The dramatic story of the origin of Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of the Species. The narrative that the filmmakers construct is that Darwin reluctantly embraced his theory because it went against the cherished Christian faith of his wife, Emma, whom he loved deeply. It depicts him as suffering physical illness because he considered the implications of this theory to be the “death of God,” and hope for the afterlife. It portrays him as eventually “giving in” to the idea of evolution through natural selection because it was the truth, and he had to follow the truth wherever it led him, even if away from his beloved Emma. So the thematic battle is between truth and love. Emma tells Charles, “We both know you are at war with God. It is a battle you cannot win.” But he does in this story. And at the end we hear him say, “If I am right, it changes everything. If all these things are lies: courage, honor, love. It would break your mother’s heart.” So evolution in this story is a totalizing methodology that transcends science and speaks to other disciplines, reducing ethics and morality and the supernatural to illusions, or worse, delusions.
It also shows Darwin’s wrestling with the notion of a loving God who allows a “wasteful process with so many deaths for so few to live.” It shows his deep love for his daughter Annie, who died young. Annie becomes Darwin’s existential dilemma of the “loving God paradox.” The pastor of the church preaches for Darwin’s ears, “Our miseries are not of a cold uncaring universe, but a wise loving parent.” “The Lord works, in mysterious ways,” to which Darwin responds with anger in telling his now infamous description of the special wasp that lays its eggs in a live caterpillar’s body, as well as the 900 species of parasites that live within our own intestines. There are a few creative sequences where the camera zooms into hyper detail of nature, such as a baby bird that falls from a tree and dies, gets eaten by maggots and other creatures and fertilizes the dirt where the grass grows, all in time lapse to show the “heartless” amoral process of nature. Another poignant moment occurs when Darwin shows his children on a nature walk a fox capturing a rabbit as prey. Although I found it an ironic contradiciton that the filmmaker does not show the actual fox catching and killing the rabbit. This moment, which would have been so powerful in expressing the brutish red in tooth and claw nature of his worldview, the filmmakers could not film, no doubt because of “animal rights” issues. As if there is morality that restrains us from shooting such natural events. “No animals were hurt in the filming of this movie” is really laughable in this context of evolutionary theory.
Notwithstanding theistic evolution, the film seems to make the assertion that evolution’s most important implication is its effect on religion. And religion is not given a good depiction here, well at least the dominant form of religion. Emma Darwin is depicted as sincere, devout and loving. It’s everyone else that is Christian that gets the big hit. To begin with, the movie starts with the title CREATION next to an outstretched fetus hand in the womb. The hand is in the symbolic referential gesture of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, only there is no God’s hand outstretched to give it life. Later in the film, Darwin tells a story about an orangutan in captivity and we see a human with outstretched hand to the ape, also reflecting the motif, but in this sense, about ancestral connection not deity. The opening title asserts that some consider Darwin’s idea to the “The single most important idea in the history of thought.” And why? Contextually it seems because “You killed God” as Thomas Huxley tells Darwin in the film. We hear Darwin refer to a tale of Beagle captain Colonel Fitzroy capturing some indigenous Fuegan natives whom he seeks to convert and civilize them with Christian culture. When Fitzroy brings the “civilized” natives back to their people to try to convert them, it fails, because as Darwin believed in the movie, nature was more powerful than culture, a common narrative in today’s post-Enlightenment world that has hatred for Western civilization founded on Christianity. The local pastor is depicted as making Annie suffer corporal punishment (kneeling on salt) for believing in dinosaurs (a newly discovered mystery at the time), which of course now that we know they were real, makes Christians look like “science deniers.” At the end, Charles takes over the fairy tale book that his wife is reading their kids and instead tells a “natural” story about a sloth in Argentina, thus metaphorically illustrating how his theory replaces narratives of imagination with narratives of “fact.”
But there is some very creative counterbalancing going on in this story as well. For, Emma is shown to be an artist, a piano player, who plays beautiful music as Charles descends into his science of details. I’m not sure the filmmakers are aware of this, but Charles actually did lose his appreciation for classical music which after a time became to him just a series of detailed notes and sounds due to his scientific atomism. His scientific reductionism ruined his ability to appreciate beauty.
Another ironic twist is that the movie does show the fallacious science of the times as well. Charles seeks remedy for his illness in various quack medicines from useless drugs to “hydrotherapy” and body wrapping. So modern medicine at least does not get a full pass and is shown to have its weaknesses. Which is true. For the history of science is itself replete with as many foolish beliefs and practices as any religion.
Yet another ironic twist of interest lies in the comparison of Charles and Emma with their beliefs. The filmmakers show Charles as acting more Christian in his love and Emma more evolutionary despite her faith. Charles loses his own faith in the process, but still loves his wife and family and misses his dear departed Annie. Now when Annie is dying, Charles brings her to a faraway doctor for hydrotherapy. Like Christ leaving the flock to save one sheep, Charles leaves his family of wife and 3 children to save the one child, an altruistic move entirely at odds with his own theory. Meanwhile, Emma turns to go with him, but when she looks upon her brood of three other children she decides to stay, a perfect picture of survival of the fittest, favoring the protection of the healthy and letting the weak go to the ravages of nature – at odds with her Christian faith, and for which she regrets later on. Then, when Charles goes with his daughter, he says his last prayer to a God he is not sure is there, “If it is in your power, to save her, I will believe in you the rest of my days. Take me in her place.” Christian Substitutionary atonement, not unlike Christ’s own vicarious act. The movie also shows through intercutting and montage that Charles vicariously goes through the therapy with his daughter, at least in a spiritual sense. So we see Charles unable to live out the implications of a theory which he believed decimated the notion of love and sacrifice and courage. But we also see his Christian wife unwittingly living out his theory of natural selection.
And now, one of the most powerful thematic twists. At the end, Charles hands her his newly completed manuscript for the Origin and tells her that “Someone needs to take God’s side in all this.” He gives her the decision of what to do with it, to burn it or publish it – all up to her, after reading it. I don’t know if this really happened, but it is the ultimate sacrifice of truth for the sake of love that I can see. Contrary to his “scientific” devotion to truth, Darwin chooses love over truth. But then Emma decides to let him publish it, apparently also out of love for him instead of what she thought was truth. She tells him, “And so you’ve finally made an accomplice of me. May God forgive us both.” So no one is entirely consistent with their beliefs. Theistic evolutionism doesn’t get a voice in this story, as the notion of evolution and God are made to appear dichotomous opposites, as if God cannot achieve his purposes through evolution.