Saturday, February 19, 2011


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.”


Tom Doolan said...

Interesting. I will have to see this film (if for no other reason than Jennifer Connolly is my Celebrity Girlfriend). :)

It sounds like they did the same thing they did for the fictionalized bio-pics of Bruce Lee (Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story) and Robert E. Howard (The Whole Wide World). They changed a lot of details for dramatic purposes, but in the end, they were true to the spirit of the subject person, and showed respect for them.

David Cranmer said...

Well I have to see this film. I know very little about Darwin. And Tom has reminded me I need to see The Whole Wide World.

Evan Lewis said...

Dang, this sound pretty good!

Deka Black said...

This is a movie i fear banned in many idiot places. About "real" heroes, i fear the problem is that there is too few of them. And between them, the majority have flaws shadowing his achievemets.

Golden Eagle said...

I once saw another movie based on the story of Darwin's life and read a book on him--he was one interesting person.

Steve Malley said...

He truly was an admirable man... :)

Ron Scheer said...

I saw this film a few months ago and had to scramble for memories of it as I read your review. I appreciate the depth of your feeling for the man and am pleased to know that the film is more or less truthful. You never know.

Your comment on admiration reminds me that I picked up a book my son gave me long ago by Vaclav Havel. His ruminations on heroism and integrity are along lines seldom fully understood by people who throw around the terms. I want to report on some of his thoughts in my own blog soon.

Charles Gramlich said...

Tom, yes, she is a lovely lady. I’ve liked her in just about everything I’ve seen her in. The Whole Wide World was probably more true to Howard than Creation but it certainly had a kind of similar feel.

David Cranmer, The Whole Wide world is a virtual masterpiece. Well worth seeing.

Evan Lewis, it was enjoyable. Both Lana and I agreed.

Deka Black, There is a lot of anger at Darwin in various places and it’s really due to ignorance about what he did and how he went about it. I hope my book will dispel some of that.

The Golden Eagle, he truly was the epitome of a scientist, I think.

Steve Malley, I agree, and I never say that lightly.

Ron Scheer, that Havel books sounds worth reading. I think it’s OK to refer to somebody as being heroic in certain circumstances, but then to hold that person up as the ‘epitome’ of what people should strive to be in all aspects of their lives? Well, that too often means whitewashing their failures and we’ve all got them.

Jeff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
sage said...

Nice review. The movie sounds interesting and you are right that those who seem to be the most critical of Darwin has never read him (by why would you need to read him when you can have someone else who hasn't read him tell you how bad he is. Sage, you're not being very nice...)

pattinase (abbott) said...

Darwin is one of those people who has always fascinated me too.

Erik Donald France said...

I never even hear about this one -- zowie! Thanks, it's in the pipeline now. I do dig Jennifer Connelly and Darwin so between the two, I'll be riveted, no doubt.

Lisa said...

I don't know anything about Darwin other than he had theories about evolution. Was he the first person to ever discover it, that everything evolves? It would certainly be interesting to know the stories behind his discoveries, you know like how Newton discover gravity. And I definite look forward to your book.

Movies tend to be inaccurate in order to make things more dramatic, unlike books where writers do more than just research, they inevitably have to become involve.

Deka Black said...

I hope too Charles.

Charles Gramlich said...

sage, not nice, but accurate!

patti, He was a visionary in many ways, and yet supremely mundane in many others. I do find him very interesting.

Erik Donald France, Connelly did a really good job of acting. Really brought Emma to life.

Ocean Girl, Darwin wasn't the first to discuss evolution but is generally known for being the first to come up with a workable mechanism for how it happened, called Natural selection.

Deka Black, :)

ivan said...

Ocean girl above, has raised in interesting point--at least interesting to me.

Seems to me you have to take Darwin in context.
Most people in Europe in the 19th century went with Jesus, but Darwin may have gone with Lucretius, who speculated on the origin of the species long before Jesus was born... It was certainly a radical thing in 19th century Europe to say that the earth was older, way older than four thousand years; but the evidence was already found in the rocks.

But the attitude known as Darwinism is today mined with pitfalls and medieval folk who see The Man as their personal saviour, and that science be condemned to Hell.

Yet I argue with Darwinism, but not for religious reasons.

