Lana and I watched the movie Creation last night. (I had previously read the book on which the movie is based.) It’s a story about Charles Darwin’s work on his most famous book, The Origin of Species, and about the horrible loss he experienced when his ten year old daughter, Anne, died painfully after a long illness. Paul Bettany played Darwin, and Jennifer Connelly played his wife, Emma. The acting was outstanding, even though I don’t ever remember seeing Bettany in anything before.
Up front, I’ll tell you that the movie got many details wrong. I’ve made something of a study of Darwin’s scientific life and am working on my own book about him. The sequence about how Darwin came to do the final work on “Origin” and publish it were not accurate. Darwin also suffered himself from chronic ailments of the stomach, and the symptoms and sequences of his treatments were not portrayed quite right. There is no evidence that he really experienced the hallucinations he has in the movie. There was also too much emphasis put on the religious conflicts between Charles and Emma. In general, though, these did not much detract from the movie, and I imagine for someone less familiar with Charles’s life and work they would seem to be minor details.
I would not like anyone to watch this movie and think this was “exactly” how the publication of the “Origin” happened, but I wish a lot of people who seem to hate Darwin without knowing anything about him would watch it. A key thing it does is humanize him. Darwin was an intensely human person. He loved his wife and his many children. He took joy in good friends but also loved his time alone. He fought a war within himself about his religious beliefs, which changed over his lifetime, but he never considered himself to be at war with God. He was at times tormented by self-doubt, but he also believed he was uncovering real and important truths about the way the world worked. He had the ambitions of a scientist. He wanted to be remembered for his work. He also wanted to respect his wife’s beliefs. In short, he had the same kinds of strengths and failings that we see around us in others of the human race.
When Anne fell into the worst part of her illness, Charles took her to a hospital where he had himself been treated for his own ailments. Emma could not go, both because she was pregnant herself at the time, and also because of the other children. Charles went, and he was by Anne’s bedside at nearly every moment while she was dying. He grieved terribly afterward. The letters that he wrote to Emma almost every day are heartbreaking. One day he would be filled with hope for his daughter’s recovery, the next he would be sunk into despair and tell Emma to prepare herself for the worst. The worst came, and it is clear that Darwin never forgot.
I’ve said several times on this blog and others, that I respect plenty of people but that I don’t truly admire many real humans. I may admire the actions of many, but most “real” heroes have plenty of less than admirable characteristics. Darwin is really an exception for me. I do indeed admire him. His feet of clay are pretty minor compared to those of some others that people seem to admire. His good qualities are many. He was not perfect. But he tried hard to do what he thought was right. When my book on him is eventually finished, and hopefully published, the dedication will read: “To Charles Darwin. Who helped me see.”