forum discussion #9

Creation: A Conversation with Darwin’s Descendant

This month, the movie Creation opened in theaters across the United States.

The film chronicles the life and work of  Charles Darwin.

The movie is directed by Jon Amiel. Paul Bettany stars as Darwin. Jennfer Connelly plays Darwin’s wife, Emma.

Creation is based on a biography written by Charles Darwin’s great great grandson, Randal Keynes.

Keynes is a conservationist and author who lives in London. And he’s our guest in this Science Forum discussion.
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The World’s science correspondent, Rhitu Chatterjee, spoke with Keynes about his famous ancestor and the experience of seeing his book turned into a movie.

Listen to that interview here.

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Now it’s your turn to chat with Randal Keynes. Add your comments below.

  • Did Keynes’s famous pedigree prompt his decision to become a conservation biologist?
  • What is it like for Keynes to see the species Darwin studied — in the Galapagos, for instance — threatened with extinction?
  • Have you seen the movie Creation?  Did it change your view of Darwin as a man?
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Your Comments

  1. I’m curious about the cultural implications Darwin’s work had, beyond the religious issues. If I remember correctly, E.B. Tylor and others adapted Darwin’s evolutionary theories and applied them to culture, Theorizing that cultures would start As “primitive” and then evolve upwards to civilized. This wound up being used as justification by some for “civilizing” so-called primitive peoples — just helping them up the evolutionary scale. It seems like given what I’ve read about his concerns over his work’s affect on religion, this might have given him pause as well.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Randal Keynes

      Yes, Camilla, many people were thinking about cultural progress when Darwin was writing about evolution in the natural world, and some used his ideas about natural selection in their arguments about ‘civilising’ communities with ‘primitive’ cultures. I put the two words in quotation marks because they’re both loaded with meanings that need to be clarified and checked before we can agree how they should be used in comparing different aspects of different cultures.

      Darwin said nothing about human evolution in The Origin of Species but dealt with the subject in his follow-up book, The Descent of Man. He set out in Chapter V his thinking on the development of our mental faculties ‘during primeval and civilised times’. He was careful and cautious in what he wrote. He had a particular interest in moral progress but felt that the overall pattern of improvement in civilisation through human history was unclear. He wrote emphatically about the strength and value of the moral codes of many ‘uncivilised’ communities, and he also wrote equally strongly elsewhere about the wickedness of one institution of some supposedly ‘civilised’ nations, slavery. He believed his theory might have some use in explaining some aspects of cultural progress, but he didn’t believe it provided a single clear blueprint. So he said as much as he felt he could and then left it at that.

  2. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Elsa Youngsteadt

    Hello Randal,
    Thanks for being here in the forum. I’m looking forward to seeing the movie, although I haven’t yet. In the mean time, I’m curious to know more about your own work as a conservation biologist. Can you tell us a bit about what you do, and (if you don’t mind my asking) if being part of such a famous family has influenced that? Thanks!

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Randal Keynes

      Thanks for your welcome to the forum, Elsa, and I hope you can see the movie soon.

      I have to say first that I’m not actually a scientist as I gave up science while I was still at school. I am a committed conservationist, though, and have worked hard for some years to help preserve the wildlife of Galapagos and the countryside round Darwin’s home in England where he carried out almost all of his scientific investigations after the voyage of the Beagle. For the Galapagos, see
      http://www.darwinfoundation.org/english/pages/index.php, and for Darwin’s home, Down House near London, see http://www.darwinatdowne.co.uk/. I’m a member of the Charles Darwin Foundation for Galapagos and the team for the World Heritage bid for Down House.

      My family has been a factor in what I’ve done about Darwin for two reasons. First – what I’ve not done and why I’m not a scientist! I dropped science at school because so many others in my family were scientists and I wanted to do something else. Second – when and why I became interested in Darwin. I’ve been interested in historic buildings for many years. Down House is now open to the public and ten years ago the organization that looks after it asked if I could help them to work out how to show visitors more about how Darwin lived and worked there, using my interest in old houses and my family links. I started finding out about Darwin and got hooked!

  3. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? David Baron

    I’d be eager to hear more about your extended family. How many living descendants of Charles Darwin are there? Do you all get together for family reunions? Was your family supportive of the biography you wrote, and of the movie?

  4. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Randal Keynes

    Three of Darwin’s ten children had children themselves and there are now more than a hundred living descendants, so as far as his theory is concerned, his own offspring are doing OK! See Richard Milner’s entry on us in his Darwin’s Encyclopaedia, Evolution from A to Z (2009). We’re widely scattered around the world and only a few of us with particular interests play active parts in dealings about Darwin. There was a reunion in 1959 at Darwin’s home, Down House, for the 100th anniversary of The Origin of Species, and we had another one last year for the 2009 anniversaries.

  5. D Meyer

    First, congratulations on the movie and best wishes on your work in the Galapagos and Down House.

