After 200 Years, Darwin's Legacy Still Evolving Feb. 12 marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth. Ira Flatow speaks with Darwin's great-great-grandson, writer and director Matthew Chapman, about the ongoing battle over teaching evolution in public schools and how Darwin's legacy continues to evolve.
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After 200 Years, Darwin's Legacy Still Evolving

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After 200 Years, Darwin's Legacy Still Evolving

After 200 Years, Darwin's Legacy Still Evolving

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You're listening to Science Friday on NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow, and for the rest of the hour - the icing on the cake of our Darwin celebration. It's 150 years since he wrote "On the Origin of Species" and it's hard to imagine what Charles Darwin might make of the events since then. A lot of stuff has certainly happened politically, educationally. The teaching of evolution in public schools has remained a hot topic. It goes from the front burner to the backburner, back again to the front burner. It's back and forth, at least for the last 100 years.

And while there's no debate among scientists about whether evolution is the underlying organizing principle of biology, evolution deniers are still hard at work. What would Darwin think today? Joining me talk more about Darwin and his legacy is my guest, Matthew Chapman, great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin. He is a writer, a director, a producer. He has written "40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, OxyContin and Other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania." He's also author of "Trials of the Monkey: An Accidental Memoir." Welcome to Science Friday, Matthew.

Mr. MATTHEW CHAPMAN (Author, "40 Days and 40 Nights" and "Trials of the Monkey"): Thank you for having me.

FLATOW: You write in a great memoir of yours, following the trial in Pennsylvania - and in the Harper Magazine in February of 2006, that you had to sort of escape your great-grandfather and come to the U.S.

Mr. CHAPMAN: Yeah.

FLATOW: You found it taxing to carry that on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHAPMAN: I don't know if I found it taxing as my - as the generation above me did, honestly, but yeah, there was a certain amount of pressure to be academically successful. And I sort of - I think most people as they grow up, they imagine that they'll do better than their father or better than their grandfather and certainly better than their great-great-grandfather. And I figured that wasn't going to happen in the academic sphere, so I kind of dropped out. And after a while, you know, I got into the film business and started making films. And then, I came to America, and that's when I woke up really to what Darwin was about.

FLATOW: And you write that you discovered that many Americans not only rejected the theory of evolution, they reviled it.

Mr. CHAPMAN: Well, I found it completely strange. I mean, sometimes people ask me, what was it likely growing up as a descendant of Darwin in England in the 50s and 60s? And I mean, certainly the family was proud of it. I remember asking my father once - because it was puzzling to me - I said, you know, what class am I? Because it was - I sort of didn't think of myself as working class or middle class or upper class. And he said, well, you're part of the intellectual aristocracy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHAPMAN: And I thought, well, you know, it's a strange thing to say. But I suppose in a way it was true. And - but on another level, it wasn't particularly interesting because Darwin was so well accepted. There was nothing controversial about it.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. CHAPMAN: Not from the religious perspective or a scientific perspective. It just simply was part of the wallpaper of history.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255, talking with Matthew Chapman about his experience as the great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin. And in that vein, you've written books about it, but you also wrote it in that article in Harper Magazine - you're experiences covering that trial in Pennsylvania.

Mr. CHAPMAN: Well, that…

FLATOW: And you learned a lot from that, (Laughing) I can see from this article. Your eyes were open.

Mr. CHAPMAN: Yeah. No, it was the most wonderful experience. It was fantastic. I loved it. And I always love leaving New York or Los Angeles and journeying out there to where real people live. And I just had the best time, and it was really the culmination of everything that had happened to me in America since I got here. Because as soon as I arrived here, I was struck by how people would believe in things without any evidence, whether it was astrology or creationism or whatever. And very soon, within a year of being in America, which was - I think it was the early 80s - there was one of those cyclical Darwin, intelligent design, creation trials.

And I watched, and I was kind of amazed by it. I thought, this can't be happening. And then I dropped it for a while, and I sort of - I became interested in - I became interested really in the issue of credulity, of why people believe things, which is - you know, remains my biggest interest, I think, in American life, is how people can believe things without evidence.

And I just became stunned by it. And then, towards the end of the 90s, I was asked if I'd write a book about what it would be like for a Darwin descendant to go below the Bible Belt to the town where the Scopes Monkey Trial took place, which was the first of these trials of trying to get evolution and natural selection out of science. And the - I suppose the joke was that a Darwin descendant would descend below the Bible Belt and see if the town had evolved in 80 years, which it had not. And so, then I covered that.

And then I sort of - a few years passed by, and this one came up. And I saw - I didn't think I really wanted to get involved in it, but unlike the Scopes trial, this one was going to be tried on the science, and all of the intelligent design people were going to come in, and all of the pro-evolution scientists were going to come in. And I thought it would be a real opportunity just to get an education. And so, I went down there for Harper's Magazine to cover the trial, and it was the most amazing thing, because it was a sort of a philosophical trial. It was a biological trial. It was a trial about religion versus a more secular view of life. It was just - it was marvelous.

