The Early Picture Of Darwin Evolves

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Charles Darwin is often depicted as an old, bearded genius, but what was he like as a young man? The new movie Creation explores young Darwin's inner turmoil. Director Jon Amiel and Darwin's descendant Randal Keynes discuss the film and Darwin's personal life.

JOE PALCA, host:

The most famous portrait of Charles Darwin shows an old man, bearded and thoughtful, the perfect image for the man who is the father of modern evolutionary biology.

But before Darwin was an icon, he was just a man grieving a loss of a child, struggling with his marriage, and conflicted about riding up his theory of evolution by natural selection because he knew it would have enormous religious implications.

That's the side of Darwin you see in the new movie, "Creation." In this clip, Darwin, played by Paul Bettany, makes his decision to go forward.

(Soundbite of movie, "Creation")

Mr. PAUL BETTANY (Actor): (as Charles Darwin) I have finally decided. I think I owe it to my children to at least have the courage of my own convictions. My title will be "On the Origin of Species," and I shall endeavor to keep God out of it. Although, no doubt, he will see it as a personal attack.

PALCA: Well, the rest, as they say, is history. That is the crux of the matter for this new movie.

And here to talk about Darwin, the man, and "Creation," the movie, are my guests: Randal Keynes is Darwin's great-great-grandson. He's also a board member of the Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands and the author of the book, "Creation: Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution." He joins us from London, England today.

Mr. RANDAL KEYNES (Author, "Creation: The True Story of Charles Darwin"): Hello.

PALCA: Hello. And it's that book that was the basis for this movie. And the director of this movie, Jon Amiel, is the director of "Creation." And he's joining us from Los Angeles, California.

Mr. JON AMIEL (Director, "Creation"): Hello.

PALCA: Hello. So welcome to you both.

Let me start with you, Jon Amiel. This is a controversial person. I mean, maybe not so much in the science world. People ask me, what - how do I cover the science of evolution? I say, there is no - in the scientific world, the argument is over. It's not controversial. But in the broader world, it is controversial. What drew you to this subject?

Mr. AMIEL: Well, interestingly enough, you know, though one couldn't be blind to the controversy that surrounds Darwin, it was the man himself that drew me in. Movies deal well with ideas, but they deal better with people and emotions, and best when complex or abstract ideas are embedded in those characters and their emotions.

And I think what first drew me in was not the notion of poking finger in the eye of creationism, nor even of sort of tackling the complex subject of evolution. But actually, we're addressing one very substantial imbalance in the perception of Darwin, which is that he was some boring old codger with a massive beard and a beetling brow.

PALCA: Mm-hmm.

Mr. AMIEL: That he was distanced and remote, that he is as, you know, the creationists would like us to believe in, anyway, some evil entity. But, you know, what Randal's book brought home to me in a such a startling way - I felt compelled to try and bring that to the screen - was what an extraordinary, warm and accessible and extremely contemporary human being Charles Darwin was.

PALCA: Well, that is a part of what is frequently missing in movies about science, because they are - scientists tend to be caricatured in some ways.

We're going to continue our discussion about this new movie, "Creation," and we - will be a welcome to have your calls at 800-989-8255. That's 1-800-989-TALK. We'd love you to join the conversation and hear what you think about a movie that depicts Charles Darwin, the man, as opposed to Charles Darwin the controversial figure. So please stick around.

(Soundbite of music)

PALCA: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

(Soundbite of music)

PALCA: From NPR, this is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Joe Palca. We're talking this hour about the new movie, "Creation." My guests are Jon Amiel. He's the director of the movie "Creation," and Randal Keynes. He's the author of the book, "Creation: Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution." And we're taking your calls at 800-989-8255.

Randal Keynes, maybe I can come to you and say, first of all, what - I mean, you have a family relationship, but what brought you to writing this book about Darwin? And how did his daughter play a role, in your mind, about his coming to the theory of evolution, or at least his willingness to publish his theory?

