Archive for the 'Life of Charles Darwin' Category

Mis-Creation—A Movie Review

I have not posted to DarwinWatch in well over a year, leaving you and me both wondering if I had abandoned the project.  It is only postponed while I have had to devote myself to my non-profit organization’s struggle to weather the global financial and economic meltdown of the past 18 months.  The effort seems to be succeeding, but it is too soon to tell for sure, and it has left me with more work responsibilities than I can handle.  Still, I’ve labored fitfully with a couple of very long posts that should appear on this site in the next month or two.

Annie’s Box as a Movie

What has drawn me prematurely back to posting is that, just this past week on an international flight, I watched a movie called Creation.  One of the Darwin websites informed me in 2008 that this movie was in production, based (very loosely, it turns out) on the book Annie’s Box by Randal Keynes, one of the descendants of Charles and Emma Darwin.  I liked the book very much and was looking forward to the movie, wondering how it would be done. 

Director Jon Amiel based this movie on the anguish of Charles and Emma Darwin over the inexplicable death of their ten-year-old daughter, Annie, in April 1851.  Charles is played by Paul Bettany, who played well the Darwin-like ship’s doctor in Master and Commander—The Far Side of the World (2003).  In more recent roles, however, Bettany seems to be type-cast as a man tortured by demons, as in The Da Vinci Code and now Creation.  I found Bettany’s portrayal of Charles almost a character assassination.  And Emma is portrayed by Bettany’s real-life wife, Jennifer Connelly, as a pinched, worried woman, darkly resentful of her husband’s strange work, strange colleagues and strange illness.  Even their children are made to seem fearful of Charles, with the exception of Annie, who seems too modern in her chummy patronization of her father’s weakness.  Charles’s closest friend, Joseph Hooker, came across as manipulative and dismissive of Charles’s reservations about publishing his theory of evolution.  The homunculus who played Thomas Huxley was appalling in his uncaring aggressiveness as a culture warrior hell-bent to use Charles as a weapon against religion, whatever the cost to Charles himself.

Historical Accuracy

I can hardly blame the actors for their portrayals of these historical characters.  No doubt they were doing the director’s bidding.  And what, after all, is so very wrong about the movie?  Is it historically inaccurate?  No, the facts of the movie follow the real history with only a few exceptions.

Yes, Charles suffered, at times greatly, from an undiagnosed illness that affected his stomach and head, causing vomiting, headaches, sleeplessness, and anxiety attacks.  Yes, Charles was often shy of company, especially as the excitement of social interaction sometimes triggered bouts of his illness, but the Darwins were famously welcoming and cheerful hosts.  Yes, Emma suspected that the illness was psychosomatic, generated by the stress of intense, self-driven, mental work.  Yes, Charles was convinced that “hydro-therapy” helped his condition (though the break from work to go to Malvern for the “water cure” may have been the real source of relief).  He did insist on the dubious benefits of the strange coldwater douche baths.  

Yes, Charles was reluctant to publish his “species theory” for fear of public reaction and professional opprobrium, especially after the harsh reception of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, published anonymously in 1844, about the same time he wrote the first version of his own theory of evolution.  Yes, Emma had expressed her concern in a letter or two to Charles (apparently never speaking to him directly on the matter) that the impact of his work on public attitudes toward Christianity might jeopardize his soul and divide him from her forever in the Hereafter.  Yes, Joseph Hooker and Thomas Huxley (and Charles Lyell, not mentioned in the movie) urged Charles to publish his theory, perhaps setting themselves at odds with Emma’s preference, but there is no evidence that Emma actively argued against publication. 

Yes, Annie became gravely ill and would not respond to normal medical treatment, so in desperation, Charles took her to Malvern for the “water cure” that had seemed to help his mysterious ailment.  Yes, Emma did not accompany them to Malvern, probably because she was in the later stages of pregnancy, and no doubt she felt guilty that she was not by her daughter’s side when Annie died at Malvern.  Yes, Charles and Emma were devastated by Annie’s death; Emma would not speak of her afterward, and Charles took several years to fully recover from his grief. 

