“Darwin’s Brave New World”: Richard Dawkins Plays Charles Darwin

Last night I watched the first episode of “Darwin’s Brave New World” on the ABC, a docu-drama style program on the life and work of Charles Darwin.

Can I just say that I have rarely seen such an anachronistic and melodramatic example of television history?

Darwin is portrayed as a man determined to bring down the religious establishment of his time and constantly in danger of being burnt at the stake for suggesting that human beings have descended from apes.

As an example of this, the “opponents” are often shown in the dramatic re-enactments, of speaking against “evolutionists” – as if this term had the same meaning and currently before the publication of “Origin of the Species” as it had afterwards and since. It explicity emplies also that Darwin immediately, from the beginning, in his own mind believed the endpoint of his studies would be to prove the descent of man from more primitive lifeforms. And that his discoveries had led him, not just to doubts about a future in holy orders, but to the rejection of religious faith in total.

It also portrays Darwin as a “fighter for the cause” of atheism, regardless of the cost to himself. In fact, Darwin was highly conscious of his career, and raced to publish “Origin of the Species” when he realised that other naturalists were close on his heels. I am trying – in this instance – to remember the name of a younger naturalist in the East Indies who Darwin corresponded with and from whom he nicked a couple of key ideas (can anyone help me with the name here?).

Richard Dawkins, of course, figures prominently in the panel of experts co-commentating this narrative. I sometimes have trouble telling which character is supposed to be playing Charles Darwin…



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17 responses to ““Darwin’s Brave New World”: Richard Dawkins Plays Charles Darwin

  1. David,

    The other naturalist you are thinking of is Alfred Russell Wallace: a more brilliant scholar than Darwin, imo, but somewhat less enamoured of and by the Establishment.

    I agree, the program was disappointing and misrepresented the truth both by its characterisations of leading figures, including Darwin himself, and by what it left out. Mere propaganda.

    A few years ago an evangelical scholar wrote a couple of very good books proposing an initial apologetic purpose on Darwin’s behalf seeking to justify God in light of the evil and suffering in the world, particularly in Darwin’s case the death of his beloved daughter Annie in 1851. I’m sorry I don’t have the bibliographical details as I’m writing this from a coffee shop due to my home internet being out of action – one of the down sides of living in the country.

    • That’s the man. Hate it when I know I know something but can’t remember it.

      Reminds me of my parent-in-law who came home from the St Paul’s Quiz night saying that their table of “old-fogeys” came second last.

      “We knew all the answers; we just couldn’t remember them,” was the excuse.

  2. Kiran

    Bound to happen. It is like people still portray the Galileo affair as what virtually no one in the academia sees it as: a contest between a monolithic Church and Science.

    I would say though that Darwin definitely reached a point where he rejected religious faith, but I don’t think Darwin’s semi-atheism (Huxley coined the term agnostic to describe himself. I am not sure whether it would accurately describe Darwin). Basically, that side of Darwin had to do with the problem of evil, and led not just to a rejection of God, but also of aesthetics.

    That said, quite a lot of the enthusiastic supporters of evolutionary theory in its early days were orthodox Christians, as James Moore argues. Indeed, creationism in its modern sense is something that only came out in the late nineteenth century. Newman famously defended the early Darwin on numerous occasions.

    In the US, perhaps the most prominent popularizer of Darwin was a Catholic: William Seton, the grandson of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. English Catholic opinion was, by and large, in favour of evolution, if not quite Darwin. The French Dominican, M-D Leroy was another Catholic evolutionist.

    The problem that led to the controversy over Darwin, arose from the ethical consequences derived from evolution (and particularly the evolution of man) by various people, and Huxley’s determined anti-Christianity (and in part to the knee-jerk English anti-Catholicism and anti-clericalism).

    Even the Christian opposition to evolution is misunderstood in the figure of Samuel Wilberforce. Wilberforce was not the literalist anti-scientist that he is represented to be, and he wasn’t entirely unwilling to accept evolution. His basic position was very similar to Bellarmine’s in the Galileo affair. As argued by JR Lucas his basic argument might be summed up as follows: Darwinism seems to come laden with a whole bunch of (scientific, and philosophical) problems. If those problems were solved, we might set about reinterpreting the scriptures, but as yet, we see no need to do so.

    Thankfully though, modern scholarly opinion is moving determinedly against the notion that Darwin was opposed “root and branch” by Christians on Biblically literalist grounds. In particular, Ronald Numbers and James Moore have written extended books on the subject. Owen Chadwick’s The Victorian Church also treats of this among other things.

    • Do you know, Kiran, if the term “evolutionist” was used before Darwin? It is used regularly as the rough equivalent of “heretic deserving to be burnt at the stake by all pious and god-fearing naturalists” in this series, which strikes me as horribly anachronistic.

