Darwin's Darkest Hour

A Review of the Television Drama
Steven Schafersman
Texas Citizens for Science
2009 October 7

Darwin's Darkest Hour -- a new drama about Darwin's decision to publish his work on evolution -- aired October 6 on public broadcasting stations around the country and is reviewed here. According to a press release:

NOVA and National Geographic Television presented the extraordinary human drama that led to the birth of the most influential scientific theory of all time. Acclaimed screenwriter John Goldsmith (David Copperfield, Victoria and Albert) brings to life Charles Darwin's greatest personal crisis: the anguishing decision over whether to "go public" with his theory of evolution. Darwin, portrayed by Henry Ian Cusick (Lost), spent years refining his ideas and penning his book the Origin of Species. Yet, daunted by looming conflict with the orthodox religious values of his day, he resisted publishing -- until a letter from naturalist Alfred Wallace forced his hand. In 1858, Darwin learned that Wallace was ready to publish ideas very similar to his own. In a sickened panic, Darwin grasped his dilemma: To delay publishing any longer would be to condemn all of his work to obscurity -- his voyage on the Beagle, his adventures in the Andes, the gauchos and bizarre fossils of Patagonia, the finches and giant tortoises of the Galapagos. But to come forward with his ideas risked the fury of the Church and perhaps a rift with his own devoted wife, Emma, portrayed by Frances O'Connor (Mansfield Park, The Importance of Being Earnest, Steven Spielberg's Artificial Intelligence), who was a strong believer in the view of creation and honestly feared for her husband's soul. Darwin's Darkest Hour is a moving drama about the birth of a great idea seen through the inspiration and personal sufferings of its brilliant originator.

Further information about the film, including a preview and interviews with John Goldsmith and Henry Ian Cusick, is available at NOVA's website. Information on finding local public broadcasting stations is available via PBS's website.

For the press release (PDF), visit: http://streams.wgbh.org/online/pressroom/2009_09/NOVAFall09.pdf

For further information about the film, visit: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/darwin/index.html

I really enjoyed Darwin's Darkest Hour. The story used many flashbacks to briefly show us some significant points in Darwin's career and for the most part presented them accurately. The script used many quotations from Darwin's letters and books to depict him truthfully. The high prevalence of infant mortality in the nineteenth century was dramatically illustrated. Darwin lost two sons in infancy, but the most devastating loss was his daughter Annie when she was ten. That was the end of whatever religious belief he had left. Anne Darwin--who was lovingly portrayed in the drama in flashbacks--was Darwin's favorite child. When she died of scarlet fever, he wrote in his personal journal, "We have lost the joy of the household, and the solace of our old age ... Oh that she could now know how deeply, how tenderly we do still & and shall ever love her dear joyous face." Annie died in 1851, seven years before the major events of the drama. The drama depicts the death of an infant son in 1858 in more detail.

The main story is Darwin's emotional reticence to publish his radical theory with all the evidence he had compiled that proved its truth. He knew there would be a public outcry and the prospect was unpleasant to him, since his wife was a religious believer as were other members of his family and friends, such as Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker. Finally Wallace's letter forced him to publish. Darwin's friends Lyell and Hooker arranged to publish simultaneously Wallace's letter and Darwin's earlier written--but never published--essay on evolution. After this was done Wallace gave Darwin complete priority when he learned that Darwin had come to the theory 20 years earlier and was still compiling evidence for his "big book." This book was never published in Darwin's lifetime but parts of it were published in The Origin of Species which Darwin quickly wrote using much of the information he had already compiled. The religious conflict between Darwin and his wife is mentioned but not really emphasized. Emma comes across as much more sympathetic to Charles and supportive of his goals than as someone who is hurt by his new scientific discovery that revolutionized the human relationship to nature and undermined Christian religious beliefs.

As is well-known, the joint publication of Darwin and Wallace's new hypothesis of natural selection had virtually no impact on biology, but Darwin's book about a year later finally had a major effect, since it had, in addition to proposing the hypothesis of natural selection in much greater detail, the much greater benefit of providing the abundant scientific evidence that species evolved, most of which was unknown to the public. Within a decade, evolution replaced creationism among almost all scientists and the educated public as the explanation for the origin of species, including humans. Natural selection, on the other hand, was not fully accepted by biologists until the 1930s, long after Darwin died.

Charles and Emma Darwin
Portrayed by Henry Ian Cusick and Frances O'Connor

The Charles Darwin depicted is very kind to his wife, explaining everything to her about his theory and asking for her help in editing letters and manuscripts. Emma is very supportive and enthusiastic for her husband's success. These two are the main characters of the drama, and both are portrayed by very attractive actors. I told my wife that "Emma is hot" and she replied "Darwin is hot, too." The story is a costume drama and very beautifully produced and filmed. A few minutes of extras at the end told us that all the scenes were shot in Nova Scotia, filling in for the beaches of Scotland and the Galapagos, the mountains of the Andes (with some CGI additions), the streets and buildings of London, and the English countryside, lakes, manors, and gardens.

Of great interest to me was the depiction of Darwin's father, Dr. Robert Darwin, who was the physician to many wealthy English aristocrats and businessmen and their families. His lucrative practice left him a wealthy man and enabled Charles to live the life of a gentleman scientist. Also, both Robert and Charles married Wedgwood daughters (Emma and Charles were first cousins!) who both inherited extremely large bequests upon the death of their fathers who were among the wealthiest men in England (and as has been recently revealed in Darwin's Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's Views on Human Evolution, the major financial supporters of the successful abolition movement in Britain). In the drama, Robert is depicted as a "Unitarian" like his father, the famous natural philosopher and writer Erasmus Darwin, but in fact both were nonbelievers who kept their religious views very private. Robert's first son and Charles' older brother, Erasmus, not pictured in this drama, was also a nontheist. Charles had been prepared for the Anglican clergy and was slow to adopt the religious beliefs of his male family members, but eventually did so.

In the drama, Robert advises his son during a carriage ride to be very careful about publicizing his new theory of evolution, because it would strike against the religious beliefs of much of his family and friends, dishearten them, and perhaps damage his reputation among the public (as in fact happened to Charles's grandfather Erasmus when he was publicly denounced by a conservative British MP) . Since Dr. Robert Darwin died in 1848, ten years before the main action of the drama, this carriage ride was fictional and the scene was created for dramatic effect. However, the sentiments are genuine, since Robert, unlike his father Erasmus and eventually his son Charles, shied away from all controversy. The earlier scene in which Robert berates his son and initially refuses to allow him to journey on the Beagle is also true.

Darwin's Darkest Hour did not portray the loss of Darwin's faith due to the problem of innocent suffering in nature, a theological problem that theodicy, a branch of Christian apologetics, tries to explain. However, the new movie Creation, starring another beautiful couple, Paul Bettany as Charles and Jennifer Connelly as Emma, does deal much more with Annie's death, Charles's loss of religious faith, and the sensitivity of Charles's conflict with Emma's devout Christian beliefs. This movie finally found a U. S. distributor after some controversy, and I hope to be able to see it in the near future. When I do, I will review it here.

For more insight into Darwin's loss of faith and the reasons for it, see my essay on Darwin Day. Humanity should celebrate Darwin Day every year, for Darwin was the first to attempt to understand and explain the human mind's connection to biological nature, which was ultimately his greatest discovery and the one that still haunts us the most today.

Last updated: 2009 October 7