Yes, Charles did not get along with the Rev. Innes of the local parish, but it is doubtful they were ever close friends, and Emma was a Unitarian Nonconformist who had equally deep differences with the Reverend’s Anglican orthodoxy.  Yes, Charles was deeply troubled by the cruelty of the natural world and the difficulty of squaring this fact with the goodness of God the Creator.  Yes, Annie’s death only further confirmed the inexplicable cruelty, driving Charles further from traditional Christian explanation, perhaps lessening his scruples about publicly differing with the Church of England.

Sacrifice the Man for the Cause! 

The movie, however, presents all these facts under a brooding cloud of interpersonal tension between Charles and Emma as he struggles with inner demons driving him nearly to madness.  Attempting to create a family psychodrama that reflects the larger culture war of post-modern Western civilization, Jon Amiel has taken extreme liberties with the true character of Charles and his marriage and his family to create a cariacature with features distorted by willfully grotesque exaggeration.  All reports (that I’ve read so far) are that Charles had a remarkably sunny disposition despite his strange illness, especially toward his wife, his children, his servants and his friends.  This was a fundamentally happy man in a remarkably good marriage with a bunch of well-adjusted kids living in a pleasant, high-functioning household and well-loved in their village and their social circle.  The contrast between the life of the Darwin family and the outside swirl of ugly controversy created by Charles’s work could not have been more striking. 

But happiness doesn’t make for critically acclaimed movies these days, and it certainly doesn’t suit the socio-political agenda of the movie’s makers in this case.  They needed Charles Darwin to be a tortured soul caught between the forces of science and religion at war.  What a travesty!

There ought to be a law against character assassination, even of historical personalities.

Copyright 2010 by Chris Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Chris Dunford (www.DarwinWatch.wordpress.com)

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Happy Birthday to Charles the Person

Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born on the very same day, February 12, 1809, a fateful day for the world.  That their births mean so much to so many 200 years later reflects far more than their amazing life accomplishments.  With its love of Great Men, history has turned each into a symbol of a major inflection point in the development of Western Civilization, marking the emergence of the Modern in our world.  Lincoln symbolizes the final collapse of slavery as an acceptable practice of Christian people.  Darwin symbolizes the final collapse of the traditional Christian explanation of how the world works.  These historic changes in worldviews originated centuries before their birthday.  Neither Lincoln nor Darwin was a major agent of the change.  But each was fated to drive the final nail.  Neither Lincoln’s presidency nor Darwin’s writings completed the change, but each turned the tide, making it forever impossible to slip permanently backward.

 

It is ironic that Lincoln symbolizes vindication of the Christian concept of the dignity of the individual person, with God-given rights, whereas Darwin symbolizes the Modern concept of a remote God uncaring about the lives of individual persons.  The triumph of Divinely justified abolition was concurrent with the legitimizing of belief that God, even if God exists, is irrelevant to life as we know it.  

 

Darwin Fish vs. Jesus Fish

 

Several years ago, I was driving home from work, a bit too lost in my thoughts.  I had to brake violently to avoid rear-ending a car stopped at an intersection in my California town.  As I recovered my wits and studied the rear-end of the car I nearly smashed, I saw for the first time the Darwin fish – the “Jesus fish” with Darwin’s name instead and little feet underneath, like the familiar figure of a fish sprouting feet to become an amphibian.  I laughed!  And I continued to laugh as I saw more of these Darwin fish on the rear ends of cars around town.  It is a university town, where you expect such clever, irreverent humor.  Over time, I saw the growing bumper battle between the Darwin fish and the Jesus fish, with ever more clever designs, culminating in the Darwin fish opening wide to eat the Jesus fish!  I became concerned.  Too many people are taking this battle seriously, seeing Darwin as displacing Jesus. 

