Thursday, February 11, 2010
The great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin talks about the new release of the film "Creation," opening in San Diego in February, and the controversy in the U.S. surrounding Darwin's theory of evolution.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Evolution is still a controversial subject in the United States. We've see polls that show only about 40% of Americans believe that humans evolved through natural selection. So, it's really not surprising that a movie that goes to the heart of the conflict between evolution and creationism has had a hard time getting exposure in the United States. That movie is called "Creation," and it's based on the book of the same name written by Randal Keynes. It tells the story of Charles Darwin's monumental scientific breakthrough in terms of its effect on his family. And the author should know that better than most; he happens to be the great-great grandson of Charles Darwin. Randal Keynes, welcome to These Days and thanks so much for speaking with us.
RANDAL KEYNES (Author): Oh, glad to talk.
CAVANAUGH: The film “Creation,” as I say, based on your book, “Creation: Darwin, His Daughter and Human Evolution.” Now, tell us about his daughter.
KEYNES: Darwin’s daughter Annie was his first daughter. He had 10 children in all. She was the first daughter and she lived only to the age of 10. And while she was alive, she was loved by everyone who knew her, especially by Darwin and his wife Emma. She was obviously a very special child and when she was 9, she started being ill and had a long illness that no one could explain. And when she died shortly after her 10th birthday, Darwin and Emma were both deeply distressed and both had great difficulty in coming to terms with her death but eventually managed to.
CAVANAUGH: What an original concept, really, to tell this story of Charles Darwin through such an emotional and tragic experience in his own family. I wonder, where did you get the idea to do this book?
KEYNES: I got the idea from a little writing case that I found in a chest of drawers that my father had, which was full of keepsakes from the Darwin family. My grandmother was Darwin’s granddaughter. All of this material had been passed down in the chest of drawers and I was looking in it one day for material just to throw some light on Darwin’s life with his family, which I was mildly interested in. I opened this box, saw that it was a child’s writing case, and saw a note folded in it which I recognized at once as having been written by Darwin. It was headed ‘Annie’s Illness.’ And as I read it, I saw that he must’ve been caring for her for some months, very closely, day by day in a terrible illness. And that then from other things in the box, she must’ve died. And I found out about her death and Darwin’s and Emma’s feeling about her and realized that this box had in it traces of a story that really shows Darwin in a very different light from the one that we’re used to seeing him in as the scientist of the struggle for existence. And as I found more out about the story, I realized there was a book to be written in order to show this Darwin that I think few people had an understanding of.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Randal Keynes and he’s the author of the book “Creation,” and there’s a movie of the same name that is opening soon in San Diego. Can you tell us a little bit more about what you learned from this box that you found that tells us something about Charles Darwin that perhaps we didn’t know?
KEYNES: The main point in the box was that in her last illness, Darwin had been caring for her and watching her every day and night. He had also, I gathered when I deciphered some of the points in the note, been giving her different kinds of treatments over the days and weeks and then noting whether she was better or worse that day and through into the evening. And it was clear that he was varying the treatments and what he was actually doing, I discovered, was trying to be scientific and trying to find a treatment that worked because the doctors couldn’t help and he was just using his instincts as a scientist to see if he could save her life.
CAVANAUGH: Now as we learn more about the relationship between Charles Darwin and his daughter Annie, we learn about his entire family relationship and we learn how his scientific breakthrough with evolution really affected deeply and personally his family life. Tell us more about that.
KEYNES: The main point that Darwin found as he developed his theory that bore on his life with his wife Emma and the children that they had was that humans were part of the story of evolution of plants and animals that he was discovering. And this meant that he was specially interested in how close we were to animals, also animals were to us. And he looked at the similarities between us and the great apes clearly and fearlessly. It’s also affected his feelings about scripture and the truth of the Book of Genesis as an account of – as a historical account of how we were – how the, you know, earth was formed and creatures were created. And it also caused a great difficulty because while he gave up his faith more and more as he learned more about – worked out more of his theory, his wife Emma was also – well, started off as a committed Christian and stayed as one. She didn’t want to give up her theory – sorry, she didn’t want to give up her faith for her husband’s theory. And the drama, the difficulty in their life together and with their children when they suffered the death of a daughter and other problems was that she was committed to faith, he was trying to manage without it, and they had to work out how to live with each other with that divide between them.
CAVANAUGH: It’s fascinating how Charles Darwin’s own life seems to mirror some of the deep problems that people have had through all of this time now with the theory of human evolution. I’m wondering, why did you want this story to become a film?
KEYNES: I felt that there was value in this story partly because, just as you say most helpfully, there is this reflection of the difficulties that he and Emma lived through as he was writing the book and deciding whether to publish it, and the difficulties that so many people have had ever since and we still aren’t – you know, there’s still major disagreement about. It was just that link that made this worth turning into a film. It wouldn’t have been interesting to an audience if it wasn’t a current issue.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Randal Keynes who’s written the book “Creation” and the movie “Creation” is based on that book. It will be opening in San Diego this month. We have to take a short break. When we return, we will continue our conversation. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.
