Friday, April 30, 2010

“Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life”

“Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life” is a new DVD (2009) from the BBC and from their premiere naturalist, David Attenborough, who has produced many nature programs, all of which have amazing photography. This latest program also has stunning visuals, but it is a more intimate approach aiming at understanding the process by which Darwin developed his theory of evolution by natural selection. At the center of this development was Darwin’s struggle with the religious outlook of most of the western world. This outlook not only maintained that God created each species separately, but also that humans were created to be above the natural world. Humans were created to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:28) This passage has given license to all those who have exploited the world for selfish gain, leading most recently to the biggest oil spill in history.
Darwin not only put forth evidence that species changed with natural selection, but that humans were just as much a part of the natural world as were all the other organisms. Thus, he saw that his ideas would challenge not only given religious positions, but also the established hierarchy of humans above the animals and plants. None of this sat well with Britain’s very class conscious movers and shakers. So, Darwin’s continual bouts of illness may have had an organic basis, but they were likely exacerbated by his anxiety about the reception of his ideas.
Despite his anxiety, he was forced to publish his great book, “The Origin of Species,” sooner than he had planned as the result of receiving an essay from another naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, who presented the idea of evolution by natural selection independently. So, Darwin promptly wrote “Origin” with the general reader in mind, and, at its publication in 1859, as he predicted, it was not received well. Of course, we are still dealing with the objections of those who don’t share Darwin’s vision. This vision not only presented a world at odds with the biblical account, but, perhaps even more important, it placed humans among, not above, other organisms. The copious evidence he assembled in the book to support his ideas, as well as the mountains of evidence that has come forward since, has not changed the minds of those unwilling to be convinced by evidence. A recent instance of this has been the hearings of the Texas Board of Education, where evolution was presented as being against the established order of a “Christian nation.”
Attenborough does a masterly job of presenting, not only the facts on which the concept of evolution is based, but also Darwin’s struggle to bring this idea to the consciousness of the world. I hope you watch this program.