Mr. KEYNES: One thing brought me to write the book, and that is the discovery of a little writing case that had belonged to his daughter that his wife Emma had put away immediately after their daughter died - probably of tuberculosis when she was 10 - to remember the daughter by. And it had in it her little treasures as a 10-year-old child.

And on top of the treasures, when I opened the box, not knowing what it was, she had put away a little note that was Darwin's notes on how his daughter was every morning, afternoon and evening in her last illness a month before she died. And when I opened this box, saw that it was a little girl's writing case, imagined it might be their daughter's, and then saw this note and saw how Darwin had been clearly caring for her morning, afternoon and evening, noting so very carefully what treatment had been given to her and then what the effect of it, how she felt later, I suddenly saw that this man that everyone would imagine to be a remote figure - remote, that is, from his family - grand, unengaged with them, I saw how closely and intensely he was caring for his child in her last month.

And that prompted me to find out about her, what she meant to him. And the story just unfolded from there. And I found that he was devoted to her as her mother was, and that he and Emma, his wife, had been deeply moved by her death. And then when I found out about the consequences for him and his feelings, I discovered that there was a link with some of his later, darker thinking about human nature and the position of humans in the natural world, and the story took shape.

PALCA: Right. Right. And a lot of times, when I talk to book authors about the way a movie realizes their idea, they're not very happy. I presume since we're both on the show today, you're both on the show, that you're not terribly dissatisfied. But how did you feel that the movie succeeded or failed in portraying what you had in mind for your great-grandfather?

Mr. KEYNES: It succeeded in a very simple way, in bringing Darwin and Emma and Annie to life. And also, writing factual biography has to limit himself to what's known. He was to be very careful about interpretation. He can't go more than a certain way. He has to hope that the reader will be able to bring the characters to life in their mind.

Jon Amiel, with Paul Bettany, Jennifer Connelly and Martha West - Darwin, Emma, and their daughter Annie, respectively, in the film - was able to bring these three people into vivid and fascinating life. And it was a wonderful experience to see that done by Jon with his great abilities as a film director.

Mr. AMIEL: Yes. I mean, I have to play the role(ph) back and say that oftentimes, when you're working - A, when you're with the author of any book, you find yourself - it's almost like treading through some sort of plastic minefield. You know, you find your foot blown off at almost any point when you tread on some sort of delicate point of the author's sensibility.

When you're working on something that's factually based, as well, it's tremendously common to have authors not only wringing their hands about their own work, but jumping down your throat in a very nitpicky way to say, oh, well, this couldn't have been so. This wasn't so. You got this wrong. What was wonderful about working with Randal - at the risk of making this sound like a goof fest...

Mr. KEYNES: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

Mr. AMIEL: ...was that he, in a sense, enfranchised John Collee, the writer, and myself, to do exactly, in a sense, what Darwin did; use his imagination to plum areas that his eye couldn't see but his mind could reach.

PALCA: Right.

Mr. AMIEL: You know, one of the fascinating things about Darwin - there's a wonderful sequence in the film showing Darwin with a young orangutan. And fascinatingly, this was the first orangutan anybody had ever seen in England. When Queen Victoria saw the orangutan, she wrote in her journal afterwards, how painfully and disagreeably human. She saw something disagreeable, a lot of other people saw something - it's innately comedic. Darwin saw a connection. And he - one of the things that was greatly underestimated I think about him as a scientist was his power of imagination.

What Randal exhorted John Collee and I to do was to do as he described, to go to those places where the historian and the biographer could not. Use our imagination, and in a sense, bring those moments where the keeper of the journal closes his journal and walks into the bedroom and closes the door.

PALCA: Yeah.

Mr. AMIEL: To follow them in and try and understand, you know, try and fill in the gaps that historians and biographers are unable to do.

PALCA: All right. Well, let's invite our listeners to join this conversation. And let's go first to Albert(ph) in Berkeley, California. Albert, you're on the air.