      • Kiran

        Oh yes. That is true. Lyell for instance, was quite suspicious of the idea of species change, until he was converted to the idea (partially at least) by Darwin himself. Quite a few scholars argue that part of the reason why the conflict between Darwin and Christians took on such a great significance/bitterness is because they agreed on so much. Darwin explicitly comes out of the Paleyan tradition of natural theology. All he does effectively is to remove God from the picture. Indeed, at least one modern philosopher of biology, Daniel Dennet, explicitly wants to revive ideas of design in nature. Against it might be noted, Lewontin and Gould.

        Two things which Darwin did, in particular, are relevant to the topic: Since Descartes, the grand quest in biology had been to mechanize biology, i.e. to find out what it is that causes life. Darwin’s most brilliant move was simply to change the question. In this respect, his title The Origin of Species is misleading. What he gave was an account of the mutation of species. The other is related: Biology had been in large part, classificatory. Now, with the suggestion of mutatory species, this became sidelined.

        A third change happened in philosophy of science. Where the dominant idea of science had been empiricist, Darwin followed hypothetico-deductive method (where no observation was meaningful unless it was for or against a hypothesis). Quite a few biologists and naturalists were against this.

        Then, there was the fourth shift from a largely clerically dominated scientific culture (i.e. where clerics were the scientists) to a more professional scientific culture. A lot of the differentiation within this kulturkampf was made in very starkly anti-Catholic and anti-Christian terms (by Huxley and Tyndall).

        But from the Christian, and particularly the Catholic side, the response to evolution at least up to the seventies was anything but negative.

      • Peregrinus

        If the Oxford English Dictionary is to be relied upon, prior to the publication of On the Origin of Species, the word “evolutionist” wasn’t used at all, except in a wholly unrelated sense (“a performer of military or gymnastic evolutions; an acrobat”). The first documented use of evolutionist in the modern sense is from 1866, seven years after the publication of Origin. The context it is used in there already suggests some tension with religious ideas. (“He [Herbert Spencer] is an Evolutionist in contradistinction from the believer in special creations.”) Evolutionist is used by Darwin himself in the 6th (1873) edition of Origin. (“It is admitted by most evolutionists that mammals are descended from a marsupial form.”)

        The programme seems to be wrong, therefore, if it suggests that evolutionist was in common currency before Origin, and still more so if it suggests that the term was one of controversy.

        As you rightly point out, though, the idea of evolution, in what we might call a proto-Darwinian form, was around before Darwin. It’s just the terminology which wasn’t around.

        Darwing avoided evolution and related words in the earlier editions of Origin, according to a helpful note in the OED, possibly because at the time it carried connotations of a preordained design unfolding, which is precisely the idea that Darwin was rejecting.

        If the word evolutionist was not used to describe the proponents of proto-darwinian theories, there were other words. Lamarckian was used from at least 1846, and was a term employed by Darwin himself before he belatedly switched to evolutionist. Lamarck referred to his own theory at Transmutation, and its advocates were called Transmutationists from at least 1844. Darwin used this term also. (The OED quotes for Transmutationist suggest that it was a term of controversy, e.g. “You have introduced several sentences against us Transmutationists” – Darwin, 1847.)

        So, although the programme is wrong in suggesting that “evolutionist” was a term of abuse for the advocates of proto-darwinian ideas, those ideas certainly existed, and it’s not impossible that their advocates were abused by the scientific establishment, or part of it, employing other terms, like Lamarckian or Transmutationist. And if the substance of this accusation is true, I wouldn’t criticise the programme-makers simply for using the term “evolutionist”, which the audience will understand more or less correctly, instead of “Lamarckian” or “transmationionist”, which they almost certainly wouldn’t understand at all.

        • Well, I didn’t even think of looking in the OED. What a dill I am. Or what a bright spark you are! How simple.

          However, I, unlike you, would still say it is a dreadful anachronism to use the word “evolutionist” instead of “Lamarckian” etc. Today the word “evolutionist” carries so much baggage, and in fact the program in question builds so much upon the assumption that the issues then were the same as the issues now.

          • Peregrinus

            It is an anachronism, certainly. The question is whether we should be bothered by that. Artists use anachronism all the time to communicate with their audience. Artistic representations of Jesus, for instance, are almost invariably anachronistic, and always have been.

            The question is whether the anachronism will mislead us, or will mislead us more than literal historical fidelity would.

            I only half-watched the programme concerned, but my impression of it was that it made no attempt at literal historical fidelity. There was a long section, for instance, which portrayed Darwin working against – and in – a series of rapid slide projections which evoked various aspects of his ideas. You don’t need to be very artistically literate to work out that this kind of programme is telling you what some contemporary person thinks of Charles Darwin and his ideas, in priority to showing you what actually happened.

