“Questioning Darwin”: a review

The very last scene of the HBO Documentary “Questioning Darwin,” shows a view sweeping across the floor of Westminster abbey, in soft focus before coming to a stop at the plaque denoting the grave of Charles Robert Darwin.  The narrator, describing Darwin’s funeral, closed with the words of Harvey Goodwin, the Bishop of Carlisle who “told the mourners: ‘There need be no conflict between the study of nature and belief in God.’”

But it is only in these very last two seconds that the idea that there were religious people who didn’t oppose evolution are ever given any mention in the whole of the documentary.  While “Questioning Darwin” offers a personal view the experiences and views of some American antievolutionists, it fails to mention that there are many antievolutionists who are not committed to a young earth, or that there are also large numbers of religious believers who accept evolutionary accounts of human origins.  In the exclusion of these views, the documentary is effectively the Ken Ham-Bill Nye debate done over with human interest angles and better lighting and music.  There’s more to it, (including some problematic aspects to how it presented the history of evolution and religion – although my main concerns with the documentary aren’t about its presentation of history per se.)  The documentary tries for some kind of balance—it doesn’t openly castigate or mock any of the people that it profiles—but in the juxtaposition of people’s views in ways that insinuated greater forms of similarity (or opposition) between views and in the way narration describes those views, the documentary gives a false impression about some of the ideas it describes.

From the very beginning, the documentary makes some subtle distortions of the state of belief in America that give some indication of some of the presumptions that informed the whole piece.  In the very first minute, the narrator tells us that: “For those Christians who believe their Bible is the word of God — the literal truth— one man is held up as the Antichrist, Charles Darwin.”  Leaving aside the movie-trailer quality of the ‘one man’ trope, it’s the first half of the sentence that is troublesome.  There are religious people who accept the Bible is the “Word of God” without holding to a belief in “literal truth” (a concept which less than three minutes later is equated with literal interpretation).  Also in those first four minutes, the narrator informs us that “According to the latest Gallup poll, 46% of Americans believe the Genesis account of creation.”  The Gallup poll doesn’t mention ‘Genesis.’  46% in the poll agreed with the statement “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.”  It’s logically possible, though unlikely to suggest that some people agreeing with this statement did so totally independent of the book of Genesis.  But it’s much more likely that some of the 54% who did not agree with that Gallup option would state that they believe in a “Genesis account of creation” (just not a young earth interpretation of Genesis.)  In making both of these distortions, the documentary reinforces the idea that there’s a singular way of understanding the Bible, “the Genesis account of creation.” And that this is what it means to “believe [the] Bible is the word of God.” From the very beginning, it seems that anything like theistic evolution, or even old-earth variants of Christian creationism (or ‘intelligent design’) can’t exist.  This presupposition is further echoed in statements like zoologist Aubrey Manning stating that Darwin is “well aware that he will be attacked by religious people and by other scientists,” (as if religious people and scientists are two mutually exclusive categories.)

The bulk of the documentary alternates between showing interviews and practices of young earth Christian antievolutionists (with a heavy use of video provided by Answers in Genesis and footage shot in their Creation Museum) with a biographical account of Darwin’s life and the personal, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual development of Darwin as an individual.  The presentation of Darwin’s life (underscored by interviews with several excellent historians of science) is well done (although some disputes within the “Darwin Industry” are glossed over.)

In a film that refers to “here in the US”, it is somewhat surprising though that especially early on, nearly all the experts used to explicate Darwin’s life and thought are British, and based in the UK.  With the exception of the Australian Ken Ham (CEO of the Creation Museum) all of the voices advocating creationism speak with American accents.  (It’s not until more than two-thirds of the documentary is over that two Americans speak presenting evolution – Jim Secord, who’s based in the UK, and Jason Rosenhouse, who presents some of the history of antievolutionism in the USA.)  Perhaps this doesn’t matter, but since the documentary brought up a claim that William Jennings Bryan thought evolution to be “un-American,” more American voices on evolution might have been a worthwhile inclusion.

