set in 1858-59, seven years after Annie’s tragic death. Yet the filmgoer is left firmly with the impression that she is alive in 1858 and dies sometime in 1858/9. This is unforgivable – even granting poetic/dramatic licence. Darwin is portrayed as having ‘given up religion’ while Annie was still alive when it is well documented that he gave up going to church with Emma and the children after the death of Annie. There is also an allusion to some form of steel box which contains the ‘secrets’ that Charles was to unleash on the world – secrets that would lead to the ‘death of God. But this is not Annie’s box, her box was a small personal one, in which she stored precious (to her) items she collected.

Where do I begin to point out the flaws and errors – there were so many. Darwin being ‘urged’ to write his book on evolution – which he apparently names ‘On the Origin of Species’ when he had in fact been writing a very large book on evolution for many years. ‘Origin’ was just an ‘abstract’ of this magnum opus and its full title was conferred not by Darwin but by the publisher John Murray.

At least Alfred Russel Wallace (my personal hero) did get a mention – but only just. It was the receipt of Wallace’s letter by Darwin that prompted Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker to urge Darwin to write Origin, not a visit by Huxley.

Darwin was distraught by the letter he received from Wallace (accurate in the film), but what put pressure on him was not Annie’s health (she was already dead at this point remember) but the health of his newborn son Charles – who did actually die during the period of his receipt of Wallace’s letter – and the fact that children in the village were sick and dying. Just how Emma could be pregnant with Charles junior, at the same time as worrying about Annie’s health, defies biological understanding.

The film makers were determined to make Annie the focus of Darwin’s angst during the writing of ‘Origin’ and deemed this to be the dramatic ‘device’. When you look at the REAL story of how Darwin was almost forestalled and what was happening in his life during June/July of 1858 and through to the publication of ‘Origin’ in 1859 – there was drama enough without having to destroy historical accuracy.

In some ways I’m glad that Creation has not found a major distributor in the USA [Michael: it now has]. People who see this film who know little or nothing about Darwin will learn some trivial facts about him. They will not uncover the true story of  Darwin during this period and will learn little about the events surrounding the discovery of the greatest scientific idea of the 19th, 20th and 21st century – the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Unlike the film ‘Inherit the Wind’, which fictionalised the Scopes Monkey Trial of the 1920s, where some details were changed for dramatic effect, yet the main thrust of the events remained relatively intact, Creation will serve only to mis-educate the people who see the film, but never delve any deeper into Darwin the man and the true story behind the development of the theory of evolution.

You may think that I am a pedant, but to me such historical distortion is like shifting the start of the second world war to 1950 for no good reason. This was not ‘whiggish’ or revisionist history it was just a melange of historical events.

If you are presenting a movie as anything approaching historical fact, ate least you should get the facts right!

3 thoughts on “GUEST POST: Review of “Creation” by science educator James Williams

  1. I noticed that you suggested Inherit The Wind as an example of a film that accurately represents the events of the Scopes Monkey Trial. Nothing could be further from the truth. Edward J. Larson won a Pulitzer Prize for Summer For The Gods, which clearly shows that Inherit The Wind had very little to do with truth and very much to do with ideologies. Inherit The Wind is still thought by many to be basically true. Not so by any means.

  2. @BruceD – Here is James’s reply to your comment:

    In my brief review I do not claim that ‘Inherit the Wind’ accurately represents the Scopes Trial – indeed I state quite clearly that it was a fictionalised account of the facts, where the actual events were changed for dramatic effect. I only claim that the main thrust of the events remained relatively intact. I enjoyed reading ‘Summer For the Gods’ by Larson and recommended the book to a colleague a day or so ago.’ Inherit’ (the Spencer Tracey version) remains a favourite film of mine, but at no point do I look on the film as accurate. A difference between ‘Inherit’ and ‘Creation’ is that ‘Creation’ has a production feel (from textual inserts) that is more of an accurate dramatic reconstruction than ‘Inherit’ which was a Hollywood film from start to finish. At no point can I recall a statement in the film ‘Creation’ which sets out that this is a fictionalised account of events or that events have been changed. Granted, Inherit does not do that either, but it’s look and feel is more fictional film than historical events re-enacted.

  3. “when it is well documented that he gave up going to church with Emma and the children after the death of Annie”.
    Sorry, rather than being “well documented”, there is no evidence for this. The claim that Darwin “gave up going to church” is based on a passage from the 1889 publication Darwin and God by George William Foote (a secularist who was later imprisoned for blasphemy):
    http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?viewtype=image&itemID=A551&keywords=foote&pageseq=22
    It is worth stressing that in this passage, there is no date associated with the start of Darwin’s non-attendance at church and no link at all to Annie’s death. Darwin’s non-attendance could have started at any time after his move to Down House, whether in the eight and a half years *before* Annie’s death or sometime in the three decades that followed.

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