Movie Review: 9 Special Darwin Movies

By William Olkowski, PHD

Permission to copy and distribute granted with citation.Reading Time: ca. 15 minutes.

Content: Biographical Historical Recreations of Darwin’s Time, His Enemies, Friends and Why He Wrote and Studied, Explanations of How Evolution Works, Examples and Fossil Evidence for Lines of Evolution, Genetic Information Update, Past and Expected Extinctions and Asteroid Threats

Movies Reviewed:

  1. Creation – Lionsgate, BBC – 108 minutes.
  2. Darwin’s Darkest Hour – National Geographic.
  3. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea – PBS – 120 mins.
  4. What Darwin Never Knew – PBS, 112 mins.
  5. The Genius of Charles Darwin – 2 Discs by Athena.
  6. Darwin’s Secret Notebooks – National Geographic Channel.
  7. Great Transformations and Extinction. – PBS, 2 hrs.
  8. Inherit the Wind – with Spencer Tracey 90 min.
  9. Darwin’s Voice

Who was Darwin?

Richard Dawkins, in the “Genius of Charles Darwin”, calls him one of the greatest scientists of all time.  2009, was the 150th anniversary of the publication of his seminal work: “On the Origin of Species”. He thus joins scientist greats like Galileo, Einstein and Newton, who created theories which changed the world, always in opposition to existing beliefs.  These beliefs are primarily held by the religious people, who actively resist learning about new scientific ideas.  This opposition continues today.  But for those who are curious, these movies are most fantastic, full of evidence with pictures to explain the significance of new information.  It’s like a biology lesson without the school, and boring teacher who only has a blackboard.

Darwin is the greater scientist, as his idea explains how life arose and changed into its myriad forms.  Evolution explains the living experiences of all life, particularly our relationship to the entire Biosphere and the Ecosystem we call Earth.  This is a colossal concept.  He thus, could be argued to be above the others in scope. The biggest ideas also are predictive, and here Darwin’s idea about how species change and are selected – capsulated in a single word: Evolution predicted many subsequently found evidence.

His idea is sometimes grossly simplified as “Survival of the Fittest”, commonly bastardized by some excessively wealthy business types, thinking themselves “fittest” as they have great power from their wealth.  And then there are the religious types who repeatedly oppose the idea of evolution as an explanation of the origin of life vs. special creation by a god, or THE GOD.  Neither group is even close to the truth.

Theory, Framework, Fact, and Observations – The process of Science is driven by Discoveries and Individuals. 

Science is the best discovery and thought process known so far to explain natural phenomena.  Scientific knowledge develops by assembly of observations, facts (repeatable observations), theories and laws through elaboration of paradigms.  All these are written and communicated to others for verification and possible challenge.  Through this process of communication and verification science progresses.

A paradigm is a working shared mental framework used by scientists to elaborate explanations of natural phenomena.  A similar older term was Zeitgeist, but a micro-zeitgeist is closer to the term paradigm as we use it today.  Zeitgeist, from German, means “spirit of the times”, an indication of the extant cultural framework that drives discovery and makes a home for it when it is found.  A framework is a mental construct which directs exploration of phenomena (see Kuhn, The structure of Scientific Revolutions), primarily by assembly of theories and usually at the cutting edge of knowledge.

Darwin’s idea is also sometimes erroneously called “The Theory of Natural Selection”.  This can suggest that the idea is still tentative and has not enough evidence to support it.  The common use of the term “theory” implies an idea that is suggestive or tentative, not the truth.

A theory in a scientific sense means an idea, or more precisely a framework which explain the relationships between a great mass of facts.  The framework could be any model, illustration, formula, or statement.  Theory and framework overlap in conceptual-semantic space.  A fact is any observation that can be observed by a great many independent observers.  Once an observation is confirmed it is regarded as a confirmed fact as repeatability is a necessary and essential aspect of a fact.  A theory explains facts, can predict other facts, and can elaborate hypothesizes for testing.