 

This was not the reaction of an offended Christian or shock at such public display of intolerance.  I was reacting to the name Darwin coming to symbolize so much other than the man or even his work.  The Darwin fish proposes an equivalence between Darwin and Jesus.  Darwin the prophet of modernity, Darwin the symbol of Ultimate Truth, Darwin an object of “religious” reverence.  This struck me as profound misrepresentation of who was Charles Darwin and what he himself stood for.  This was not science versus religion or science versus Christianity but Science as a religion competing with Christianity as a religion.  I knew Charles the person would have been appalled. 

 

A Visit to Down House

 

Two years ago, I spent a March day at Down House, Charles’s home for forty years.  No other single house is more closely associated with the work of a great man.  It was a weekday, so I nearly had the place to myself.  Charles Darwin and his wife Emma and his children and his servants and his experiments and his village came alive in my mind. 

 

I prowled the family rooms, furnished almost as they were 150 years ago, imagining I could hear Emma playing the piano in the parlor.  I stood for an hour in his study, just watching Charles in my mind as he worked with total concentration yet smiled when his children came noisily rushing in to find scissors for their project.  I returned a few minutes later to imagine Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker sitting with Charles in rapt conversation.  I stood by the dining table to watch Charles holding court as local magistrate to settle disputes among his fellow villagers.  Then I saw him alone at the table carefully reconciling the accounts of the Friendly Club he helped start so that local laborers could save for their future needs.  I had tea at the kitchen table, where Charles once played a hand of whist for the cook while she tended the stove.  I walked the Sandwalk round and round five times as a snow squall swept through the stand of old trees Charles had planted then changed abruptly to pale Kentish sunshine over the fields that once belonged to the neighbor, Sir John Lubbock. On the Sandwalk, I thought for the first time in years about that near-accident in my own town and then about the meaning of the “Darwin fish.”   

 

In Defense of Charles the Person

 

I am a friend of Charles the person and therefore feel obliged to defend his good name.  Not that I knew him in person!  My great, great grandfather was born in England the same year as Charles.  But I know Charles a great deal better than I know my own ancestor.  His voyage on the Beagle inspired me to travel the world, too.  His evolutionary theory structured my worldview in university and to this day.  To me, however, Charles is more than a voyage and a theory.  Charles is a life-long friend – not a mentor or a teacher or a hero or an icon – a personal friend – like the fantasy friend of a child, I suppose – with passions and aversions, strengths and weaknesses, to which I relate my own.  He is a person with whom I can sympathize but also criticize.  He puzzles yet inspires me.  He makes me smile, and he is exasperating.  We agree, and we disagree.  We walk together in silence.  He speaks, I listen.  He is a personal friend, no less than my deceased father, who is gone, yet with me.  It is a person-to-person connection.  In short, I like Charles Darwin a great deal.  I know him too well to sit by while the modern world enthrones him as its demi-god.  Nor can I idly allow him to be branded the Anti-Christ. 

 

To Understand Charles the Person

 

The Darwin name will be taken in vain regardless of how hard we try to set the record straight, but those of us who honor intellectual honesty and historical accuracy should have ready access to the real man and what were most likely his true views on the issues that are now so controversial.  Surely this better understanding only improves the debate.  We also owe this much to such a remarkable, decent and likeable man. 

 

You might ask what more there is to know about Charles Darwin.  Surely his life and work are among the best chronicled of any historic figure.  What can be added to the numerous biographies based on volumes of personal letters, notebooks, manuscripts, and of course, his many books? 

 

Nonetheless, lots more is being written now, because today is February 12, 2009, the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth.  The world is celebrating as it would for no other scientist, because Darwin has become the patron saint of the secular worldview that needs no god for explanation of past, present and future.  The commemoration will be the occasion for new assaults in the ongoing culture war between evolution and creationism, more generally between secular and religious worldviews.  There will be lectures and symposia, sermons and articles, popular books and television specials revisiting and interpreting the life, times and writings of this iconic figure of the modern (and post-modern) world.

