Last night, the first episode of The Genius of Charles Darwin was aired on Channel 4 here in the UK. The reviews I read this morning were, perhaps predictably, of the usual sneering variety — full of ridiculous statements such as “Dawkins, for such an enthusiastic Darwinist, seems to have no faith at all in social Darwinism” (of course he doesn’t; he is not nor ever will be a social Darwinist — episode two should clarify why, judging by the trailer) and, “He then proceeded to shout out the order of the evolution of species at them. “Fish! Amphibians! Reptiles! Birds! Mammals!” he yelled, as if the message would become plainer if it were delivered at elevated volume” (funnily enough, it didn’t sound at all like yelling to me!) As I read these reviews, from so-called professional journalists, I wondered firstly if they’d been watching the same documentary that I had and, secondly, how much these poorly informed imbeciles were being paid.
With this in mind, I’d like to offer my summary, as promised to Baba, of episode one. My main concern is to share the points Dawkins made during the show, for the benefit of those not living in the UK and with problems accessing YouTube. Where necessary, I will share my impressions.
At the very outset of the show, Dawkins once again stipulates that Darwin’s work is one of the reasons why he doesn’t believe in God. This has already been sneered at in the press (“as if we didn’t know already”), but it was a relevant and important statement. No duality can exist. It is one thing or the other.
The first programme essentially deals with who Darwin was and how he discovered his theory, what it is and why it matters. Dawkins wants to convince the viewer that evolution is a fact with undeniable evidence.
He begins at the time of Darwin’s birth two hundred years ago, explaining that sailors and explorers were sending home a dizzying array of animal specimens from all parts of Britain’s growing empire. Every animal was believed to have a unique place in God’s creation. At school in Shrewsbury, Darwin was taught that God had created the earth and all its rich variety of life just six thousand years ago. Today, thanks to Darwin we [some of us, at least] know, differently.
In the UK today, four out of ten people still cling to the old ideas. In order to attempt to show how little evolutionary theory is taught in our schools, Dawkins visits a class of 15- to 16-year-olds. He was immediately faced with religion-based opposition. One young man politely points out that he prefers the evidence of “the holy book”. There seems to be a complete lack of understanding of the difference between believing in something and having enough evidence to know that something is a fact. One pupil asserts that people can believe whatever they want.
Dawkins takes the class to the coast to show them fossil evidence.
Before seeing the results of this visit, however, we are told that Darwin as a child was probably as much of Creationist as some of these children. This leads into a biographical section. Those familiar with Darwin will already know much of this, those who aren’t should follow this link.
In 1831 at the age of twenty-two Darwin’s family connections secured him a round the world trip on the survey ship HMS Beagle. Over a period of five years he collected samples but wasn’t satisfied. He had doubts about the biblical story of creation. He questioned why God had made two very similar but slightly different types of Rhea birds. Dawkins retraces his steps on the Galapagos Islands. Darwin wonders why God would create different types of iguanas etc on more or less identical small islands? Were they related rather than separately created? The picture becomes all the more intriguing when Darwin discovers fossils.
We are then told that Darwin was struck by the difference in size between large ground sloth fossils and the smaller modern sloth. Darwin also immersed himself in the work of Charles Lyell, applying geological principles to the problem of life.
Back on the beach with the schoolchildren, Dawkins teaches them about fossils, layering etc. There is muted enthusiasm… an unwillingness to commit, accept. They seem to be learning, or paying attention, at least, but there is a definite barrier there. Very real and, for me, alarming. I can’t help but compare it to what it would have been like in my day. In my fairly run-of-the-mill comprehensive school in the late 1970s/early 1980s it would have been quite different. We’d have given Dawkins a hard time, but religion would not have been an issue — or at least not the issue it seems to be today. There certainly would have been at least one (me!) who would have been quick to share his atheistic tendencies.
Back to Darwin. He returned from his round the world trip changed. He is a celebrity. He sees that the various forms of life aren’t fixed. They must have evolved.
Without the benefit of modern tools such as the Internet, Darwin sent out thousands of letters to the experts of the day in order that he might accurately develop his theory. He saw cross-species similarities in skeletons and embryos etc.
Dawkins uses Emma Darwin’s piano to explain the scale of geologic time, an understanding of which is vital to Darwin’s theory.
Darwin still needed to understand how life had evolved. The process. He became fascinated by pigeons and realised that breeders had used “artificial selection”. Species can change. Nature works in a similar way. Natural selection favours those better equipped to deal with certain tasks etc.
We next visit Kenya, where Dawkins himself was born. It is a harsh environment — with the ”kill or be killed” way of life more than obvious. For the animals in the wild there is no central authority, no safety net. Darwin connects nature’s brutal reality with ideas from economic theory on population growth etc. Variation in individuals provides a crucial difference in chances of survival. Those better equipped to survive live on to reproduce. A fairly standard introduction to these ideas. Dawkins also adds that one species hones his skills on another. The predictable reference to an “arms race”.
In an attempt to highlight our personal war with viruses, Dawkins then visits Nairobi. We meet a prostitute with HIV resistance. We Europeans, we are told, are descendants of those who were able to withstand the plague. The unstoppable force of natural selection.
Back to Darwin. The point is made of just how aware Darwin was of the implications of his work — how upsetting it would be from the religious perspective. He was nevertheless persuaded to publish.
Next we are introduced to Randal Keynes, the great-great-grandson of Darwin. He describes Darwin as modest. He was confident of his theory but nevertheless doubted at times. On the Origin of Species sold out in two days and has never been out of print since (one hundred and fifty years.)
One gap remained. How were improvements preserved from generation to generation? This gap is addressed by genetics. Mapping of the genome is proof of Darwin’s “Tree of Life”. It is not a theory in the common sense anymore. Evolution is fact. Genetic code is proof.
Modern science answered Darwin’s problem. Fact.
Returning to the schoolchildren. They are still predominantly unpersuaded. Still no understanding of the difference between belief and knowledge.
To finish, I would just like to stress that this is just a very brief summary. Any mistakes are mine. (Incidentally, it appears that the show is in the process of being uploaded to YouTube. Watch this space.)
[EDIT: episode one in full can now be seen here.]
[EDIT: episode two summary can be seen here.]