The Pioneer Gets All the Arrows

We were travelling when the 150th anniversary occurred and so we are now playing catch up on the celebration these movies represent.  The idea of Evolution by Natural Selection was a mental framework that explained how species arose and were transformed. As such it challenged the existing Zeitgeist – The idea of Special Creation (in 6000 BP) by a Divine Being, an idea left over from centuries when we humans were developing.  Evolution challenged the religious power holders at that time in England.  These power holders were an educated minority who were mostly ministers or priests of the Church of England (established by King Henry the 8th).  These were essentially the only people who were educated at that time (ca. 1850).  This power minority resisted change, innovation, and any challenge to their control of thought and the behavior of their “flocks”.  They are exposed in all their pomposity in both movies: the Creation and Darwin’s Darkest Hour.

These power people were the perennial people who live in fear of loss.  In the highly stratified British Society, like ours is heading toward today, there are those who were continually fearful of the ostracism by the clergy.  Ostracism seems to be a long term fear generator, which is understandable as we are social creatures.  This is particularly so if someone came up with a different worldview.  In the old days the power elites burned disbelievers. All power blocks operate this way, i.e., to resist change.  The lowest form of human control is fear.  Religions are based in large part on fear.  Fear of death created the idea of an afterlife, for example.  Positive incentives work 180 degrees differently and are to be encouraged.

The process of innovation can be graduated into the following four steps: 1) Denial, 2) Resistance, 3) Grudging Acceptance, 4) Boredom.

What’s Evolution?

Evolution, as explained by Darwin has two key aspects: variation and selection.  There are forces that produce variation in all individuals (e.g., mutation, biochemical disturbances, epigenetic factors, toxicants, etc.).  At the same time the forces of selection – like physical catastrophes, competitors, symbionts, sex, and natural enemies, all together determine whose genes and which genes are propagated.

Since most life is sexual to varying degrees, all gene propagation is by cooperating individuals, basically a fusing of female and a male cells.  Of course some mating is not cooperative.  Rape, for example, is still way too common.  And there are hermaphroditic forms which are self fertile and there are many species that use asexual reproduction (about 10% – see Zuk, Riddled with Life, p. 96).  We are related to all other life forms as each has its own genetic histories which demonstrate just how closely we are related to each other.

This means we are only a part of the Tree of Life, not the chosen species with a god given right to subdue the rest of the Biosphere and Ecosystem.  This theme is debated in historically recreated scenes in a number of these movies so they capture a slice of history along with some of the most important ideas invented so far.  We are living things and these Laws of Evolution – variation and selection – work on us at all times as with all other life forms.  And that is a most intereesting thing.

The Movies:

Creation, Darwin’s Darkest Hour and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea

For drama see these most human presentations about

Darwin, his relationships with his wife, children, friends and family.  In Creation, we have a historical fiction production with some great scenes, including many nature stories and animations relevant to Darwin’s ideas.  Here the drama about his loss of Annie, his favorite child is paramount.

The second movie “Darwin’s Darkest Hour” overlaps the first but plays up his wife’s part in his decision making and writing.  I found this too fabricated as I do not think Emma interacted with him concerning the ideas he created.   She was very religious and this did play a part in Darwin’s delay in publication, but she seems to be working in the movie on this Evolution theory with him at many times, which seems too much.

The two movies are both very well done, with good actors, including children.  Both movies seemed to play to the human aspects so as to depict Darwin as a breathing human, not the Satan the religious right has fabricated.  Shots of Darwin’s house, his study and desk and grounds are most interesting.

The third movie, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea

We liked this movie the best because it highlights his brother’s relationship (and some bits about his paternal family – a long line of atheists?) which the other two biographical movies seem to skip over.  It mixes biography via historical recreations which are livened by his brother’s comic, significant statements and coaching.  Also, there seems to be a bit of movie license as this movie does not build up the drama, for example, on Annie leaving the house for the last time as do the other two.  Which portrays most accurately?

This movie explains how and why his idea is and was dangerous – to the existing order and power structure with its religious opposition to facts and observations.  The power elites work hard to ignore facts and observations.  But this stance seems illogical at least, for belief and evolution are not in conflict per se and Darwin made efforts to avoid such conflicts, and never published about them.  Huxley’s role in Creation is accurate and most critical as is borne out by other biographical reports I have seen myself.

