Sunday, September 27, 2009

First thoughts on "Creation"

Yesterday afternoon, I went to see "Creation", the new film out centred on Charles Darwin's relationships with his wife and his daughter, Annie. I guess I am in a unique position in writing this as I am sitting about two hundred yards from Montreal House in Malvern, where Annie died in 1851 and I live on land that was once part of the estate of the Lodge, the house in which Darwin and his family (including Annie) stayed for a few months in 1849.

But geographical proximity is not the real issue here--I have been far too close psychologically and intellectually to Darwin and his life, and Annie's role in it, for far too long to ever approach the movie as most viewers will. With that in mind, I was preparing to be disappointed, but in fact for the most part I enjoyed the movie, as did my children, because I remembered to tell myself that it was a work of imagination not historical biography.

There are lots of minor historical inaccuracies in the film, but as Eugenie Scott has pointed out, "Creation" will bring many aspects of Darwin's life, particularly his family life, to a wider audience, including the tragic loss of his daughter here in Malvern and the misery of his chronic illness. The acting is great, particularly Martha West as Annie and real husband and wife team Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly as Charles and Emma. And the lavish cinematography is a treat.

There were two things in the film I did not like. One was the way in which it flitted from one part of Darwin's life to another, back and forth across the decades. I would have preferred a simpler narrative. But more problematic was the way in which the film inter-linked Darwin's various struggles, intellectual and emotional, when as far as I am aware they were never linked. For example, there is no evidence that the death of Annie Darwin had any effect whatsoever on Darwin's work on the Origin of Species. And it is unclear to me whether differences in attitude to religion between Charles and Emma Darwin, which were clearly raised as an issue around the time of their marriage, persisted as a problem in their relationship as late as the film suggests, i.e. into the late 1850s. I may be wrong and will have to look into this, but the level of emotional intensity on Darwin's part in the film on this issue strikes me as off-kilter.

But all-in-all, a good film which I advise you to go and see! At the very least, it will banish the tired icon of Darwin as merely an old man with a bushy beard!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The evolution of the Origin revisualised

A few years back, Peter Robinson and Barbara Bordalejo, both textual scholars, came to work here in Birmingham. They, along with local New Testament scholar David Parker, have been at the forefront of efforts to exploit computers in textual scholarship and use the kind of phylogenetic approaches used on biological sequences to unravel the patterns of evolutionary branching among manuscripts. Peter and Barbara had worked extensively on Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, but shortly after her arrival here, Barbara was searching for a fresh project. David Parker, perhaps rather provocatively for a Reverend Professor, suggested that Barbara, Peter and I work together on the evolution of Darwin's Origin of Species, treating Darwin's publications as "textual genomes". We did some preliminary work on this and submitted a proposal to the Arts and Humanities Research Council, but alas it was not funded...

But the best proof that one is working on something worthwhile is when someone else comes up with the same idea quite independently (cf Wallace on Ternate!). So it is gratifying to see two examples of people doing the kind of analyses and developing the same kind of visualisation tools that we envisaged:
  • The (En)tangled Word Bank is the work of computer scientist Greg McInerny and London-based visual artist Stefanie Posavec (see Science Blog Post) and is certainly pretty, although whether it can be used by scholars to unravel Darwin's thinking is unclear.
  • Ben Fry's The Preservation of Favoured Traces looks more useful and provides a more intuitive view of changes, but sadly appears to lack a zoom tool, so that one can only gain a "God's eye" view of the whole text, without been able to look closely at individual sections.
But both projects provide a fascinating proof of concept and it would be great to see them integrated more fully into a project like Darwin Online, where they could make a real contribution to Darwin scholarship!

And now a request please! Can either or both projects now incorporate the two forerunners of the Origin: Darwin's 1842 Pencil Sketch and his 1844 essay (both transcribed here), so we can see quite how much of the Origin was written over ten years before Darwin started on his "big book"  Natural Selection (which should also be included). It always amazes me how much of the structure of Darwin's argument was laid out in those two manuscripts from the 1840s, but it would be nice to see visually how many of the words are in common too.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

I have outsold my advance!

Just a brief note to report the good news that I have outsold the advance against royalties that I was given for my book, The Rough Guide to Evolution and have just had an additional payment. I think only about half of Rough Guides do this at all and I was quietly hoping to do so within the first year of publication. But the fact that I have done so in the first six months is good news indeed (as is the fact that a French translation courtesy of Edition Tournon is in the offing!). 

Thanks to all of you who bought the book and/or recommended it!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Darwin Song Project

I have to confess that there is not much folk music in my iTunes library, but last week my copy of the Darwin Song Project CD arrived. And I am impressed!

The Darwin Song Project is the fruit of a frenetic collaboration between eight of the world's top folk artists, who composed the 17 songs of the album during a week-long retreat in a Shropshire farmhouse and then performed them in the new Theatre Severn in Darwin's home town Shrewsbury in March this year.

Even though it incorporates the Annie hypothesis, my favourite song on the album is the Dylanesque "Kingdom Come", which investigates how differences in religious belief divided Charles from his wife Emma. It opens with what must be a unique first line--an account of the life cycle of ichneumonid wasps, parasitic wasps that lay their eggs in the flesh of living caterpillars and which troubled Darwin!

Another delight is this mock-Country number, "We'll him down". I dedicate this YouTube link to all my friends from Dover, Pennsylvania (Lauri, Cyndi, Tammy and Nick)! Let's hope their Creationist compatriots realise that the song is ironic!

Videos for three other songs from the project are also available on YouTube. You can find out more about the project from its website and from this BBC Radio 4 show. And you can place your order for the CD here.