Jumpy, high on eight cups of coffee, I wanna argue with Darwin and other upper class Englishmen who think they were just the cat's ass.
But today, it's more like Schroedinger's Cat, who, depending on time and space can be both dead and alive at the same time, if you can hope to understand quantum mechanics. And they tell me once you think you understand quantum mechanics--you really don't.

The queer phenomana of quantum mechanics may yet trump anything Darwin would have had to say.

Quantum Darwinism is a new theory recently developed by physicist Wojciech Zurek and his collaborators that may herald an immensely important addition to the field of Universal Darwinism. Universal Darwinism teaches us that emergent phenomenon, where complex organization arises from chaotic building blocks, may be indicative of the unexpected existence of a new Darwinian process.

In a word, I would say that photosynthesis in plants started life, and the process is weird-- as deep water plants somehow rearraged their atoms to eventually get at scarce photons coming from the sun. This can only be explained by quantum mechanics, as you had to have atoms being in two places at once to achieve photosynthesis...Sort of Quark-like.

Then come complex organisms, but their development may be more like quirks and quarks than pure natural selection.

To the way my mind works, it seems the answer is always couched in humour.

Darwin would certainly not say it about Lucrecius, but other upperclass Englishmen might say, "Lucrecius? That wog? What does he know?"

And the same for that Polack dude Wojciech Zurek?


Is is possible that Darwinism just reinforces British upperclass superiority? Entitledment?

Randy Johnson said...

Not familiar at all with this one. Will likely seek it out though. As others have said, I don't know a lot about Darwin, but any time I watch a "biographical" film, I take it with a grain of salt. Hollywood has never been one to let the truth stand in the way of a story.

Lana Gramlich said...

That's a wonderful dedication, hon. As for other things Bettany has been in, he played;
Chaucer in "A Knight's Tale,"
Dr. Maturin in "Master & Commander,"
Silas in "The DaVinci Code,"
Dustfinger in "Inkheart,"
Michael in "Legion,"
(The voice of) Jarvis in "Iron Man" (I & II,)
and others...

JR's Thumbprints said...

This was not one of my more memorable films; yet, my wife and daughter absolutely loved it. As for artistic license to bend the truth, I hate movies that do that.

Travis Cody said...

I enjoyed this post. I don't know much about Charles Darwin, other than the standard information one learns in school. It was quite interesting to read your thoughts here.

Incidentally, I enjoy Paul Bettany. I first saw him as Geoffrey Chaucer in the move A Knight's Tale, which is a delightful comedy also starring the late Heath Ledger. Mr Bettany also appeared as Silas the Albino in The DaVinci Code.

Charles Gramlich said...

ivan, Darwinism per se is dead of course. No modern scientists excepts every tenet proposed by Darwin. The modern theory is called Modern synthesis or Neo-Darwinism, and combines Darwinian natural selection and sexual selection along with genetics. Darwin certainly didn’t know how life began, and Darwin’s theory had nothing to say at all about the beginning of life, only what happened to that life after it appeared. There are some provocative theories about how life began. I’ve heard something about the Quantum concept but haven’t read much about it. Darwin’s ideas, along with modern genetics, certainly won’t be superseded by Quantum theory. Or at least that possibility seems vanishingly remote. They generally involve different levels of analysis. Darwin’s concepts could be twisted around to support British imperialism at the time, or many other phenomenon, but Darwin was doing science, not politics. Social Darwinism has long since been proven untrue, and Darwin would likely have been appalled at that misuse of his theory.

Randy Johnson, they definitely did not this time. I would have preferred it to be more true to life but was not horrifically bad as some biopics have been.

Lana Gramlich, I definitely remember him as Chaucer. He did well in that. I don’t remember much in the others, though I saw Master and Commander and Legion. They used so much makeup in Legion, though.

JR's Thumbprints, it seemed to be directed toward women viewers more than men. The worst thing is that there was plenty of drama anyway without the need to alter things.

Travis Cody, I did see the Da Vinci Code but don’t remember any of the actors other than the main one. I did like him as Chaucer, though. A nice turn.

Anonymous said...

As always a brilliant and knowledgeable post. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

As always a brilliant and knowledgeable post. Thank you.

ivan said...


Just a point of information. I had intened to add Lucritius in the raw as a footnote to my comment above:


Everything is transformed by nature and forced into new paths. One thing dwindles . . . another waxes strong. In those days, many species must have died out altogether and failed to multiply. Every species that you now see drawing the breath of life has been preserved from the beginning of the world by cunning, prowess, or speed.