ALBERT (Caller): Hi. I was lucky enough to have read a book called "The Cape." And it talks about Darwin, when he was the science officer with the captain of the ship - FitzRoy.

PALCA: Uh-huh.

Mr. AMIEL: Mm-hmm.

ALBERT: Are you familiar with...

PALCA: Captain of The Beagle. Sure. That's in - there's a scene in the movie about that.

ALBERT: And how they first saw the naked natives out on the...

PALCA: Tierra del Fuego. Right.

ALBERT: ...yeah, where the rain is blowing horizontally as it always does. And when - in "The Cape," they described Darwin's reaction to that was like, God had to make such a greater creature to survive in that environment. And he didn't know that they were covered with grease and that the canoes had did not have a fire in them, but it just had the coals to go from one location to another location so they would have fire in each location.

Mr. AMIEL: Yeah.

ALBERT: But they also picked up a couple of - two or three people there and a young girl...

PALCA: Right.

ALBERT: ...took them back to - and I guess the boy got sent to the same college that Darwin had...

PALCA: Yes. No, no. Albert, let me have my guest describe that because it is a very important part of the movie. Go ahead with that, Jon Amiel.

Mr. AMIEL: Yeah.

PALCA: Or was it Randal? I'm sorry. I couldn't tell.

Mr. KEYNES: Jon.

PALCA: Okay.

Mr. AMIEL: We have a sequence in the film which (unintelligible) you to see, describing exactly that. FitzRoy - one of FitzRoy's grand experiments was to take four children from Tierra del Fuego. They were all given ridiculous names; Jemmy Buttons, Fuegia Basket, York Minster and the like. They were carried off to England, put in a school with children half their age, taught to read and write. And two of them were presented to the king and queen. To great acclaim -everyone thought this was marvelous - they tamed the savage heart. The children were then taken back - and Darwin was present when they were - to Tierra del Fuego in the belief that they would Christianize and civilize their fellow Fuegians.

Well, simply told, within three months, the children were running stark naked again with their fellow Fuegians and blathering in this, well, their seemingly barbaric tone again. The experiment was a complete failure.

PALCA: Right. But Randal Keynes, maybe you can explain how that affected Darwin going forward, because there was this discussion later on about how you couldn't impose a civilization on a person, or in this case an individual, who didn't have it to begin with somehow.

Mr. KEYNES: Yes. The point that I found developed in my book was how Darwin had first seen slaves being mistreated in Brazil - first stop on the voyage of The Beagle - and had seen that these were people like his own kind in England and yet they were being treated cruelly, like animals, and no feeling. Then he had met these savages, as they were called, on the southern tip of South America. And he had - they had with them in the boat these four - no, three children that had been taken on a previous voyage, and he had seen how, with education, they could change from being utterly savage as anyone would think to being well-behaved, well-mannered and learning - being educated, and able to read and write.

And he saw how close we were, first to the slaves, and then how close civilized Europeans were to these so-called savages. What he then saw later in Jenny the orangutan, was just the same. He wasn't looking at differences, he was seeing how close we were in our deep nature and everything else. And in each case, he was focusing on the closeness. And that was what he took out of the experience with the Fuegians. It wasn't that they just simply reverted, but that they could revert and then could come back and so on. We're all much closer than we appear.

PALCA: All right. Let's take another call now and go to Chris(ph) in Iowa.

Chris, welcome to the program.

CHRIS (Caller): Thank you. I was wondering if anyone had read the book "Charles and Emma." It's a young adult book that just came out that's received a lot of wonderful reviews. And it really shares the relationship in the family side of Charles and his wife, Emma, and, of course, recounts the death of one - and actually three of their children died early. Could the...

PALCA: Yeah. Let's...

CHRIS: ...guests comment on that?

PALCA: Let's see if they know about - do you know about this book, either gentlemen?