FLATOW: And you write in that Harper's article that you were really for the first time - it became apparent to me, really for the first time, how hated the poor old codger is, meaning Charles Darwin.

Mr. CHAPMAN: Well, yes, because I mean, he'd make such a lousy villain.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHAPMAN: You know, he's such an old - he's such a sort of boring guy. When I was growing up, the thing that I found most disturbing about it was how dull he was.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. CHAPMAN: You know, he sort of - I mean, apart from the voyage on the Beagle, he really stayed home for the rest of his life. And the idea that this kind of amiable abolitionist scientist who is so into the detail of things and building up evidence over years and years and years - this sort of assiduous sticking to the facts - the idea that this character could become a villain was astonishing. But I did go around some of the churches there, and they really do believe that he's responsible for abortion and homosexuality and racism. And I mean, just really the catalog - they have a sort of list of 10, 12 things that they believe. And I just - I was stunned by this.

FLATOW: You were - you are one of the founders of the Science Debate 2008, which was a movement to get presidential candidates to address science issues. You never got that debate.

Mr. CHAPMAN: No. But again - that again - that does go back a little bit to the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial, in that I saw how it was possible in that trial for people to discuss science in front of a lay audience. The judge, who was the person who they had to appeal to - it wasn't a jury trial - had no scientific background. And there was a lot of very complicated science going around, and you could see that it could be accessible.

So, when the election - the presidential election came up last year, I was watching, and I noticed that nobody was really discussing science. I thought, well, obviously, they're frightened by it. Who isn't? But there is a way to talk about this. And it's essential that we do talk about it. And along with five great allies in this - and we founded this organization called Science Debate 2008. And we did try, on several occasions, to get the candidates to have a debate. And I have a feeling we got kind of close.

FLATOW: And you're shooting for 2012?

Mr. CHAPMAN: Oh yeah, absolutely.

FLATOW: Yeah. Let me get caller in or two. 1-80-989-8255. Shawn in Tucson. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.

SHAWN (Caller): Hi, Ira. Long time listener, first time caller. My basic question is over the years, people have really looked into the theory of Darwinism, and from there, they've extrapolated into a religious movement of more of atheism. And I was hoping, you know, the guest could comment on the evolution of people taking Darwinism to atheism, of how we evolved as a species. And I'll take my comments off the air.

FLATOW: Interesting term of - use of evolution in that sentence. But does one follow the other?

Mr. CHAPMAN: I don't think so. I mean, one of the - I mean, certainly it does for some people. And - you know, but there are other people, like for example, one of the people who gave - who testified file in the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial, Ken Miller, who's a biologist from Brown University. He's a devout Catholic. Another, you know - there was another Catholic - I mean, there's of people who believe in God and believe in evolution. And it's really a question of whether you believe in the sort of literal Bible or see it as sort of more poetic document.

FLATOW: What do you think about the science agenda for the new administration?

Mr. CHAPMAN: I mean, there's - I believe there's some issues about funding of the National Science Foundation.

FLATOW: There's a paper circulating today that…

Mr. CHAPMAN: Yeah.

FLATOW: That the - to remove the NSF, there was of over $1 billion dollars in the new plan that the compromise committee wants to x-out, the whole amount of money.

Mr. CHAPMAN: Well, I think all one - all that one can say is that whatever happens, it's going to be better than what happened in the last eight years, in terms of science.

FLATOW: Do you think it is possible to teach people critical thinking, even if they don't want it - they don't want to give up the way they believe?

Mr. CHAPMAN: I don't even think - I don't think it's possible, I think it's easy, actually. I mean, I don't think that the questions you have to ask yourself when you're evaluating something are that complicated - you know, what's the source, what's the bias, what's - you know, it's not really very difficult - I mean, of the kinds of things - particularly in a voting context, if we're talking about science debate - it's not very difficult to - I don't think - to tease out what is the likely truth behind something, given a little bit of effort.

FLATOW: And so, where do you put your efforts now, besides being a writer - a screenplay writer and a director? Is there actually some popular culture piece? Could there be a screenplay about all of this or some sort of fictional work that might change the mood of the country or change the direction of this, do you think?

Mr. CHAPMAN: I would hope so. Because, I mean, if you look at - one of the things that I find surprising working in Hollywood is how superstitious it is and how frequently anti-science it can be, if only in an implicit, rather than explicit way. I mean, all those sort of ghost stories and the - you know, you very rarely have a hero in a movie say, you know, to another character, have reason or have evidence. They say have faith.