            This use of “evolutionist” may not be historically accurate, but within the limits of a television dramatisation it may still work better than any of the alternative words at conveying to a modern audience the scientific climate within which Darwin developed his ideas.

  3. Tom

    There is another documentary about Darwin that was made by Dawkins – and it is the most amazing piece of propaganda I have ever seen. In it, Dawkins goes through The Origin of Species, explaining how it is the most precious and brilliant book written (and of which Dawkins possesses a first edition).

    Furthermore, he explains how evolutionary theory completely destroys any concept of God what-so-ever, and that anyone who understands evolution would automatically understand God is absurd.

    Finally, he explains away the ‘bad’ uses of evolutionary theory (Darwinian Eugenics etc.) This is the best part, by far, simply because Dawkins is establishing himself as the new interpreter of evolutionism. He says something like… “I hate when people put Darwin to use for these kind of social theories, and I don’t think that’s what it is meant to be used for.”

    So…to summarise:

    a) Dawkins presents a book as brilliant, insightful, and revealing the truth.
    b) He then shows how this book corrects the errors of other thinking.
    c) Finally, he establishes a particular interpretation of the work, claims it as his own, and says that people ought not to use other interpretations.

    …wait a minute…

    To me that sounds like a religion.

    Dawkins is the high-priest of evolutionism, with its almighty god Darwin. It’s so truly unfortunate that none of this can provide any real answer to any question more pressing than ‘what is the scientific account of where we came from’. What about, what is the meaning of where I come from? Or, how can I know what is Good or Bad, and what I ought to do with my life?

    Not scientific questions…but…

    Dawkins really makes me angry. He’s just so insufferably SMUG. It drives me nuts.

  4. Paul

    I also thought that this TV programme was very disappointing. It jumped constantly between a narrated documentary and a dramatised story of Darwin’s life, and didn’t do either well. I thought the science and theology of the documentary was superficial (eg using the words “creation” and “evolution” as if they are interchangeable. Both exist and mean different things), and the melodrama reminded me of cheesy soap operas like “The Bold and the Beautiful”.

    There would have been plenty to talk about. For example, the process of transmission of characteristics by genetics was explained, during Darwin’s lifetime, by the Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel. Mendel’s work never reached Darwin, so Darwin never really understood how genetics works.

    The mechanism for the creation of the fossils Darwin was collecting and studying was first explained about 150 years before Darwin by St Nicolas Steno, before he became a Cardinal.

    Hopefully the show will improve next week, but I don’t hold out great hope. Like a lot of TV and movies these days, the photography of this series is gorgeous, but the content is simplistic and cliche’d.

  5. Matthias

    Friend of my parents i can recall had a letter or a article from some years after Darwin’s death ,in which he became a Christian either on his death bed or not long before it. i did see it once but i was just a young boy then.

  6. matthias

    Richard dawkins is a hypocrite and bigot-oh der you say. However he is the high priest not only of evolution but also for scientific naturalism .Does Dawkins faith help build orphanages,feed the homeless,convert the most vile sinners to radiant saints. NO. Has he helped those on the outskirts of society.No because he gives no hope,he has no hope.even a hard bitten Marxist journalist criticised dawkins bigotry and made the point that dawkins has dismissed all the charity and works done by faith organisations
    He would say it is all down to the hardwiring that evolution gave us .
    Will Dawkins theory and postulating support a person when they face their last journey.

    “Now i lay me down to sleep
    I trust eugenics and evolution my soul to keep
    If i die before i awake
    Dawkins will throw me a grand wake.”

  7. I wonder you can be so even tempered, David! Or at least, your writing makes you seem so.

    Darwin is portrayed as a man determined to bring down the religious establishment of his time and constantly in danger of being burnt at the stake for suggesting that human beings have descended from apes.

    blah blah blah

  8. Like a lot of TV and movies these days, the photography of this series is gorgeous, but the content is simplistic and cliche’d.


    “oooooooh… pretty pictures!”

  9. Sharon

    The point of shows like these is not so that those in the know can point out its deficits but to give the ordinary ‘man or woman in the street,’ knowing nothing of the true history, a complete package of one group’s point of view and thus a mindset is formed. When researching Galileo I lost count of the number of times I read: “but scholars or course have known that ….for eons” about a ‘truth’. What is needed is for those who know the objective truth try and get it out there to counter the lies and misrepresentations of those who only accept a relativistic version of the truth.

  10. Kiran

    As to man’s descent from Apes, well before Darwin wrote The Descent of Man, Newman suggested it in his private diary, and Richard Simpson (admittedly a liberal: but my point is simply that Darwin wasn’t in any danger of being burned)publicly suggested it in one of his articles.