A Word

Column: Creative differences by Jacqueline Alexander
First published in the Henley Standard newspaper

As news filters through that a new British film on Charles Darwin has failed to find a distributor in the US, it may a surprise to many to discover that the father of evolution is still, 127 years after his death, an enormously controversial figure.

The film, Creation, focuses on the time when Darwin wrote The Origin Of Species and delves into the complexities of a man torn between faith and reason while dealing with the trauma left by the death of his beloved daughter.

The film has sparked a fierce debate online with a multitude of websites discussing the finer points of evolution versus creation. It is, of course, an argument that will rage for more than a few generations, maybe for eternity, especially as many of the proponents on each side seem to spend little time researching their arguments.

Sweeping generalisations, fabulous claims and grandiose viewpoints seem to be the order of the day with Darwin often coming off worse when insults start flying through the ether. Much of the press has quoted Movieguide.org, a site providing film reviews with a Christian perspective, when presenting an extreme reaction to Darwin and his work. The film, which recently opened the Toronto Film Festival, is nowhere to be found on the site but a book, Darwin's Racists - Yesterday, Today And Tomorrow, is given an enthusiastic nod of approval.

According to the reviewer, this book "exposes the real Charles Darwin: a racist, a bigot and 1800s naturalist whose legacy is mass murder". It is reported to show how "Adolf Hitler, along with other genocidal mass murderers, was influenced by Darwin's half-baked Theory of Evolution".

On the other side of the debate exist the defenders of Darwin, a man depicted in the film as a husband, father and naturalist who struggles with the sometimes cruel nature of life. His supporters present a man who "avoided talking about the theological and sociological aspects of his work". Lucidcafe.com reports that the controversy emerges only when other writers "use his theories to support their own".

Many of the more extreme views seem to originate in the US. Living in the UK, it is far more difficult to find impassioned arguments around Darwin. He is accepted as a brilliant mind and flawed human being. His theories have, on the whole, been accepted as the foundation of our living world. Just last September, the Church of England issued an article saying that the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth was a fitting time to apologise to him "for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still".

This week sees the anniversary of Darwin's arrival in the Galapagos Islands where he would start to formulate his ideas of natural selection. There are thousands of sites devoted to various aspects of his work but standing head and shoulders above the rest is a site faithfully recording the words of the man himself.

During his five-year voyage on HMS Beagle, Darwin noted his observations and theories in the Beagle Diaries which would later be used as the foundation for his book, Voyage Of The Beagle.

Today, Darwinbeagle.blogspot.com is publishing each day's entry as it was written in 1834. On September 15, exactly one year before he would set foot on the islands, we find Darwin in Chile, carefully observing the effect of local lions on the airborne Condor community.

"During my stay at this place, I had observed that there were very few Condors to be seen; yet one morning there were at least 20 wheeling at a great height over a particular spot. I asked a Guasso what was the cause, he said that probably a Lion had killed a cow or that one was dying; if the Condors alight and then suddenly all fly up; the cry is then "a Lion" and all hurry to the chase."

Just a couple of days later and Darwin is witnessing, and recording, the dreadful working conditions of local miners:

"A strong man, who is not accustomed to this sort of exercise perspires most profusely with merely carrying their own bodies up. With this very severe labour they are allowed only beans and bread; they would prefer living entirely upon the latter; but with this they cannot work so hard, so that their masters, treating them like horses, make them eat the beans."

The entries provide a powerful insight into life around the world in the 19th century. Some leave you with a furrowed brow while others see your jaw drop in wonderment and some, like his thoughts on the humble mule, "one fancys art has here out-mastered Nature" will simply make you smile.

Next: Here lies common sense

Audio: Jacqueline Alexander presents Web Watch with Phil Kennedy on BBC Berkshire and BBC Oxford:

Copyright: Jacqueline Alexander 2012

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