Acorn Media // 2008 // 139 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge William Lee (Retired) // October 15th, 2009
"What Darwin achieved was nothing less than a complete explanation of
the complexity and diversity of all life. And yet it's one of the simplest ideas
that anyone ever had."
-- Richard Dawkins
After English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882) formulated his theory of natural selection, he delayed going public with his findings because he knew it would be a bombshell for Victorian society. For another twenty years, he accumulated data and corresponded with his peers to test his theory before publishing On the Origin of Species in 1859. A century and a half later, the idea of evolution is still controversial and leading the charge for the Darwinists is Richard Dawkins. This informative, but one-sided, documentary series is about Dawkins as much as it is about Darwin.
The main program consists of three episodes, approximately 45 minutes each, hosted by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins:
* Episode 1: Life, Darwin and Everything
The first installment presents an overview of Charles Darwin's life and times. The history of his Victorian era upbringing and his journey on the HMS Beagle helps to fill in the details of the man whose ideas would rock the world. During a side trip, natural selection theory gets a contemporary case application when Dawkins goes to Nairobi to speak with a prostitute who appears to be immune from HIV.
* Episode 2: The Fifth Ape
Addressing the "dark side of Darwinism," Dawkins explores situations where Darwin's theory is misinterpreted or wrongly applied. Adolf Hitler was not a Darwinist, we are pointedly reminded. In another instance, the cutthroat world of business supposedly subscribes to Darwin's "survival of the fittest" model. Altruism -- the trait of helping others without self interest -- is the mysterious quality, Dawkins explains, that sets us apart from the rest of the animal world.
* Episode 3: God Strikes Back
The battle is on for the minds of the next generation. Dawkins looks at the current fight over how evolution can or cannot be taught in public schools. We also see him getting into arguments with intelligent design advocates.
Admittedly, I'm not a religious person so evolutionary theory has never been a difficult pill for me to swallow. It's not that it was an easy thing for me to wrap my head around, but I didn't have a fundamental part of my belief system jeopardized by accepting it. It also helps that science counts for a lot in my book and not because it's my surrogate "religion" but because my curious and logical mind skews that way. Ever consider how an average person in 1859, the product of a typical Christian upbringing, would have felt to hear Darwin's theory of natural selection? The first episode of The Genius of Charles Darwin does a good job of painting the picture of British society at that time and I can imagine the average Churchgoer was equal parts incredulous and livid.
Darwin came from a conservative family and married a devout Christian woman so he too was uncomfortable with his theory. I learned from this series that he barely even mentioned human evolution in On the Origin of Species, merely writing near the end that "light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history." However, the implications of his findings were pretty clear and even after 150 years, the controversy hasn't settled.
Richard Dawkins -- also a featured interviewee in The Atheism Tapes -- is the host of this documentary series and it's clear that promoting Darwin's ideas is a personal crusade for him. In the first episode, he visits a high school science class, asking a multicultural group of students what they know about evolutionary theory. He summarizes, not surprisingly, that a few hours of science class can't compete with a lifetime of religious indoctrination.
To the credit of Dawkins and series producer-director Russell Barnes, Darwin's theory of natural selection is explained in terms that are easy to understand. So much so that it does seem like a simple, almost elegant, method by which to explain the diversity of life forms in our world. Perhaps that is why Darwin doesn't actually feature much in the second and third episodes. With the basic idea established, Dawkins explores its implications in the real world and that strategy really makes this series worth watching. I also appreciate Dawkins's personal comments on Darwinian principles. For example, he thinks "survival of the fittest" is an abhorrent way for human society to function.
The interviews that Dawkins conducts range from being informative, amusing and exasperating. Fellow scientists and like-minded thinkers make their contributions. Where it can be frustrating is when Dawkins talks to those opposed to Darwin's theory. These encounters quickly degenerate into polite arguments and there is no middle ground to be had. We're simply watching two people stubbornly talking past each other. In the formal program we don't dwell on these moments for too long and Dawkins's narration reveals how frustrated he is with these people. But how do you talk to someone about scientific evidence when he or she absolutely denies its reliability? How do you point out the facts that support a theory to someone who sees them as lies?
Acorn Media has released this two-disc set under its educational titles imprint Athena and as such there are some nice supplements to support the main program. Extras on the first disc include: text screens covering a biography of Darwin; "Evolution of an Idea" are further text screens summarizing other scientific theories that helped Darwin in his research and pointed the way toward his big idea; and "Three Tales from the Galapagos Islands" (26 minutes) is a featurette where Dawkins reads three of his stories accompanied by illustrations.
The second disc has nearly three hours of uncut interview footage. Such small portions of these talks are used in the final program so they are a valuable inclusion here. Philosopher Daniel Dennett and doctor-author Randolph Nesse, University of Michigan, are among the voices that share Dawkins's position. The more adversarial talks happen with Wendy Wright of Concerned Women for America and creationist John Mackay. You may pull out your hair listening to those two speak.
In addition to the discs, the package also contains a 16-page Viewer's Guide. In the booklet are episode summaries followed by discussion questions; a suggested reading list; notes covering Earth's major extinction events; notes on the history of the evolution-creationism controversy; profiles of notable extinct animals; and a consideration of what evolution means in relation to "superbugs" and viruses. Since the documentary didn't have time to incorporate this information into the program, I'm glad to have the information here. For educators, there is plenty of jumping off points for further study.
The technical presentation on this DVD set is very good. There are no problems with the picture and the image is consistently sharp. The stereo audio presentation is satisfying for the clear dialogue.
This is not a documentary meant to present both sides of the controversy. This is a science video and its position is that evolution by natural selection is a fact. As the program's presenter, Dawkins is a very forceful advocate for Darwinism and he suffers no fools that don't accept the truth of science. He can appear to have an abrasive personality -- as witnessed when he talks with creationist champions -- and he proudly declares himself an atheist. This may make the program a bit prickly for viewers with strong religious beliefs.
The Genius of Charles Darwin is a good primer on the man and the big idea that changed the way we think of the natural world and ourselves. Yet, the program goes further by looking at the implications of Darwin's work in the contemporary world. It also addresses the continuing controversy surrounding it and while it may be viewed as a one-sided presentation, it is grounded in science rather than politics. After seeing this program, I want to read Darwin's original book.
Review content copyright © 2009 William Lee; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 139 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Viewer's Guide