Mr. AMIEL: I've not read it. I've heard about it, obviously. But I haven't read it. We deal very closely in the film with that relationship, which is kind of key to Darwin's life and actually remarkably key to his thinking as well. And what we draw on mostly - the wonderful thing about the Darwins was that they were prolific writers of letters and journals.

PALCA: Mm-hmm.

Mr. AMIEL: And almost everything they wrote was kept.

So what we found - you know, Randal's book puts together all of these personal memoirs and documents. And we found that the voices of these people, Charles and Emma particularly, came through from their letters with such startling clarity. It was almost as though one didn't need an intermediary to sort of further explicate things about their lives. You could hear it, so speak, in their own voices.

PALCA: I'm going to stop and remind people that I'm Joe Palca and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

Let me take one more call here and go this time to Terry(ph) in Lewes, Delaware.

Terry, welcome to the program. You're on the air.

TERRY (Caller): Hi. Thank you so much. I love Darwin, and I'm very sorry that he had so much conflict about the religion aspect - and seeming to betray it in any way, because I don't think that evolution and God are incompatible at all. In fact, I think it can be - so that some people's views that God just invented everything, created everything, and that was it, and it was like that's the way it's going to be, to be a little disrespectful of God in a way because evolution allows for this wonderful complexity, this wonderful change, this wonderful response to the environment that, to me, bespeaks an intelligent creator. And so I don't think those two are incompatible at all.

PALCA: Well, Terry, that's a really interesting point. I want to play another clip from the movie that we have. It's a clip where Darwin, played by Paul Bettany, he tries to explain why he feels complicated about writing "On the Origin of Species" to his secular friend Thomas Huxley.

(Soundbite of movie, "Creation")

Mr. PAUL BETTANY (Actor): (as Charles Darwin) Oh, Mr. Huxley, we live in a society, a society bound together by the church - an improbable sort of barque, I grant you, but at least it floats. It floats.

Mr. TOBY JONES (Actor): (as Thomas Huxley) And you would what? You would have us all rebuild, plank by plank, the very vessel in which we sail?

PALCA: So, Randal Keynes, I mean, this is the conflict, whether - even if he -regardless of religious belief, even, he's just talking about how religion flows through the society that he was living in at the time.

Mr. KEYNES: Yes. And he was - he attached great importance to moral values and human values and the bonds of affection and all of that. He felt that the Christian morality, which he shared completely, was deeply important. And that was part of what he had in mind and what he said in that clip of the film.

What - the lady who spoke - was it, Terry?

PALCA: Yes. I think - yes. Yes.

Mr. KEYNES: Yes. What - her point was one that he was so glad to have made by an important person who wrote him a letter immediately after the publication of the book, who is the British man of the church, Charles Kingsley, who wrote the very famous book, "The Water-Babies," shortly after the publication of "The Origin."

Charles Kingsley wrote to him, as a Christian, saying, I'm so pleased with your book. I don't see a conflict between this and my own deep Christian faith because I can see the wonder in the pattern of evolution, as Darwin explains it. You can see how that can have a place in a Christian view of a divine creation.

Now, Darwin couldn't actually himself be certain of that view. His problem was one about evidence. But he was very glad for the point to be made. And he was so glad that he asked Kingsley if he could put it on the page facing the title page of the book in its next edition that was published amongst later. And so, from that second edition of the book, this man's statements or that point of view was in the text because Darwin was glad to have it there.

PALCA: Okay. Gentlemen, we're going to have to leave it there. That was Randal Keynes. He's Darwin's great-great-grandson and the author of the book "Creation: Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution." He was joined by Jon Amiel, as the director the new movie, "Creation." And that movie is just coming on theaters now. Thanks to both of you for joining us today.

If you have a comment or question, you can write to us at SCIENCE FRIDAY, 4 West 43rd Street, Room 306, New York, New York, 10036. Check out sciencefriday.com for more information and links to today's program. You can listen to past editions of SCIENCE FRIDAY online or take them with you as a podcast.

For NPR New York, I'm Joe Palca.

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