Still think Darwin was such hot stuff?

jodi said...

Charles-what a great review. I do want to see that movie. I think Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany are married to each other, but don't quote me.

Cloudia said...

You have made me think deeply and rewarding-ly about my own thinking, writing, methods.

You are a treasure!

Aloha from Honolulu
So SORRY I've been missing too long!

Comfort Spiral


Travis Erwin said...

I look forward to reading it to learn more.

Charles Gramlich said...

Richard Godwin, thanks, man. I appreciate you dropping by.

ivan, I don't have anything against Lucretius. By Darwin's time, the concept of evolution was in the air and that's part of the zeitgeist that made it possible for Darwin to do his thing. But, for one, evolution isn't the same as natural selection. Natural selection is the engine that drives it. The quote you give for Lucretius uses the term transform but does not identify natural selection as an element of speciation. Second, I don't admire Darwin strictly for the development of natural selection, since it turns out other writers before him had also uncovered the basic concept. But none of them put together the massive amount of evidence that Darwin did to support the concept. As you know from writing, ideas are really a dime a dozen. What's important is the sheer labor involved in fleshing those ideas out. That's where Darwin was indeed "hot stuff."

jodi, I didn't know they were married until Lana told me that just about an hour ago. That's kind of cool.

Cloudia, I'm blushing. Thanks. No problem on visits or anything. I've been having a hard time getting around to everyone this past week for sure myself.

Jodi MacArthur said...

Wow. So much emotion and passion in this post. I can tell how much this project means to you. One of things I really appreciate about you (and it shows so much in your writing) is your passion for the struggle and searching for truth. Darwin had this too. I feel that it's not about who is right or wrong, but that one cares enough to search for it. I really look forward to the completion of your science book and will definitely check out this movie.

Charles Gramlich said...

Jodi, there's a pretty famous quote by Dawkins about how Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled athiest. One point I'm going to make in my book is that Darwin really made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled believer in God.

BernardL said...

I hope your book on Darwin is well received when you finish it. I know you enjoy the research involved in a subject you find compelling. Are you pursuing his personal life more or Darwin's scientific method relating to his studies?

Unknown said...

This is on my "list" but haven't seen it as yet, so I thank you for the review. And I, personally, would never see a movie and think it was "exact"; not sure the movie folks know what that word means!

Harry Markov said...

Creative freedom. I think it had to do with creating more drama that the people behind the movie amped up the conflict between the scientific and the religious.

I know it's inaccurate, though I do not know how exactly. BTW Betany is Connolly's husband and he starred in a rather bloated religious horror, called Legion.

Kathleen A. Ryan said...

Thanks for sharing your insights about Darwin and this movie. I will definitely look out for it.

I thought Bettany's performance was outstanding in "A Beautiful Mind" (which starred Jennifer Connelly, too ~ and she picked up an Oscar for Supporting Actress). If you've never seen it, you'd be in for a treat.

Charles Gramlich said...

BernardL, it's mostly his scientific achievements, although I do talk about his family life as affecting his beliefs and his publishing plans.

Gaston Studio, I think you're right. I just do see folks, my students at times for example, who believe biopics are exact.

Harry Markov, I actually saw Legion but don't remember him in it. I don't often remember actors in general. Lana told me they were married after I'd posted this. I didn't realize that. Another example of beauty and the beast maybe!

Kathleen A. Ryan, I have not seen a Beautiful Mind. I actually tend to avoid movies with a psychological bent to them, but I should definitely see that one.

Harry Markov said...

He was Michael.

Charles Gramlich said...

Harry, I only vaguely remember the names but if I look it up on the movie data base I'll need that name so thanks.

X. Dell said...

(1) That last paragraph brings to mind something you wrote about Martin Luther King in Write with Fire.

(2) I dunno if humanizing Darwin, or even understanding his theory is the point, anymore. People hate Darwin because, as an iconic figure, he's gotten mixed up in this war of competing ideologies: one based in humanism, the other based on faith and doctrine. I've often found that in such battles, the truth never matters. What you're watching is a contest of wills.

Charles Gramlich said...

X-dell, I agree, although it rather sickens me. The truth doesn't matter is a key to at least one side of this argument it seems, and it's part of the reason I'm writing the book.