There’s a new movie coming out about Darwin that does something different: instead of talking about the science of evolution, it’s about Darwin’s personal life. Roger Ebert has seen it and offers a few thoughts on the subject matter (it isn’t a review, though!), and it sounds interesting — I’ll be seeing it if it appears in Morris, which isn’t likely, or when it’s available on DVD, which is much more likely. I’m not worried that it will provide comfort to creationists, but I am a little concerned that it may Hollywoodize history a little bit.
Ebert points out that it focuses on the difficulties he had with religion, and how it colored his marriage and work. I don’t know how well it represents reality, though. It’s a lens we use to look back on the 19th century, but it may not be entirely fair to Darwin’s views.
Fearing to offend his wife, he was shy about extending his belief to the evolution of mankind itself, but it is certainly what he privately thought. He denied being a atheist, but said agnosticism came close to reflecting his views. Apart from his research and ideas about science, that conflict in this marriage and with the conventional religious of his times was the most significant thing about him.
I have my doubts that the conflict with religion was a major issue with Darwin. He avoided it very effectively, and did not make public pronouncements on religious belief. He differed from his wife’s opinion, but here’s the thing: there isn’t the slightest hint in any of his writings that he was even tempted to disagree with Emma, and the impression I get is that at every step his priority was to accommodate his ideas with his wife’s beliefs.
Yes, I said it: Charles Darwin was an accommodationist.
I don’t think the most significant thing in his life was the conflict with religion at all — his family and his happy relationship with his wife and children was #1, and I don’t think ‘conflict’ was a word that applied (although, of course, it would have to be emphasized in a movie).
It also leaves something out: Darwin himself said that his greatest talent was as a businessman. Over his lifetime, he invested carefully and wisely and grew a small seed of money given at his marriage into a huge fortune. If anyone wants to sort out what contributed most to his scientific work, I think that fact should loom much larger than a slight tension on matters of religion in which he always deferred to his wife.