Creation, a Missed Opportunity

The Illustrated Origin of Species
The Illustrated Origin of Species Wikimedia Commons

When the movie Creation, about Charles Darwin, opened in British theaters last September, it looked as if Americans might never see the film on the big screen. It had difficulty picking up a distributor here in the United States, and there was speculation that the country might be too religious for a movie about the author of On the Origin of Species.

Newmarket Films eventually bought the film, though, and it opens in U.S. theaters on January 22. (If you're in the Washington, D.C. area, the National Academies of Science and Newmarket Films are offering an advance screening of the movie on January 13 to be followed by a discussion with the film's director and writer and experts on evolutionary science.)

But I personally was never too worried about whether the movie would ever play in this country because I was headed for Cambridge, England, home to Darwin's alma mater. And it's there that I saw the film along with a friend, another science writer.

Creation tells the story of Darwin's life just before he published On the Origin of Species. During this time—at least according to the movie—Darwin is struggling with the death of a beloved daughter, Annie, as well as the religious implications of his years of research. That all plays out in the conflict between him and his deeply religious wife and in Darwin's struggle to complete his revolutionary book. (Science magazine summed up the movie thus: "Instead of dramatizing how Darwin traveled the world and arrived at the most explosive idea in history, Creation is ultimately about the world’s biggest case of writer’s block.")

The movie is beautiful, both visually and in the acting. I walked out of the theater having added Darwin's Down House to my list of places I must one day visit. And I can forgive the moviemakers for making their "true story" not quite so true—it is just a movie after all.

But as I sat through the credits with my science writer friend, she quickly picked out our problem with the film: "There was no science," she said.

For example, Darwin has a collection of pigeons and goes through some trouble to prepare their skeletons, but why was he breeding them? In other scenes, he tells Annie's ghost the story of Jenny the orangutan, an animal that helped Darwin to his conclusions in The Descent of Man. However, if you had never read that book, Jenny's tale ends up little more than a children's story, as do other bits of Darwin's past.

There is only a small bit of explanation missing, but those missing bits would have helped explain how Darwin came to his conclusions about evolution and why those theories brought him into such conflict with the religious beliefs of his wife. The movie could have been a great way to teach people about Darwin and evolution. Instead, it's just a pretty film.

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