 

Whether the authors are triumphant or defiant in their attitude toward Charles Darwin, the naturalist of H.M.S. Beagle and author of On the Origin of Species will overshadow Charles Darwin the remarkably likeable countryman of Shropshire and Kent, the loyal friend of leading intellectuals around the world, the loving, playful father of accomplished children, and especially the devoted husband of Emma Wedgwood.  The influence of Emma on the career and thinking of Charles goes well beyond her famous roles as hostess and lady of Down House, guardian of his health and spirits, and worrier for his eternal soul as his worldview evolved toward its irretrievable break from Anglican orthodoxy.  She was a devout believer, but as a thoughtful Unitarian, not a rote Anglican.  She was the sophisticated daughter and granddaughter of great industrialists.  She had done the Grand Tour and learned the languages and music of the Continent (in contrast, Charles visited Europe only once, a brief visit to Paris, before his famous voyage, after which he never left England again).  She was keenly interested in the politics and current events of the day.  And she was Charles’s best friend.

 

An Online Book Project

 

As I stood in the parlor of Down House, it occurred to me that Emma and Charles were a couple worthy of a Jane Austen novel.  As I did my five turns around the Sandwalk, I started an ambition to achieve a novelist’s level of sympathy with this historic couple, if only to better understand Charles. 

 

What Charles and Emma wrote about their own personal views gives only partial insight.  Each had personal biases welling up from assumptions, of which even they were mostly unaware.  As we all are, Charles and Emma were children of their time and all that led up to that time.  Therefore, to properly interpret what they were thinking and feeling, we have to explore the history and philosophy and culture and society that influenced their thinking and feeling.  A daunting task indeed!

 

In July of last year (2008), I launched DarwinWatch on which I am posting a series of essays and book reviews I am writing as I read and think on this task.  Someday I plan to meld these into a book, which I may title Walking Fish: Charles and Emma Darwin on the Question of God.  There is no way to know how successful this project might be, but you may find my effort interesting to monitor on occasion.  I welcome your comments. 

 

Copyright 2009 by Chris Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Chris Dunford (www.darwinwatch.wordpress.com)

 

Autobiography of Charles Darwin: A Book Review and Reflection on the Personality

What better way to get started toward understanding Charles the Person than with his own words about himself.  In 1876, at age 67, seven years before his death, Charles wrote Recollections of the Development of my Mind and Character for the benefit of his wife, Emma, and his seven living children.  He begins with a passage that shows his humility and his intent:

 

A German Editor having written to me for an account of the development of my mind and character with some sketch of my autobiography, I have thought that the attempt would amuse me, and might possibly interest my children or their children.  I know that it would have interested me greatly to have read ever so short and dull a sketch of the mind of my grandfather, written by himself, and what he thought and did, and how he worked.  I have attempted to write the following account of myself, as if I were a dead man in another world looking back at my own life.  Nor have I found this difficult, for life is nearly over with me.  I have taken no pains about my style of writing.

 

Unlike his Victorian peers, his style of writing is easy, direct, approachable – and revealing.  I enjoyed these 79 pages more than any other by Charles Darwin.  Of course, it would not be important to read these recollections without his other more important books.   By 1876, Charles was aware of his global fame and therefore the public fascination with himself.  Were it not for the controversy he fueled in British society, he would have been knighted by Queen Victoria, as were some of his close friends (and, later, even some of his own sons).  Yet British society showed its enormous respect by interring the unknighted Darwin almost beside Sir Isaac Newton in Westminster Abbey. 

 

Charles’s Testament to His Heirs

 

He was pleased by the success of his books and his theory but distressed by the way his writing so distressed others.  A determinedly private man, Charles refused to engage publically with the socio-scientific-religious dust storm he had kicked up.  He fully expected a quiet burial in the Downe church cemetery, but this was not a man whose contribution to science and society lay undiscovered until after his death.  He had a profound effect on his peers, and he knew it.  Yet, in acceding to requests for his autobiography, he wrote as father and husband, aware that like his own curiosity to really know his nearly-as-famous grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, his children and grandchildren would want to know how he thought, worked and lived.  This was his testament to his heirs.

 

Can We Trust Charles’s Account of Himself?

