Creation, dir. Jon Amiel (Icon Films)

Ringing Roger, March 2010

The controversy surrounding Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection doesn’t seem to be dying down, even 150 years after the publication of The Origin of Species. Creationists adhere to a literal interpretation of the first chapter of Genesis – though some of the more enlightened ones concede that the six days of creation might have actually been six epochs. They are matched against neo-Darwinians, who not only want to maintain Darwin’s theory in every particular, but who insist that it necessarily involves adopting the stance of atheism. Religious fundamentalism and secular fundamentalism are engaged in their own evolutionary struggle for survival, it seems.

Now we have on DVD Jon Amiel’s sensitive cinematic treatment of the critical moment in which Darwin finally got down to writing and publishing his book after years of hesitation as to the veracity of his theory, and an accompanying concern about what its consequences might be. Married to a devout Christian, and friendly with the local vicar, Darwin feared that the doubts he raised about the literal truth of Genesis would be controversial. More importantly, the death of his young daughter Annie cast him into a long period of despair. If he believed in natural selection, and the survival of those creatures which were best fitted to their environment, then he had to accept Annie’s death as a demonstration of his theory. If he believed in a benign God, he had to accept it as an event which was currently inexplicable but which might be understood in whatever afterlife awaited him and his wife. The film doesn’t resolve any of these issues, but it powerfully dramatises them.

Interestingly, we are not allowed to witness the demise of his daughter, but we are allowed to witness that of another character in the film. I refer to Jennie, an orang-utan who has been captured while young and transported from her jungle to reside in an English zoo. Jennie’s story is one of those which Darwin is repeatedly asked by Annie to recount; she likes it because it is sad, and she always insists on hearing it to the end, when Jennie dies in the arms of her keeper. By granting such dignity to this death, the film forces us to ask ourselves why it is that we assume that the fate of other species should be of far less concern than that of our own. Considering the damage wreaked by homo sapiens on this planet, and the innumerable extinctions that it is currently bringing about because of its arrogant disregard for biodiversity, the film offers a useful challenge to our presuppositions about which creatures are entitled to respect and which are not.

Inevitably in a feature film, many aspects of Darwin’s situation have to be simplified. The hostility of the church of the day to his ideas is exaggerated, I would suggest. For one thing, the idea that the Bible offered poetic rather than factual truth had become well-established among the more liberal clergy by then. For another, evolution had been in the air for decades by the time Darwin came to publish his findings; all he did (though that was more than enough!) was to focus on natural selection as the key to how it worked. That said, we must acknowledge that Darwin’s local cleric, who is represented in the film, was hostile to his conclusions, if not his field of enquiry.

Another concern I have is that the film perhaps gives too much gloomy attention to what the poet Tennyson called ‘nature red in tooth and claw’: this distorts Darwin’s theory, which could be said to be as much about cooperation as it is about competition.

Which brings us back to that supposed battle of beliefs which I sketched at the beginning of this review… It’s worth noting that many modern and contemporary theologians have demonstrated that evolution can be made fully compatible with Christianity. One important outcome has been the radical reinterpretation of the verse in the King James translation of Genesis which declares that humankind is in a position of ‘dominion’ over the rest of creation. We have to become aware of ourselves as part of a great web of being, rather than as having a God-given right to do what we want to the earth and its other creatures. Darwin would certainly have approved of this particular evolutionary advance in thinking. But then, it isn’t only Christianity that has to adapt. I understand that the more dogmatic kind of Darwinism is currently  being challenged by some biologists, on the grounds that it exaggerates the function of natural selection in evolution; there is now much more sense of there being multiple factors at work, internal as well as external.

Whatever your own stance, rest assured that, if you are fascinated by the natural world and how we should best understand it, and if you find science and religion as compelling as each other, this is the film for you. And of course, if you just like to imagine how great ideas come to be born, you mustn’t miss seeing Creation.

Laurence Coupe