I mean, it's a whole sort of aspect - the whole sort of attitude of Hollywood, is A, slightly childlike. You know, we must all be sort of childlike, and that's how we get good ideas. And I think there's a requirement now of artists in America to have a kind of grown-up responsibility for what's going on. Because I think there are many scientific issues - I think you'd agree - that are very critical. And to just be sort of childish about them and not understand them or not try understand them and not address them - so yeah, I think there's plenty of room for…

FLATOW: But do you really - do they think that? You really think there's a change in Hollywood toward that attitude?

Mr. CHAPMAN: That I don't know.


Mr. CHAPMAN: I don't. We'll find out.

FLATOW: We'll find out.

Mr. CHAPMAN: Because, I mean, I have ideas that I would - that I intend to take to Hollywood.

FLATOW: Oh, well, we'll have to see. Let's go to Douglas in Hawaii. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.

DOUGLAS (Caller): Hello, thanks for your program. I just wanted to voice a thought here to - and get your guest's opinion. By the way, I've read your books, Mr. Chapman, and I enjoyed them.

Mr. CHAPMAN: Thank you.

DOUGLAS: You seem to have a great fascination with the creationist movement, aside from your own family's connections. I've subscribed myself to the Institute of Creation Research's materials for something like 25 years. I've got huge stacks of them. Still, my amazement kind of grows over time about their hatred of evolution and evolutionists, I think, which they view as satanically inspired - literally and not laughingly, really. It seems to me that there's a great connection between creationism and how they care not about the deterioration of the planet environmentally, because they view that deterioration as predicted and foretold. And as such, it's to be expected, and in many quarters, even welcomed. They hate evolution on a level which is difficult to understand.

FLATOW: Doug, do you have a question to ask? Doug, do you have a question to ask at all?

DOUGLAS: Well, yeah. My question was the scientific community ignored the creationists, hoping they would go away over so many years. I wanted to ask you if you think that, with your experience, are the creationists, over time, being brought to reason on the subject or are they continuing this pattern?

FLATOW: Thanks for the question. This is Talk of the Nation Science Friday from NPR News. A question that has been asked over and over again, and it's still a valid question.

Mr. CHAPMAN: Yeah. I mean, but I think the most interesting question is whether or not you fight it. I mean, there were several instances in the past where scientist has sort of refused to come out to fight the fight. I think they should come out. I believe in fighting. And I think the more you fight, the more information you get out. So…

FLATOW: So, it's going to be a continuing fight, it's not going away?

Mr. CHAPMAN: Yeah. And I think there's also something interesting in what he says, with, you know, why there's this sort of antipathy towards evolution. I think a lot of it is from the fact that it takes such an enormous amount of time for evolution to work. And I'm not talking about that the biblical suggests it's 10,000 years. But it just - it's so diminishing of one's sense of self to see one's self as such a small dot at the end of such a long line. And I think people are troubled by that. I think it sort of - it hits the ego very hard.

FLATOW: There are some people who can believe in it for animals or plant life…

Mr. CHAPMAN: Yeah.

FLATOW: But they can't believe in it - could be happening to people.

Mr. CHAPMAN: Yeah, yeah.

FLATOW: So, it does happen, but we're excluded…

Mr. CHAPMAN: I think there's that. Yeah.

FLATOW: From it because maybe one of the time elements is yours. I just got about a minute left. Do you have any…

Mr. CHAPMAN: I do have one thing to say, yeah, which is that when we founded - when this great group of people that we have who founded this thing came together, we tried to get non-profit status, so that all the contributions could be tax deductible. And we've been working on that for a year. And as I was driving over here, I heard that we did get 501-C3 status. So, everybody who contributed to Science Debate 2008, which is now Science Debate, who were so generous and so kind and did it on trust, we're - your tax deduction is deductible. (Laughing) Grab it. You're going to need it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: (Lauging) A fund-raising message from Science Debate, right here. Well, I think you'll have to stand in line with Science Friday on that one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHAPMAN: Well, perhaps we can stand together.

FLATOW: We'll stand together. Thank you, Matthew, for taking time to be with us today.

Mr. CHAPMAN: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: And good - and happy - Happy Birthday to you.

Mr. CHAPMAN: Thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Matthew Chapman is the great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin. He's a writer, director, and producer. His latest book is called "40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, OxyContin and Other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania." He's written some terrific stuff about that trial. I'm sure you got to want to read that.

Greg Smith, composed our theme music. And we had help today from NPR librarian, Kee Malesky. You can surf over to our Web site at, where we've got a Science Friday Video Pick of the Week all about how water splashes and how actually sand can act as water - some great video of that that Flora Lichtman put together. Also, we're still twittering. We have a Twitter - @scifri, that's the Twitter - and podcasting and blogging, and you'll be able to listen to this show on your iPod in just a - in a few minutes after we get it digitized and up there for you. Have a great weekend. We'll see you next week. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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