 

Charles was aware of his success in achieving the scientific stature he clearly craved yet remarkably frank about his own shortcomings.  Did he engage in false humility?  Only a little, if at all.  Can we really trust what this man has written about himself?  Yes, I think we can.  Charles observed his own life with the same dispassionate acumen he applied to the natural world, but surely nothing is more difficult to observe with dispassion than one’s own life.  The best we can hope to get directly from Charles is an honest portrait of his self-image, an accurate rendition of what his memory chose to hold on to over the decades.  I suspect we do indeed get the best in this sense.  Emma Wedgwood, his wife and first cousin, knew Charles literally all his life and found him the most open man of her acquaintance (we would say “transparent” these days), a major reason she gave for falling in love with him.  His openness of mind and demeanor, and even writing style, made Charles stand out as exceptional in a generation given to artifice and ceremony.  By his nature, he seems worthy of our careful trust in what he has to say about himself.

 

A Passion for Collecting

 

Charles remembered that by the age of eight, “my taste for natural history, and more especially for collecting, was well developed.  I collected all sorts of things, shells, seals, franks, coins, and minerals.”  This passion for collecting extended in his teenage and university years to insects, especially beetles.  “But no pursuit at Cambridge was followed with nearly so much eagerness or gave me so much pleasure as collecting beetles.”  His mind kept “indelible impressions of many beetles” he encountered, as one might remember time, place, and circumstances of meeting a fascinating person.  Just by the subtle shift in his writing of these lines, an increased intensity and detail, I can sense his passion.  Today, Charles would certainly have become an avid birder, like me, keeping detailed lists of species seen, lists which evoke vivid, colorful, detailed memories of the birds themselves and the circumstances of finding them.  We share this odd collector’s mentality. 

 

A Passion for Shooting (and Keeping Records)

 

Unlike me, Charles also had a passion for shooting (we would call it “hunting” these days), which was how one studied birds in those days (the double-barreled shotgun was the predecessor of the double-barreled binocular).  His “zeal for shooting in autumn” extended to keeping “an exact record of every bird shot through the whole season” which made him the butt of jokes by his “wicked friends.”  “I must have been half-consciously ashamed of my zeal.  I tried to persuade myself that shooting was almost an intellectual employment.”

 

Youthful Shortcomings

 

I can see in this admission a reflection of Charles’s self-consciousness about his youthful shortcomings.  Respect for the intellectual life was instilled in him, no doubt, by his intellectually distinguished father and grandfather.  Respect for the industrious life was instilled, too, by his father, a well-regarded physician, and his uncle, Josiah Wedgwood II, who made Wedgwood china the dinnerware of royalty.  As a boy and even as a young man, Charles was neither intellectual nor industrious in usual sense.  He was never a good student.  To him a classical grade school education was a waste, most university lectures a tedious bore, “maths” was repugnant, and his medical education at Edinburgh was distressing, even haunting.  “During my whole life I have been singularly incapable of mastering any language.”  He was hilarious among friends for his tin ear and inability to remember even simple musical tunes.  He thought his school masters and his father considered him “a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard in intellect.”  His father even once made the stinging remark that “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.”  Charles excused this as an uncharacteristic outburst by “… the kindest man I ever knew, and whose memory I love with all my heart …” Nonetheless, the threat of disapproval by his beloved but remote father lingered long into Charles’s adult life.

 

Intelligently Curious and Socially at Ease

 

In contrast, Charles clearly possessed deep native intelligence and curiosity, as well as a confident and pleasing social character.  Reflecting more positively on his school life, he wrote “I had strong and diversified tastes, much zeal for whatever interested me, and a keen pleasure in understanding any complex subject or thing.”  He loved reading books, and regretted that later in life he lost all pleasure from poetry of any kind.  He often took long, solitary walks and loved to ride (horses, of course) across beautiful landscapes.  But Charles was hardly a loner.  He made many friends at school and considered his disposition to be very affectionate.  He was at ease in society and adept at making friends with those who shared his general interests in collecting, riding, and shooting – and later in science. 