More important than the accents, the film’s focus on Darwin personally has the unfortunate effect of completely ignoring the whole of evolutionary science since Darwin, and to presume that Darwin’s own theological naïvete is the best voice for understanding the religious implications of his theory.  Historians have long made the case that it was not belief in evolution, but personal events such as the death of darwin’s daughter Annie that caused Darwin to lose his faith.  James Moore ably recaps this interpretation in the documentary.  But the juxtaposition of Darwin’s grief with the testimonies of Christians talking about the pain of losses that they’ve experienced reduces the whole question of Christianity and evolution to both a dichotomy and to a matter of personal sentiment and feeling—a choice between feelings of depression and consolation.

There’s an understated thesis throughout the documentary that is created by presentation of the personal lives of Christian antievolutionists.  It’s similar to a thesis that I think was made more persuasively in the 2006 documentary Flock of Dodos.  In that earlier film, Randy Olsen made an excellent case that a major factor in the public victories antievolutionism had achieved had to do with personal character, that the antievolutionists were more likable, more charismatic, and less condescending.  There’s no obvious condescension among the evolutionists — indeed there’s very little discussion of the science of evolution or any scientist besides Darwin himself, and Darwin is presented as a largely sympathetic character, not one who intended to cause harm.  But the creationists aren’t merely presented as charismatic or nice (indeed some of them seem a bit offputting.)  But scenes of congregations singing in churches, of church outreach to feeding the homeless, of helping individuals cope with addiction or other personal problems all have the effect of depicting the creationist community as a positive force of society.  The implication is that these  communities, and their good works, are threatened by evolution.  This completely overlooks the fact that many American churches that do good work for society don’t subscribe to young earth creationism, and many non-religious organizations also contribute to public good.  Where are the congregations of theistic evolutionists at prayer?

Moreover, where are the communities of joyful scientists? Absent. Perhaps worse, UCL geneticist Steve Jones is quoted saying: “In order to be a great scientist you have to devote your entire life to science, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  And Darwin did that.” This both perpetuates a ‘great man’ history of science that is grossly out of touch with most scientific practices today, and it also diminishes scientists as human beings.  Most scientists today do pursue their profession in balance with a family and social life.  This vision presents the idea of evolution as inhuman, conceivable only with minds wholly devoted to science, not to community, not to improving the world, and certainly not to religion or moral worldviews.

By presenting the personal lives of people who are identified as creationists, the documentary makes implicit the idea that their emotional fulfillment comes not only from their Christianity, but their creationist Christianity.  It’s emotionally manipulative for the documentary to show a paraplegic girl praying with her family, the reformed prostitute or the drug abuser who found Christ, the cancer patient who has faith in eternal salvation—and then to say that because these people disbelieve evolution, that advocacy of evolution is tantamount to denying the rest of their identity.  Could there not be an example of a person whose life was saved by medical breakthroughs that made use of evolutionary understandings of disease?

There were also a few claims about the history of American antievolutionism that I found irritating but of lesser importance.   The depiction of the Scopes trial was simplified and focused wholly on Bryan, Darrow and science-religion conflict.  (I’m not going to recap  the shortcomings of this interpretation here.)  But more problematic was the idea that creation science was a direct response to the BSCS, which was in turn a direct response to the launch of Sputnik.  For one, the federal initiatives in science education that included the BSCS predated Sputnik.  Moreover, it wasn’t the launch of the BSCS directly that prompted an antievolutionist backlash in the form of creation science so much as the Supreme Court ruling in Epperson v Arkansas (finally putting an end to Scopes-style antievolution laws) that prompted the implementation of creation science as a proposed alternative to evolution science.

The documentary’s greatest redeeming feature is that the people who are portrayed are done so sincerely.  Even though clips from the documentary (such as in this Gawker article) take things out of context in a way that makes the creationists look more ignorant or naive, the documentary itself seems to be respectful to all the people included.  It’s those who were not worthy of inclusion at all who will rightly feel the most slighted.

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