REVIEW: “Darwin’s Darkest Hour” on PBS’s NOVA

I was sent a review copy of Darwin’s Darkest Hour (website/watch online), the two-hour docudrama from NOVA/National Geographic, which aired on PBS on October 6th. I watched it last week, and here are my thoughts.

Darwin (Ian Cusick) & his wife Emma (Frances O'Connor)

Darwin (Ian Cusick) & his wife Emma (Frances O'Connor)

I’ve known about this Darwin film since late July, and had been looking forward to it for several reasons. One, I wondered how it would compare with the docudrama portions of the “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” episode of the series Evolution that aired on PBS in 2001. Two, having anticipated (and still looking forward to seeing) the film Creation (open in the UK and elsewhere, not in the US until December) featuring Paul Bettany as Darwin since at least September 2008, it was good to see another production looking at the same time period of Darwin’s life (the post-Beagle, Origin-writing 1850s). I of course cannot compare Darwin’s Darkest Hour to Creation, but I might have a comment or two based on reviews of Creation elsewhere.

Alfred Russel Wallace (Rhys Bevan-John)

Alfred Russel Wallace (Rhys Bevan-John)

Darwin’s Darkest Hour begins in March 1858 in Ternate (in present-day Indonesia). We see a man in his jungle hut, in a malarial fever, murmuring to himself “Malthus,” thoughts on human populations, “external pressures” as he jots down words onto paper. Before this scene ends, we see him preparing a letter to C Darwin Esq. This man, as we will find out soon, is Alfred Russel Wallace, naturalist and co-discoverer with Darwin of the theory of natural selection. It is this the delivery of this letter, from Wallace to Darwin, that becomes Darwin’s darkest hour. (For more on Wallace’s places of residence while collecting in the Malay Archipelago [Indonesia], see George Beccaloni’s essay “Homes Sweet Homes: A Biographical Tour of Wallace’s Many Places of Residence” in Natural Selection and Beyond: The Intellectual Legacy of Alfred Russel Wallace, pp. 7-43.)

When Darwin receives the letter, then begins a whole dialogue between Darwin and his wife Emma about his having priority to the idea of natural selection. We are taken to defining moments during the voyage of HMS Beagle and through the pages of his transmutation notebooks via this dialogue (it is in this dialogue that some rather corny exchanges enter, for example, on being shown his Notebook D, Emma asks Darwin “for the devil?” – yes, we know Emma was religious, but seriously?). It seemed odd to me that, in the film, Emma becomes Darwin’s supporter for ensuring his priority, and only after she and Darwin sort it out (mentions of his essay of 1844, a letter to Asa Gray, etc.) is it something that needs to be brought to Charles Lyell (I enjoyed this figure in the film) and Joseph Dalton Hooker (I did not enjoy the actor chosen to play him), men of high scientific standing who decide to have materials from both Darwin and Wallace read before the Linnean Society.

Aspects of Darwin’s life that have become all too familiar are treated in this film: his wretched health, his dealing with the deaths of two of his children, the apparent conflict with Fitzroy over the literal interpretation of Genesis during the voyage. The death of Darwin’s daughter Annie in 1851 – which some believe was the final straw in pushing Darwin away from Christianity, and thus allowing Darwin to further explore his thoughts on transmutation, and others not, most notably in the blogosphere Mark Pallen – occurs in Darwin’s Darkest Hour as memories, while the death of a son (Charles Waring Darwin) in 1858, is treated fully. (The inaccurate order of historical events in Creation is the main critique of that film by science educator James Williams, whose review appeared on this blog.) The scene of young Charles’s funeral is intertwined with the scene showing the reading of Darwin and Wallace’s materials at the Linnean Society, which neither attended (Wallace because he was nowhere near London and Darwin because of the death of Charles Waring). I liked the back-and-forth of dialogue:

REVEREND INNES: “Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. In the midst of life we are in death.”

JOHN BENNETT: Extracts from papers by Mr. Charles Darwin and Mr. Alfred Russell Wallace: Part One by Mr. Darwin, “On Variation under Domestication and on the Principles of Selection.”

REVEREND INNES: “Of whom may we seek for succor, but of Thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased.”

JOHN BENNETT: “Be it remembered, I have nothing to say about life and mind and all forms descending from one common type. I speak of the variation of the existing great divisions of the organized kingdom. Nature could effect, with selection, such changes slowly.”

REVEREND INNES: “Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother, here departed, we therefore commit his body to the ground: earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

JOHN BENNETT: “We know the state of the earth has changed, and as earthquakes and tides go on, the state must change. Many geologists believe a slow natural cooling…”

Extracts from a paper by Mr. Alfred Russel Wallace, “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type.”

“One of the strongest arguments which have been adduced to prove…”

Darwin and a son doing science

Darwin and a son doing science

What I thought was nicely done is showing how Darwin’s family was heavily involved in his work at Down House, the domesticity of Darwin’s research. He was an unconventional father, very involved in the raising of his children, and at times his children became themselves scientific subjects. The scenes showing Darwin’s children assisting, or being attentive to, his various experiments on plants and bees were my favorite, especially – and this should be no surprise – the scene about the seed dispersal experiments. Yet Darwin had his butler Parslow shoot birds for him, unlike in the film. [See Endersby’s recent article on Darwin, Hooker, botany, and sympathetic science.]

What I particularly liked about Darwin’s Darkest Hour is that it did not take one single stance on Darwin’s delay, the two-decade period in between Darwin beginning his research on transmutation and the publication of On the Origin of Species.  It brings in a little bit of many views historians have proposed: that Darwin feared public scrutiny, that Darwin feared conflict with his religious wife, that Darwin simply wanted more time to make sure his theory was right (in response to negative reviews of Vestiges of Creation [1844]), etc. (see John van Wyhe’s article on Darwin’s delay). Brian of Laelaps thought this inability for the scriptwriter to stick with one storyline made the film difficult to follow.

I do agree with Brian that the appearance of the actor who played Darwin (Ian Cusick) should have changed with how Darwin’s appearance changed in real life, i.e., that Darwin, by the time he published On the Origin of Species, was balding and did not have the flowing hair of Cusick. Nice to see Wallace appear in the film, though I do not know if Darwin and Wallace met at the Linnean Society and Wallace being introduced to Lyell. I could not, however, believe in the actor portraying Fitzroy.

Although I felt I was being forced to watch Masterpiece Theatre, I do think Darwin’s Darkest Hour is an improvement from the docudrama portions of “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” and could serve as a nice introduction to folks unfamiliar with Darwin’s life. Do check out the various resources on the film’s website, including a piece on Wallace by Sean B. Carroll,  an interview with the scriptwriter, and the entire transcript.

3 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Darwin’s Darkest Hour” on PBS’s NOVA

  1. Pingback: From Darwin’s Darkest Hour to the Greatest Show on Earth – The Art of Teaching Science Blog

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