Portrait of British scientist Charles Robert
Darwin, founder of the theory for the
evolution of life. Photo was made shortly
before his death.

“Darwin’s Darkest Hour” Offers Insight Into Scientist’s Inner Struggle

October 06, 2009 07:00 PM
by Shannon Firth
Tonight, NOVA will broadcast “Darwin’s Darkest Hour,” a docudrama that examines Charles Darwin’s struggle over whether to publish his theory of evolution, knowing it would anger the church and threaten his marriage.

Exploring Darwin’s Inner Monologue

Many authors, screenwriters and historians have attempted to portray Darwin’s life and his work through books, films and comedies. This latest attempt, a two-hour docudrama starring Henry Ian Cusick of the popular TV series “Lost” as Darwin, and Frances O’Connor from the film “Mansfield Park” as his wife Emma, airs tonight.

Set in 1858, the film is a critical window into Darwin’s life as he struggles with the decision to share his controversial research. According to the PBS press release, Darwin worried that if he delayed publication of his theory on natural selection, his life’s work might be erased, "[b]ut to come forward with his ideas risked the fury of the Church and perhaps a rift with his own devoted wife.”

In the trailer, one gets a sense of the anguish both Darwin and his wife felt over his “abominable volume,” and the magnitude of his decision.
The film also offers other insights into his family life. Screenwriter John Goldsmith told NOVA how pained Darwin was upon losing his daughter Annie to scarlet fever. “It was the great emotional moment of Darwin's life," Goldsmith said, "what remnants he had of Christian faith, I think, were absolutely killed stone dead by that.”

Cusick told NOVA, “It’s going to be really interesting for any creationists … to see what a family man he was, what a religious man he was in the beginning, and how he sat on this information for such a long time.”

Opinion: Darwin the man

“I can’t help wondering what Charles Darwin would think if he could survey the state of his intellectual achievement today, 200 years after his birth and 150 years after the publication of ‘On the Origin of Species,’” Verlyn Klinkenborg, a journalist for The New York Times, wrote on the eve of Darwin’s 200th birthday on Feb. 11, 2009. 

Although Klinkenborg suggests that Darwin would be pleased and perhaps surprised by all the research that builds upon and confirms his work, no one can really predict how Darwin would view the scientific world today. There certainly hasn’t been any shortage of media exploring how he lived back then. In addition to literature and film, there’s even a one-man show: “Charles Darwin: Live & In Concert.”

The real Darwin had such a fear of public speaking that he asked someone else to read his divisive paper to the Linnean Society, John Tierney wrote for The New York Times. That didn’t prevent Richard Milner, a science historian, from singing and clowning around on stage as Darwin in the one-man show.

“Everyone should find his own Darwin,” Milner told the Times. “He was a zoologist, a botanist, an explorer, a travel writer, a philosopher. … He revolutionized every field he touched, and he was trained in none of them.”

Key Player: Charles Darwin

Darwin was born Feb. 12, 1809, into an affluent family in Shrewsbury, England. His mother died when he was 8 years old. Though he wasn’t a particularly gifted student, he loved nature and at a young age began collecting beetles. Initially, he planned to be a doctor but changed his mind when he realized that he couldn’t stomach the sight of blood.

Background: The origins of Darwin's theory

“The natural history of this archipelago is very remarkable: it seems to be a little world within itself; the greater number of its inhabitants, both vegetable and animal, being found nowhere else,” Darwin wrote in his diary while visiting the Galapagos Islands.

As he visited each subsequent island, Darwin observed species similar in some aspects to those he saw on the last, but also differing in very evident ways. He meticulously recorded his observations, and collected specimens of plants and animals when he could.

Reference: Darwin's letters


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