Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Darwin's Struggle: The Evolution of the Origin of Species

As many of you are aware the BBC is dedicating a series of television and radio programmes to the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of 'On the Origin of Species', under the title
Doubtless many of you will have watched David Attenborough's Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life on BBC1 last Sunday night at 9pm, and if not you can still catch it on the BBC iPlayer. This programme gives us a brief overview of Darwin's life's work interspersed with much library footage showing the young David Attenborough's discoveries of the same patterns in nature. It covers arguments for and against theories of natural selection and evolution, and takes us on a journey through evolution from single-celled organisms up to the top shoots of the tree of life, and all with some very snazzy graphics!

However, more fascinating, I found was the rigorous exploration of Darwin's life leading up to his great works as is conveyed through Darwin's Struggle: The Evolution of the Origin of Species.

Jeremy Bristow's production gives us a brutally accurate description of the truly tragic life Charles Darwin lead: His family touched by the tragedies of the deaths of three of his children finally causing him to lose his faith and to damn religion... The influence of his daughter Anne's death on chapter 3 of On the origin of species as he sees the face of nature stricken as her face was with the struggle to survive...
His concern for his wife Emma's fear that he will be damned to hell.

It is easy to forget, amongst visions of his great works and great voyages that Charles Darwin was a man leading a man's life with all the pressures we experience today and more. His personal growth is almost as amazing as the theories it precedes.

Darwin's Struggle unravels myths surrounding the roots of his theories, noting, for example, the overstated significance of the Beagle voyage from which his natural history collections were in fact meagre and badly classified. His true epiphanies appear to take place not in some glamourous exotic country but in the chalk banks and unmown lawns of his Kentish home. Simple experiments he conducted recording survivors and losers in the struggle for existance in patches of grass gave the strongest base to his hypotheses. He even wondered at his own children whom he considered in relation to orangutans in the zoo. His exploration of artificial selection through pigeon breeding, laws defining hive structure from bee keeping, and complexities amongst barnacles all seem to have been overlooked by the media in the past.

Terrified of the reception of his book Darwin lived through years of torment and self doubt. Losing himself in research, desperate to shield his theory from anticipated criticisms Darwin endured years of secrecy only to become distraught at the possibility of his work being undercut by that of Alfred Wallace: All my originality smashed.

Eventually Darwin published his book only highlighting the effects of his theories on species and avoiding the implications of the origins of mankind; but these implications were not lost on his close teacher and mentor Adam Sedgewick who brutally denounced his work in a devastating letter to him.

He was open to vast ridicule from religious leaders as well as devout christian scientists of the time.

Darwin's Struggle: The Evolution of the Origin of Species is a fascinating exploration of the life-long torment which lead to one of the most important theories in science today. One of the most honest portrayals of Darwin to date, I'd recommend anyone interested in his great works to watch Darwin's Struggle and learn about the true evolution of the origin of species.

You can watch Darwin's Struggle on the iPlayer until Monday the 9th February and it will also air again tonight (Tuesday 3rd) at 7.30pm on BBC4.

Darwin's Struggle was produced by Jeremy Bristow of the BBC's Natural History Unit.


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