    What most intrigues me is the contrasting ideas of your great-great-grandfather about the natural world and those of your great-uncle (John Maynard Keynes) about the unnatural world of economics. I wonder what Darwin might have thought about the role of evolutionary processes in economies. Given Darwin’s stressful feelings over evolution vs. religion, did he see a conflicting line between the laws that apply to nature and the laws that apply to humanity? And, in the context of Keynesian economics, what might Darwin have thought about governments intervening in markets and financial systems in which unfettered evolutionary/market forces don’t always produce humane results?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Rhitu Chatterjee

      For those interested in learning more about John Maynard Keynes’s work, see this story in Time Magazine. http://www.yachtingnet.com/time/time100/scientist/profile/keynes.html

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Randal Keynes

      Yes, interesting to wonder! I’d suggest that Darwin identified a natural process, evolution by natural selection, that takes place when organisms reproduce by pairing, then die and are succeeded by their offspring from generation to generation. Darwin showed how the process depends on the variation in each generation and the survival of the fittest in the struggle for existence. Keynes identified features of economic behaviour that stem from certain recurring human interests and actions, and suggested ways of avoiding or dealing with adverse situations. I don’t think Darwin would have expected the natural process he identified to have anything to do with the quite separate economic issues that Keynes dealt with. He would have been happy to leave them to economists! On the question about government intervention, he’d have wanted to know with all others interested in the general good what action could be hoped to produce the most humane results, but he wouldn’t have felt there was any way in which his theory about natural life could be used to suggest what it was right to do. He was always clear, I think, about the difference between points about how things are in the natural world and issues about what humans ought to do.

  6. I recently saw the movie (Creation) and saw Darwin in a new light. A man who had his convictions but knew the consequence of releasing his findings. It would be awfully tough to decide where or not to keep it a secret, as telling the truth would stir up the culture and possibly bring much unhappiness to the orthodox believers.

    However I think that truth always wins down the line and thankfully he had the courage to present his findings, causing the number one thought/discovery to filter into our human history. More knowledge of our human condition allows for human progress.

    I do question if I would have the courage or desire to do what he did if I were in his place. Painful both ways.

    Fantastic movie and great discussion!

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Randal Keynes

      Thanks for this! Yes indeed on convictions, consequences and the courage Darwin needed. All shown so vividly in Paul Bettany’s wonderful performance. Jennifer Connelly also showed very movingly the great difficulty Emma faced in accepting what Darwin felt he had to do, and in supporting him when it came to publishing the book. I feel we all owe her fully as much thanks as we give him.

      • Good point. To be able to support her husband even though she had her own view points speaks highly of her character and dedication to being a good wife and the amount of courage and confidence she had to possess. I guess she is often skipped over as being an important part of the story.

        Out of curiousity, do you have any upcoming London talks coming up? Would love to hear you speak in person as I feel you have a lot to share.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Randal Keynes

      Filip, thanks for your comments on Emma. Yes, she’s often skipped over. There’s a good book about her life and all she did for Darwin, ”Emma Darwin, the Inspirational Wife of a Genius’ by Edna Healey, published in 2001. Edna Healey is the wife of Dennis Healey, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer through the UK’s financial crises of the 1970s. She understood about Emma’s help to Darwin after her own experience as wife of a great man living through difficult times.’

  7. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Rhitu Chatterjee

    Hello Randal,

    Your book when it first came out was called Annie’s Box, and it referred to the little box that belonged to Annie that contained her writings and other things she’d collected. I felt like the movie didn’t really explain the significance of that box, although if I remember correctly it does show the box a few times.

    I’m curious to know more about how finding that box shaped your life. Can you tell us what was in the box? And how and when did you come across it? What about it made you want to write this book?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Randal Keynes

      The box was Annie’s writing case. After her death, Emma kept it, putting in a number of other things of Annie’s to remember her by.
      After she died, Annie’s younger sister Etty, who was then in her forties, found it and it has been kept in the family ever since as Annie’s Box.

      I first saw the box one day in the 1990s when I was looking for Darwin material in a chest of drawers I knew to contain family odds and ends. The first thing I saw when I opened the box was a note in Darwin’s handwriting headed ‘Annie’s illness’. When I unfolded it I saw that he had been watching her every day during the illness and seeing how she was after the treatment she had been given first thing in the morning.
      I was surprised to find that Darwin had been so closely involved in looking after Annie during the illness, and looked for what there was to read about his feelings for her through her childhood and after her
      death.

      I found the remarkable story I set out in my book. I wrote the book because I felt that the whole part of Darwin’s life that Annie was part of, his care and love for his wife and children, was important
      for an understanding of the man and his ideas about human nature, which were themselves important for his ideas about all human and natural life.

      Finding the box shaped my life because it led me into the deep interest in Darwin which now takes me to Shrerwsbury where he spent his childhood, Galapagos and other wonderful places around the world that he visited on the Beagle voyage, and Down House where he went to live with Emma and their children and worked on his theory. I’m lucky with my family link to Darwin. His life and work are a wonderful interest to find!

  8. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Randal Keynes

    Thanks to everyone who has joined in this discussion. It has been good to exchange ideas. Thanks for your interest in Darwin the man and I hope you enjoy ‘Creation’!

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