The Urban Scientist

Science on the Big Screen

A special showing of the movie Creation reminds us of the impact of a radical idea

November 2, 2010

Three Englishmen walk along a wooded pathway, their discussion as brisk as their steps. One, a comically short biologist, stops the group abruptly and looks up at his companion with the receding hairline and mutton chops. With confidence that leaves his friend tugging at his thinning hair, he says what the other two do not want to admit: “You’ve killed God, sir. You have killed God.”

To this, the packed audience in Elebash Hall at the City University of New York let out a collective murmur. The mutton-chopped killer is, of course, Charles Darwin, and the scene is from Creation, a movie that has given a popular voice to the famous naturalist and his theory of natural selection. Clearly, the implications of Darwin’s ideas still incite strong reactions, even after we’ve had 150 years to put them in perspective. And in Darwin’s time, geneticist Clifford Tabin said, the reaction was even more profound: “Religion was so fundamental to the way that people conducted their lives that [his ideas] just shook the very foundation of life.”

Creation, based on the book Annie’s Box written by Darwin’s great-great-grandson Randal Keynes, is a dramatic treatment of Darwin’s life between the end of his voyage on the HMS Beagle and the publication of On the Origin of Species. The movie was late to find a distributor in the United States, purportedly because the theory of evolution depicted in the film was too controversial for the American public.

A Gallup poll that coincided with Darwin’s 200th birthday and the release of the film supported that interpretation, reporting that 25 percent of Americans don’t believe in evolution and 36 percent simply have no opinion on the matter. Jon Amiel, the film’s director, attributed some of the problems with distribution to the “hypersensitivity of [movie] studios to the ghastly moral majority” of the United States. On October 20 at CUNY, Amiel joined Keynes and the eminent biologists Tabin and Sean Carroll in a screening and discussion of the film mediated by science writer Carl Zimmer.

Despite the controversy inherent in its subject matter, the film handles the theologically sensitive portions of Darwin’s theory artfully, a conscious choice made by Amiel. The story emphasizes the profound difficulty Darwin had in reconciling his religious faith, which was deeply tied to his wife Emma, with his then-heretical views on evolution. Carroll, a man who wears many hats as a researcher, educator and author, emphasized that Darwin’s dilemma was the same as many who still struggle between science and faith. “He’s somebody that just followed his curious mind, starting from a complete literal belief in the Bible to having thoughts that contradicted orthodox theology,” Carroll said in an interview.

Though Creation got over the hurdle of finding a distributor in the United States, it still hasn’t reached a wide audience: on its opening weekend, the movie played on seven screens and brought in just over $50,000. But both Carroll and Tabin expressed the hope that the film will do some work in advancing both Darwin’s ideas and the scientific process as a whole for those who choose to see it.

By revealing the human, emotional side of a revered scientist—someone who is typically depicted as “logical, rational, cool and sober,” said Keynes—audiences may become more invested in the scientific drama of observation and experimentation. And without the “process of testing, of rubbing your ideas up raw against all the information that you can find,” as Carroll described it, Darwin wouldn’t have published one of the greatest ideas in the history of thought.

About the Author

Katie Palmer

Katie Palmer graduated from Williams College with a B.A. in chemistry and a concentration in neuroscience, though her classmates knew her best as “that cellist.” Guided by interests in cognitive science and neuroscience, she has probed rat brains for hints of anxiety traits and attempted to reconcile consciousness with the reality of the nervous system. Katie hopes to follow these topics and more in the process of bringing science to the public. You can follow her on her personal webpage or on Twitter.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


The Scienceline Newsletter

Sign up for regular updates.