Certain religions and subsets of Christianity are certainly opposed to Darwin’s idea and that was and is where the danger lay.  Disbelief in Evolution certainly goes against the whole thrust of biological sciences and from where I sit this is the most dangerous thing.  Being opposed to even consideration of evolution means all such believers miss out on the wonders of creation and its shortcomings which we all must work to correct.  Clearly this religious denial against rational thought is bad because we are not created perfect nor is any other life form.  We are riddled with morphological and physiological defects medicine aims to correct, which is a humane movement based on science.  And to denie evidence means decision making is made on illusory thoughts.

What Darwin Never Knew – PBS, 112 mins.

In a word: genetics.  Darwin never knew about genetics which makes his ideas even more astounding! Consider, for example, the discoveries over the last 50 years, especially the last 10 years in DNA science, in the forensic field alone.  Over 250 wrongly accused death row inmates have been freed with DNA evidence showing they were not the cause of their crime.  Forensic science aside, the growth of DNA knowledge has been astounding, opening up potential areas for new gene therapies of great potential importance.

This movie is one of the most intelligent professional arguments for Evolution available. It is highly and visually instructive.  Now we know that DNA occurs in all living things and these molecules determine our structures and biochemistry.  On our 26 pairs of chromosomes are about 20-25,000 genes which are small proteinaceous compounds linked to a ribose (a 5 carbon sugar) helical base that create the proteins from which we are formed.  Now we know there are body shaping genes that turn on switch genes at the right time during embryogenesis, which turn on protein generating genes.

Now there are speculations that future medicine will manipulate our genetic base. Will this genetic mixing experiment produce benefits and stability before we destroy our life support system?  Maybe, maybe, or more likely it will be two steps forward and one back.  With my skeptical hat on it maybe more than one step back. All genetic changes are permanent and lasting generations.  And we can’t predict the weather 2 weeks out.  I would wait and see as the audacity of thinking we know better than evolution deserves some careful review.  Considering how fast and what a threat GMO crops are to the genetic diversity of plants alone makes me shudder.  But there are defects in our genetic makeup that are worth finding good substitutes for example, type I diabetes, and that would be great.

Great Transformations and Extinctions! – PBS, 2 hrs

This is the most informative of all the movies.  It is larger in scope and it updates recent evidence from archeology, and paleoanthropology.  4.6 billion Years (BYA) ago the first life arose.  Animal life followed about 600 MYA, mammals arose 200 million YA and all human history is only over the last 50 thousand years ago.  These facts go against the fundamentalist figure of origin of all life at 6,000 years ago.  This calculation was made by a bishop in the 19th century before Darwin, and most surprisingly is touted today in opposition to scientific fact.  It’s like two worlds in collision, one fact filled, the other illusion filled.

All life started in water.  Fish crawled out of water and crawled on the land.  First creatures evolved into reptiles, then birds, then mammals.  All these have 4 limbs, all are descended from a common ancestor,

370 million years ago (MYA).  Fossils found in PA give clues to this transformation.  Rocks from the geological period called the Devonian, south of the equator indicate a tropical zone at that time.   A key fossil of a small shoulder bone was found from a tetrapod in a stream bed.  It was one of first four legged fossil animals discovered.  This and other fossils indicate that legs were developed in water and then the animal left the water.  Textbooks were wrong, they hypothesized legs developed after the fish came onto land.  Science is self correcting, not like religion.

Scarcity of tetrapod fossils limited understanding this transition but a note about a small fossil tetrapod found in Greenland suggested possibilities for finding the missing link between fish and land vertebrates.  After 4 years of excavations, a complete skeleton was found.  It had gills, fish like tail, ends of arms were petal shaped, and had the first fossil hands found on earth.  Tetrapods did not need to develop limbs after coming out on land. They had them in the sea.  Such is the nature of the evidence supporting the idea of evolution.

