Review: The Genius of Charles Darwin


In recent years Richard Dawkins — formerly Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University — has achieved a measure of notoriety for his outspoken atheism; indeed, he possesses a collection of tasteless e-mail to show for it. However, The Genius of Charles Darwin — a three-episode program (139 minutes) he narrated for Channel 4 in the United Kingdom — is principally concerned with scientific evidence and critical thinking in teaching about evolution and the difficulties posed by fundamentalist Christians. This is an excellent program, both for Dawkins's clear presentation of evolutionary principles and the informative display of vacuous arguments by evolution's critics.

Episode 1: Life, Darwin & Everything is a synopsis of Darwin's accomplishments, starting with English religious and philosophical views of nature at the start of the nineteenth century. This episode is constructed around Dawkins's several hours of interaction with a small group of teenage British school children whose religious family backgrounds have made them refractory to understanding the reality of evolution. This episode provides a basic primer in biological evolution and an invitation to children to think for themselves. Not surprisingly, Dawkins conveys the message that belief in the supernatural is neither necessary nor relevant to understanding and appreciating the beauty and complexity of the natural world.

Episode 2: The Fifth Ape. People are fascinated by other primates, yet uncomfortable with the idea we have a shared heritage. As Queen Victoria put it, apes are "painfully and disagreeably human." Dawkins takes the viewer to East Africa and the profusion of fossils relating to human origins. There we also meet Bishop Boniface Adoyo, the chair of the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya, who is convinced that he is not related to the fossils and wants to bar their public display in an evolutionary context. The bishop conveys a fundamental misunderstanding of evolution, which Dawkins attempts to rectify.

This episode discusses the evolution of human nature, focusing on the question of altruism: how and why natural selection produced individuals who suspend self-interest and behave kindly towards one another. (A tip of the hat to Robert Trivers would have been appropriate, for Trivers showed how reciprocal altruism can be in the self-interests of the participants' genes and thus evolve, even when the participating altruists are members of different species.) I share Dawkins's view that in humans the propensity for reciprocal acts of altruism probably evolved in small groups of people, building on an older and biologically broader predisposition to take care of close kin.

Dawkins visits the psychologist Steven Pinker to talk about evolved moral impulses, the affective feelings such as sympathy and gratitude that support altruistic behavior. Dawkins's brief discussion with the primate behaviorist Frans de Waal bears close listening, for it shows how important misunderstandings can occur between fellow scientists. De Waal does not understand the metaphor of the selfish gene as referring to the genes' central role in natural selection. Instead he connects it with selfish behavior, not recognizing that the concept of reciprocal altruism implies an evolved capacity with deep roots in the human (or even ape) psyche. The roots of altruism are so deep that people frequently feel empathy or extend help when stirred by the plight of a total stranger. Although the program only scratches the surface, this important subject cuts the heart out of the creationist assumption that evolution has nothing to say about moral feelings.

As part of an antievolutionary argument, some people assert that the goalless, soulless, struggle for existence is an unacceptable model for human affairs, a proposition with which Dawkins is in full agreement. He points out, however, that for many conservatives, the dog-eat-dog competition of business seems natural. He argues that the comparison of business with evolution is only an analogy, for the complexities of economic and biological systems are very different.

Dawkins's discussion of reciprocal altruism is the meat of this episode, but it takes a bizarre detour into human sexual selection and female choice. The scene opens on a street in downtown New York with Dawkins standing next to the Naked Cowboy, who is writhing in his jockey shorts with sweet young things waiting to cling to him. Then it moves to interviews with young women who wish to become pregnant via sperm donors whose profiles they first vet. From all this we learn that women's interest in a mate includes kindness as well as looks and intelligence. Amazingly, resources are not mentioned.

