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Michael Zimmerman, Ph.D.

Michael Zimmerman, Ph.D.

Posted: June 28, 2010 06:45 PM

"One of my goals was to humanize Charles Darwin, to show who he was as a man, a father and a husband," Jon Amiel explained to me when we spoke last week. Amiel, director of the highly acclaimed film Creation, achieved this and more.

In fact, much of the movie can be viewed as a trope for the modern religion and science debate, with Amiel demonstrating that the controversy need not play the divisive role it so often seems to in society. Amiel accomplishes this by taking literary license and mixing fact with fiction -- as any good drama should.

The facts are relatively straightforward. Emma Darwin was a deeply religious person who was devoted to her husband. She greatly respected Darwin's work and helped him with it by occasionally acting as a sounding board and doing some editing. She also worried that his religious perspective, different from hers, might separate them, both in their marriage and beyond their deaths.

Emma Darwin also believed that a sincere search for the truth could not be something that religion outlawed. Two weeks after she accepted Darwin's marriage proposal, she wrote to him, "My reason tells me that honest & conscientious doubts cannot be a sin, but I feel it would be a painful void between us. I thank you from my heart for your openness with me & I should dread the feeling that you were concealing your opinions from the fear of giving me pain."

And, shortly after their marriage, Emma wrote him the following:

The state of mind that I wish to preserve with respect to you, is to feel that while you are acting conscientiously & sincerely wishing, & trying to learn the truth, you cannot be wrong; but there are some reasons that force themselves upon me & prevent my being always able to give myself this comfort....Your mind & time are full of the most interesting subjects & thoughts of the most absorbing kind, viz following up yr own discoveries--but which make it very difficult for you to avoid casting out as interruptions other sorts of thoughts which have no relation to what you are pursuing or to be able to give your whole attention to both sides of the question.

Clearly, Emma Darwin felt the strain between religious and scientific issues and worried about their impact on her life and her relationship with her husband. Equally clearly, she was unwilling to conclude that religiosity meant ignoring the truth to be found in the natural world.

Amiel takes Emma's conflict, and Darwin's respect for his wife, a step further. In the film, after Darwin finishes his final draft of On the Origin of Species, he leaves the manuscript with Emma, telling her to do with it what she thinks best. She agonizes over the possibility of burning the manuscript but instead opts to wrap it up and address it to Darwin's publisher. Devout Emma, then, is responsible for bringing one of the world's greatest scientific discoveries to public attention.

Creation shows so well that in Emma, as in society at large, the tension between religion and science need not be ignored but can be played out in productive and respectful manners. The problem lies not with a search for truth but with an unquestioning acceptance of orthodoxy.

Unfortunately, as with so many issues in modern society, we seem to think that only dichotomous choices exist: it is either religion or science. As Emma concluded, and as many religious leaders have similarly concluded, scientific knowledge can enhance rather than diminish faith.

The sensitivities that Amiel brought to Creation may help move people to a richer understanding of the possibilities for productive coexistence. And the good news in this regard is that the DVD release of Creation is scheduled for this week. Given that the film appeared to have a very modest advertising budget when it was originally released in January, it should now be far more accessible to a wider audience.

 
 
 

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