An example of how science corrects itself is part of the story.  Consider that Darwin claimed whales, (which are mammals like us with living young), had reverted back to the oceans after living on the land.  This involved the loss of legs and arms, which converted to fins.  This idea about returning to the sea after living on land was a supposition by Darwin, but now the fossils to back up the idea are available after quite a search.  The search turned up some details of importance in tracing just how we arose from the oceans, as well as confirming Darwin’s guess that the ocean-going mammals reverted to the sea after living on the land.

For example, the Valley of the Whales in Africa is loaded with whale fossils over 40 million years old.  One fossil, called Bassilasaures had legs, derived from a wolf like animal who lived along an ancient sea.  Since that discovery, the list of transitional whale fossils has grown.  One can observe in these fossils a gradual migration of nostrils to the top of the head.  Whales do not swim like fish which swim side to side.  Dolphins like whales move their spines up and down.  This is derived from a land animal.  So there are whole groups of current marine mammals that returned to the oceans.  This overall process illustrates a pattern observed in many other fossil progressions which is simplified as “tinkering” – using the old developments in today’s animals, with gradual variations.

More notes to incorporate

Search for the genetic evidence for Evolution took more than a century.  A big part of the story involves the humble fruit fly commonly observed attacking spoiled bananas.  Fruit flies are idea animals for genetic studies because they are easy to culture, have high reproductive rates with many generations in a year, can be observed in small cages and under the stereoscope, a common tool in most biological labs.  Mike Levine played a key role in some of the most important steps in developing our knowledge of how development is guided by genes.  The embryos show how animals evolve by gene switches, special genes which turn on other genes which build proteins which form most of the cellular machinery.  The embryo is assembled, it turns out, by a sequence of cellular assemblies orchestrated by what are now called switch genes.  For this discovery he got a Noble Prize.

In his words: One night the work paid off: a moment saw a gene turned on in a band in an early embryo – a master switch to the thorax. This was the first body switch gene discovered. So, single genes acted like architects, but if on in the wrong place a freak – illustrating that there are genes to evolve body parts!

The Fantastic Burgess Shale Fossils

60,000 fossils from the Burgess shale in Colorado are the most amazing fossils collections ever found (for further info, pictures and recreation of the environment from that time see http://paleobiology.si.edu/burgess/).

A trilobite is an existing arthropod that models extinct arthropods, related to insects, spiders, and crabs.  These large arthropods can be still be found on the east coast (USA) just surviving, the populations being greatly reduced from just a hundred years ago by wasteful harvesting.  The range of fossils from the Burgess shale is tremendous, but most of the forms represented are now extinct, the trilobite is an exception.  It’s more like a living fossil (Gould discusses the Burgess Shale Fossils further in the Panda’s Thumb).

A Burgess fossil called picae was possibly the earliest vertebrate.  It is a small slug like critter with a nerve cord running the length of its body.  We have a nerve cord similar to this creature. Other Burgess fossils were very odd illustrating the vast creative power of evolution and the vast scope of extinctions.  All the basic body plans are represented in these fossils collections: radial, symmetrical, and segmented.  Evolution tinkers with the genetic materials not the bodies directly.

Embryos hold clues to how animals evolve.  Ontogeny reproduces phylogeny as an overview.  For example, human embryos have slits where gills occurred before, and most importantly, an underlying structure of repeating segments.  In the early 1900’s scientists working with fruit fly cultures observed some flies developed with legs in the wrong places.  Such developmental errors are examples of the process of variation Darwin used in his thinking.  These variations were produced in the lab using radiation and poisons to damage the genetic DNA which produced such errors in morphology that are relatively easy to study.  The fruit fly studies gave early geneticists one of their most favorite laboratory tools to discover how genes worked.

We now know much more about vertebrate evolution, from fossils and archeological discoveries.  We now know that primates changed to two legged walking which modified the skeleton.  It is possible to assemble skeletons showing comparative spine changes as it comes out of the skull, a wider pelvis to help walking upright, and a narrowed birth canal, which causes untold amounts of suffering and death.  Yet this sequence shows how we changed into a modern biped.  Knuckle walking is observable in chimps, and other primates, but not humans.  This view shows how evolution tinkers with its gene library, constantly changing and testing new combinations in living things.  There is no perfect design and the evolutionary process is the best explanation we have so far as to how we came about with all our good and bad features.

