Arts and Culture

Evolution Can’t Tell Darwin’s Story

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 01/26/2010

Creation, a film about Charles Darwin’s personal life, is not a rant against God or even a story of the heroism of one man crusading for science against religion. Surprisingly, the movie is not polemical. It doesn’t bother to argue against religion, nor does it spend time arguing for the truth of evolution. It’s clear that the filmmakers assume this fight has already been won, and so the issues remain in the background. Instead, the story focuses on the inner struggle of Darwin who is suffering to the point of illness due to his daughter’s death and his indecision about whether or not to finish and publish On the Origin of Species—a book that his religious wife does not want him to write.

Throughout this story of Darwin’s struggle, the movie doesn’t hurl anger at God or religion. God is merely...absent, unreal. Religion is clichés and traditions, kindly enough for the most part, but impotent. Darwin gives up on it altogether after hearing a sermon about how “not one sparrow will fall to the ground apart from the will of God” (a verse that got a scornful chuckle from the audience member next to me). As one who surrounds himself with things of death—dead animals hang from his workroom ceiling as they wait to become skeletons, skulls line his office, and all of nature’s cruelties in the struggle for survival constantly engage his thoughts—he knows there is no God who sees the death and suffering that has been driving all the species of the world since life began. The death of his daughter is to him just one more example of the ugliness of the stark, purposeless, unfeeling truth of animal life, weak genes, and the survival of the fittest.

No, religion in Creation is simply a thing that will eventually pass away due to its lacking any usefulness. But religion is not singled out for the viewer as the only thing unworthy of the Darwins’ faith. While Darwin’s wife, Emma, seeks help in religion, Darwin seeks help in medicine; and we are keenly aware, watching this movie from our perspective, just how impotent nineteenth century medicine is—special water baths, bleeding, etc. We are expected, as viewers, to recognize that neither of these refuges—religion or medicine—has the power to save, and they must evolve into something better in the future if they are to survive.

As with religion and medicine, the evolutionary ideas Darwin is exploring in his research do come into the story, but the film’s point is not, ultimately, about biological evolution. Darwin’s atheistic, evolutionary view of the world merely forms the framework used by the filmmakers to shed light on his inner struggle. Everything moves from lower to higher, death to greater life. And as passages of Darwin’s words from Origin are carefully placed throughout the story, as evolution is used to visually reflect the rise of Darwin’s soul from despair to redemption through the love and forgiveness of his wife, one comes to see the irony of using this framework: In the end, Creation turns out to be the same old Christian story of sin, guilt, spiritual death, love, forgiveness, new life, and reconciliation.

At one point in the movie, a doctor tells Darwin that he must find faith if he wants to get better. Not faith in God, necessarily, just faith. I assume that by “faith” he meant a belief and trust in something real and worthwhile that would give him a reason to live. Darwin does find his “faith,” regain his health, and finish his book, but exactly what the turning point consists of is not clear. The beginning of it occurs before he is reconciled to his wife and is never really explained. But one thing the filmmakers intended to say is made clear from the triumphant voiceover of (presumably) bits of Origin at the end of the movie: “From suffering and death, higher beings emerge”* The filmmakers (and, one would assume, Darwin) have found purpose in suffering. Just as struggle and death in the animal kingdom brought about “greater” beings, so too did good come out of Darwin’s suffering.

Surprisingly, they alight on part of the Christian answer—that suffering brings about a greater good—despite the fact that using images and ideas of atheistic evolution to tell a story with this moral creates a curious contradiction. In a world of random molecules, there is no such thing as “greater,” or “higher,” or “good.” Such things do not objectively exist in a universe that has neither purpose nor standard, so one can’t make value judgments about either one biological creature over another or one state of mind over another.

And yet the movie persists not only in doing this, but also in urging us to rise above the base evolutionary struggle (as if there were such a thing as “above”). When Darwin and his wife reconcile, Emma says she is not sorry that she married him, her first cousin, even though they suspect the weakened genes of their children caused the deaths of two of them (the “sin” of Darwin’s world)—she is not sorry, because she loves him. The film, through Emma, shows that we are more than mere animals making decisions according to “survival of the fittest”; love is a “higher” calling. The movie asserts this within an atheistic world, but how can a materialist, evolutionary world, with nothing existing higher than nature as a standard towards which we must strive, explain this?

The use of the story of materialism to show the power of decidedly non-material, spiritual things (things that are even more powerful than the science of medicine in this film) is jarring, but the contradiction couldn’t be avoided. To tell a good, human story, one must speak of the non-material realities we experience. And if one’s worldview can’t support such things, one must borrow from another that can.

When the movie ended, I could hear people commenting on how depressing it was, and they were right. They weren’t sidetracked by Darwin’s perplexing personal triumph at the end. The movie spent much time bombarding us with Darwin’s view of the world—the reality of the impersonal and never-ending death, suffering, and decay on which this atheistic universe has built itself for no purpose whatsoever. There is no one above the creaturely struggle who will set things right, no one out there who recognizes our grief, no standard of “higher” and “lower,” no purpose or point. Death just is and will be. And despite Darwin’s change of heart, no real answer is ever given to us by the filmmakers to change these facts, and the people around me knew it. Darwin overcame, yes, but for no intellectual reason we could discover.

*Quote may not be exact.