CAVANAUGH: You're listening to These Days on KPBS. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and I’m speaking with Randal Keynes, conservationist and author. The film “Creation” was based on his book “Creation: Darwin, His Daughter and Human Evolution.” The film stars Paul Bettany as Darwin. Jennifer Connelly plays his wife Emma. And Randal Keynes happens to be Charles Darwin’s great-great grandson. Now the movie “Creation” was released last summer but at first it couldn’t find a distributor in the United States because it was deemed too controversial. And I’m wondering, Randal, what do you think about America’s reaction to the film?
KEYNES: I was very unhappy when I was told that the production company was having difficulty finding a distributor in the states because I felt so strongly that the film has something to say, something really valuable to convey about Darwin and does it absolutely wonderfully with Paul Bettany’s and Jennifer Connelly’s performances, which are really outstanding, very special. I can’t really say anything about the views of people on Darwin’s theory. It’s for everyone to decide themselves how to reconcile the faith and evolution or to reject one for the other.
CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you, though. I think that I understand that there is no similar controversy in Great Britain or in most of Europe, that the theory of evolution is rather a settled question there.
KEYNES: It’s not that everyone has the same view, it’s that the argument isn’t taken up and pressed so publicly. I’m not sure what the figures are for the number of people in Britain who believe in evolution; it’s probably higher than in the states. The main difference though is that it is a matter of public controversy in the states and it’s of less interest to people as a matter of controversy in England.
CAVANAUGH: Now you wrote an essay for the Wall Street Journal that Darwin and his wife Emma—and this is really rather ironic—they felt a kinship toward America for its open-mindedness at the time that Darwin was publishing his book and it was creating such a furor. They even considered moving to the U.S. because of that open-mindedness. And I’m wondering if you have a feeling about what Darwin might think of American attitudes today?
KEYNES: I think that’s a very good question and my immediate reply to it is that at the moment there are many people in the states who are arguing about and for Darwin’s theories who I think Darwin would be as grateful to as he was to the people he knew in America in his lifetime who had open minds and were eager to think about the issues that he had to offer.
CAVANAUGH: I’d like to ask you about how the theory of human evolution, even though Darwin tried not to go there, tried not to bring it to that ultimate end in the public discussion, I wonder how that did affect his relationship with his peers and how he reacted to the storm of controversy that this let loose?
KEYNES: He was very upset about – Well, he was very upset that it was going to be considered so shocking, that his theory was going to be considered so shocking. He wanted – He realized it was challenging and he wanted people to open their minds to it and just give it careful thought. He was upset by the fierceness of the attacks he could expect and also how – by how he knew many people would just shut their minds closed, and that was a matter of great distress for him. As things turned out, by about 10 years after the publication of the “Origin,” he found that so many people had become quite relaxed about the whole idea, the possibility, he was able to write his second book in which he explained all his thinking about the relation of humans to animals. And by that time, the difficulty that he had over publication was over largely because so many people had come to see the sense and wisdom and value in the first book, “The Origin of Species.”
CAVANAUGH: Now, as I mentioned in my opening, not only are you a writer, an author, Randal Keynes, but also a conservationist. And so much of our understanding of the environment and our modern understanding of biology stems from the theory of evolution. Do you – I wonder what kind of a personal debt you feel to your great-great grandfather?
KEYNES: I feel a huge personal debt to him because I’ve so enjoyed and learned so much from finding out about his life and reading all his books and ideas. I think we all owe him a great debt because in the present planetary crisis of loss of species and natural habitats, he really gave us the first clear account of the wonder of the diversity of life on earth and its value in the book “The Origin of Species.” And remember how it ends with the sentence, ‘there is grandeur in this view of life that’s as the planet has gone rolling on through the heavens.’ I can’t get the words exactly right. He concludes ‘endless forms, most beautiful and most wonderful, have been and are being evolved.’ That’s his final line on the diversity of life, the endless forms. We owe him that realization and we owe it to him to do what we can to preserve it.
CAVANAUGH: Now, as I said, in some areas of the country, of the United States, among some sectors of our population, this – the theory of evolution is still controversial. And I just – I saw the art that accompanies the motion picture and what – the photograph that is on the title is a chimpanzee reaching his finger to Paul Bettany, who touches it with, almost touches it with his finger. And it’s sort of a mimicking of that famous Sistine Chapel portrait by Michelangelo of God animating Adam.
CAVANAUGH: And I’m wondering if there wasn’t just a little provocation there?
KEYNES: There is. And it makes full sense because our link with animals was so important to Darwin. And one of the wonderful things about the film is the performance of the little orangutan who is the ape in the picture. If there was an Oscar for animals, she would be the hot favorite.
CAVANAUGH: Another wonderful reason to see the movie. Randal Keynes, thank you so much for speaking with us today. I really appreciate it.
KEYNES: Well, many thanks for your questions.
CAVANAUGH: Now, San Diego’s first showing of the film "Creation" is tonight at the San Diego Natural History Museum at 6:30 p.m. The film will open at the La Jolla Landmark Theatre on February 19th. You can go to KPBS.org/thesedays for more information and if you would like to respond to anything you hear on KPBS These Days, you can go to KPBS.org/thesedays.