Evolution is simpler than you thought, works with packets of info in new ways and new combinations.  Commonality among animals all from a common ancestors, all of these branches have the genes, at the base also has the same set of genes.  Nobel Prize in 1995, universal set of genes which build all our structures, i.e., building embryos.

Our bodies have the same set of genes that all other life uses– we are not exceptions.  The process that created us took millions of years: – an ancestor left the trees and walked on two legs, over 4 MYA.  This was at a time when the African continent was changing from forest to savannah due to climate change.  Being able to walk on two legs opened new food sources available at greater distances.  Freeing the forelimbs away fromknuckle walking means our ancestors could carry things in their hands over long distances, which could have opened trading possibilities.  The impact of this change on our brain development is not discussed in any detail but one can assume this also occurred.  Over time this led to a larger brain creating a branch to H. sapiens.

Extinctions

The second part of this disc concerns extinctions, something we all need to know about as this threat seems more eminent than annihilation through nuclear war, although that should not be considered a subject to ignore at any future time.   To date there is evidence indicating 4 million years of extinctions – five have been traced out in the geological record.

Extinctions create new forms of life by eliminating competitors. A great example comes 65 MYA when an asteroid hit the earth just off the Yucatan peninsula where the submerged crater is still visible from the air.   This 65 MYA asteroid was larger than Mt. Everest.  It was the  5th known extinction called the “KT” event.  It eliminated the dinosaurs, giving rise to the mammals which survived and radiated, getting larger and more diverse (first small then larger).  They seemed to survive because they tunneled in the earth.  The new recovering planet was now without the dinosaurs, and made our existence possible.

Box 1: Excerpt from NASA newsletter, 9.19.11 concerning the origin of the asteroid that hit the earth 65 MYA.

While scientists are confident a large asteroid crashed into Earth approximately 65 million years ago, leading to the extinction of dinosaurs and some other life forms on our planet, they do not know exactly where the asteroid came from or how it made its way to Earth. A 2007 study using visible-light data from ground-based telescopes first suggested the remnant of a huge asteroid, known as Baptistina, as a possible suspect. …

“As a result of the WISE science team’s investigation, the demise of the dinosaurs remains in the cold case files,” said Lindley Johnson, program executive for the Near Earth Object (NEO) Observation Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “The original calculations with visible light estimated the size and reflectivity of the Baptistina family members, leading to estimates of their age, but we now know those estimates were off. With infrared light, WISE was able to get a more accurate estimate, which throws the timing of the Baptistina theory into question.” 

WISE surveyed the entire celestial sky twice in infrared light from January 2010 to February 2011. The asteroid-hunting portion of the mission, called NEOWISE, used the data to catalogue more than 157,000 asteroids in the main belt and discovered more than 33,000 new ones.

After such massive extinctions Evolution then recreates a new balance.  Now we are causing a new extinction catastrophe.  Our most severe test is in the future.  Today we are at 6 billion and growing.  We are causing 100 times the rate of extinctions experienced in the past, albeit much slower than an asteroid hit, from habitat destruction primarily.

But it’s a race between whether we will produce our own extinction or will it be caused by an asteroid, nuclear war or climate change, when is also up for grabs, too.  An extinction produced by an asteroid or comet is not far fetched.  This will probably eliminate human life well before our sun collapses.  NASA is orbiting a satellite searching system to plot the expected paths of the biggest asteroids.  I applaud this effort compared to the search for extraterrestrial life, which seems impractical.  Besides we are not taking care of the life we know about here on Earth, which we have not even documented adequately.