 

A Companion of Distinguished Men of Science

 

Most important for an unaccomplished youth, Charles’s personal qualities of openness, enthusiasm, curiosity, drive to understand, passion for nature, personal charm, and gentleman’s manners enabled him to become the companion of several distinguished men of science, when science was still known as “natural philosophy” and not quite yet an acceptable university major.  These men, especially Cambridge University Professor Henslow, the pioneering botanist, saw more in Charles than he could see in himself.  As Charles put it, “Looking back, I infer that there must have been something in me a little superior to the common run of youths, otherwise the above-mentioned men, so much older than me and higher in academical position, would never have allowed me to associate with them.”

 

The Opportunity of a Lifetime

 

What they saw recommended him for the opportunity of a lifetime, to travel as Captain FitzRoy’s gentleman companion and unofficial ship’s naturalist on the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle to map the coasts of southern South America and to circumnavigate the globe to take chronometric measurements.  Charles’s personal qualities prepared him well for integration with the socially diverse crew of the Beagle for five long years, 1831-1836, and his many arduous collecting expeditions from various ports of call.  In these Recollections, Charles treats the voyage briefly, referring the reader to his first published  book on the topic, but he sums up simply, “The voyage of the Beagle has been by far the most important event in my life, and has determined my whole career …”  He felt he owed to the voyage his first real education.  “I was led to attend closely to several branches of natural history, and thus my powers of observation were improved, though they were always fairly developed.”

 

Imagine such a gift of opportunity to a young man!  It was almost a fluke, and he would have passed it up, except for the intervention of his Uncle Jos(iah Wedgwood II) with his skeptical father.  Unpromising as Charles was for a standard career in English society, his mentors recognized exceptional qualities that might be nurtured by an exceptional experience.  The voyage of the Beagle was one of many expeditions of exploration, especially following in the wake of Captain Cook’s voyages.  And many ship’s naturalists and medical officers collected specimens of all sorts and reported their findings to a society eager to learn about the world beyond Britain and Europe – in fact, Charles was able to draw on their work to put his own observations in global perspective.  To his generation, these voyages of discovery were equivalent in fascination to our exploration of space.  Even as late as the 1830s, it was still almost easy to discover something new and interesting for science and society simply by traveling the world.  If he could capture his observations and experiences in good English prose, his reports would have a guaranteed, eager audience.  However, there was nothing so unusual about Charles or the voyage of the Beagle that a scientific breakthrough would inevitably result.  His personal qualities, the mentors he gathered, and pure chance delivered him to this fabulous opportunity.  It was then solely up to Charles to make something very special of it.

 

Perspective Gained from Knowing the Young Man

 

Charles continued in his Recollections to briefly recount the people, places and events of his life from the departure of the Beagle from Portsmouth in December 1831 to his writing them down during May-August 1876.  I won’t summarize these recollections here, as the facts are recorded in other letters and books by and about Darwin.  I will review and reflect on many of these in later blog postings.  What is particularly important about his Recollections is that we have little else to tell us the story of Charles’s life and its influences during the formative years before his momentous voyage.  I believe that understanding the basic personality and the experiences that formed it into a young man is fundamental for putting his later life and work in proper perspective.  I will return to this theme repeatedly. 

 

I found Charles’s Recollections in a small volume reprinted from the Life of Charles Darwin, edited by his son, Sir Francis Darwin.  The volume was published as a small hardcover book, No. 7 in The Thinker’s Library, published by Watts & Co. (London) in 1929.  It is titled Autobiograhy of Charles Darwin with Two Appendices, comprising a Chapter of Reminiscences and a Statement of Charles Darwin’s Religious Views, by his Son, Sir Francis Darwin (Fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge).  I will review the chapter and statement by Charles’s son in upcoming postings.

 

Copyright 2008 by Chris Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Chris Dunford (www.darwinwatch.wordpress.com)


Welcome to DarwinWatch

This blog by Chris Dunford explores the meaning of Charles Darwin's life, work and words in relation to the Science-Religion Debate. It is committed to intellectual honesty and historical perspective. Please click on the "Why this Blog" tab under the banner photo to learn more. Started in July 2008, this has been a very slow work-in-progress. Be patient with me and check in occasionally, if only to enjoy the banner photo!