Episode 3: God Strikes Back. Viewers who know little of Darwin's personal life will be interested in his change in religious views and his dissatisfaction with his children's school that failed "to let the science do the talking." Today, there is still controversy about letting science do the talking when the subject is evolution. To set the stage, Dawkins visits with John Mackay, a fundamentalist Australian preacher who believes that knowing requires seeing, and as you can't see atoms or past events, science must therefore be faith. A British chemistry teacher who believes the world is less than 10 000 years old illustrates an infrastructural problem for science education. Wendy Wright of Concerned Women for America gives us a glimpse of the current arguments of those anti-evolutionists who nevertheless acknowledge small evolutionary changes within a species. Discussion with Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, provides yet another theological view, one comfortable with the reality of evolution but poetic about whether God ever intervenes in the affairs of the world. With Randolph Nesse, Dawkins addresses the false notion of "intelligent design": evolution is not intelligent and cannot go back to the drawing board to correct mistakes; it must build on what it has already done. Consequently evolutionary adaptations are fraught with compromises and imperfections.

Although I share Dawkins's views about religion, I think his interview with four British school teachers displays a surprising naivety. Dawkins is convinced that science teachers in public schools are tiptoeing too respectfully around religious beliefs that are inconsistent with scientific facts. The teachers explain that their job is to teach science, not religion — a good model for this country if we are to remain consistent with judicial rulings. Teaching young children what we mean by evidence and how science provides understanding for so many features of the world presents a significant challenge. It is hard to know whether, when, and how children will accommodate a conflict with their family's religious views; for most it requires time and a measure of experience with life. Moreover, in a democracy public education is burdened with politics, so it is not possible to offer a general recommendation where in the educational system prior to university this challenge can be effectively introduced. Dawkins seems to have forgotten that it was his father, not a schoolteacher, who introduced him to the concept of evolution and drew him so enthusiastically away from religion.

The Genius of Charles Darwin shows wonderfully the science that Darwin set in motion, yet further reflection also suggests more distant vistas. Belief systems are frequently formed in childhood and resist later alteration. We pride ourselves on having rational brains despite our ready capacity to deny valid information that does not comport with cherished beliefs. There are doubtless evolutionary reasons for this imperfection, despite its contribution to misplaced romantic attachments, economic disasters, and military defeats. Belief in the supernatural is widespread and present in all cultures (itself a fascinating evolutionary outcome), but the manifestations are very diverse and cultural in origin. All the major religions share some common rules for behavior that function to stabilize relations within the group. This cultural convergence is the work of brains with shared, evolved features for social living. There is much to understand in evolutionary terms about our extraordinary cognitive capacities as well as our inevitable tragic frailties.

Disk 1 also contains three evolutionary vignettes, each developed around one of the reptiles on the Galápagos Islands. These are full of information about other organisms, the environment, and history. The script is elegant and is Dawkins at his best. I recommend these 24 minutes to anyone planning a visit to the Galápagos as well as those who have already been.

Disk 2 contains unedited interviews with individuals who appear in The Genius of Charles Darwin. Dawkins's discussion with the science teachers is compelling; they are clearly skilled professionals, understand the educational problems posed by complex material, and are not cowed by the Oxford presence. Teachers who are introducing children to evolution may find this discussion interesting. Randolph Nesse talks about how an understanding of evolution enriches the practice of medicine, a relatively new subject. Wendy Wright displays remarkable indifference to evidence and John Mackay an astonishing self-assurance in his pinched understanding of the power of science. In contrast, Dawkins's conversation with the philosopher Daniel Dennett illuminates how these two articulate humanists see the joy and goodness of life ennobled by the human capacity to understand our origins and our connections to the rest of nature.

About the Author(s): 

Timothy H Goldsmith
Yale University
Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology
PO Box 208103
New Haven CT 06520-8103

Timothy H Goldsmith is Professor Emeritus of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at Yale University. He is the author of The Biological Roots of Human Nature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991) and, with William Zimmerman, Biology, Evolution, and Human Nature (New York: Wiley, 2000). He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a former chair of the board of Biological Sciences Curriculum Study.

The Genius of Charles Darwin
Timothy H Goldsmith
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
presented by Richard Dawkins
Silver Spring [MD]: Athena, 2009. DVD, 2 disks, 139 and 260 minutes