An Old Movie: Inherit The Wind, An Historical Recreation of the Scopes Trial

A historical recreation with Spencer Tracey as the defending trial lawyer for Scopes.  Spencer Tracey portrays the famous defense lawyer, Clarence Darrow losses to a jury of locals.  For more about Darrow see the play about his life: Clarence Darrow: from Netflix:  1974 NR 80 minutes

David W. Rintels’s acclaimed stage play, based on the biography by Irving Stone, springs to life in this one-man show that originally aired on network television, starring Oscar winner Henry Fonda in the title role. Relayed mainly through monologue, the action chronicles crusading attorney Clarence Darrow’s most famous public trials, including the Scopes “monkey” trial and his controversial defense of child murderers Leopold and Loeb.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:  Scopes Trial Summary

Tennessee v. Scopes

Court Criminal Court of Tennessee
Full case name The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes
Date decided July 21, 1925
Citation(s) None
Judge(s) sitting John T. Raulston

Case history

Subsequent action(s) Scopes v. State (1926)

The Scopes Trial—formally known as The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes and informally known as the Scopes Monkey Trial—was a landmark American legal case in 1925 in which high school biology teacher, John Scopes, was accused of violating Tennessee’s Butler Act which made it unlawful to teach evolution.[1]

Scopes was found guilty, but the verdict was overturned on a technicality and he was never brought back to trial. The trial drew intense national publicity, as national reporters flocked to the small town of Dayton, to cover the big-name lawyers representing each side. William Jennings Bryan, three time presidential candidate for the Democrats, argued for the prosecution, while Clarence Darrow, the famed defense attorney, spoke for Scopes. The trial saw modernists, who said religion was consistent with evolution, against fundamentalists who said the word of God as revealed in the Bible took priority over all human knowledge. The trial was thus both a theological contest, and a trial on the veracity of modern science regarding the creation-evolution controversy. The teaching of evolution expanded, as fundamentalist efforts to use state laws to reverse the trend had failed in the court of public opinion.[2]

The Genius of Charles Darwin – 2 Discs by Athena

These discs mostly cover Richard Dawkins’s ideas about evolution, the most famous of which is the selfish gene idea.  This means that genes run things and they are only trying to perpetuate themselves through the phenotype.  Sounds logical until one tries to connect the gene(s) to phenotypic manifestations precisely.  I would love to see such a linkage.  Maybe Dawkins knows this and I just need to study his writings and statements further.

Lots of talking heads in these discs but the real meat of current thinking is clearly presented.  I found it hard to be as generous to the religious believers as Dawkins is, but they get their time here.  But it is clear they are in denial of the evidence and do not face the issue directly.

The second disc is a gallery of Dawkin’s interviews with current leading figures in the Evolution world.

Great stuff but get ready for talking heads.

Darwin’s Secret Notebooks – National Geographic Channel.

This movie retraces the voyage of the , which carried Darwin around the world for 5 years.  In this movie we visit the actual places where Darwin found particular fossils and made important observations, particularly the Galapagos Islands off the West Coast of Peru.

Darwin’s Voice

This is entirely a biography of Charles Darwin.  I discovered this DVD after seeing all of the above on Netflix.  It capsulates the life of Darwin, filling in various gaps in the other films.  It should be seen first, but is less dramatic and drama is what holds one’s interest.  So maybe it’s good to see in down here at the end.

Final Comments

What the religious people think about evolution, if they ever take the time to do so, is up for grabs.  Their view seems mostly about denial, i.e., not believing in a fantastic amount and quality of evidence.  The sorry thing is that anybody who learns about evolution realizes that its coevolutionary character pits living things against each other as host and parasite, predator and prey, cooperators and competitors, etc., so as to create genetic variation and selection.  This means the world as we know it is a vicious place, full of threats that want to take our lives away.  Consequently, any humanist with compassion works against these evolutionary forces.  To deny that these forces exist, one puts their head in the sand, or in “the hands of a nonexistent God or gods.  We humanists protect the weak, use compassion to help those weakened and diseased, work to correct and compensate for evolutions errors, and appreciate the wondrous world evolution created.

There is certainly grandeur in this view of life, but it’s not a perfect world and we need to work to correct evolutions mistakes – rise above the mistakes we inherited.  But our knowledge is weak when it comes to how we as a species can reduce the impact from the threats we know about, to say nothing about what we don’t know about, which I think is the greater problem.