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The Perils of Publicity

Three historians of science find themselves misrepresented by a film company’s selective reconstruction of Darwin’s voyage.

Charles Darwin

In Darwin Year 2009 many historians have helped to bring our subject to the general public. Yet we are writing to the Newsletter with a cautionary tale. We have recently been featured in a documentary film, “The Voyage that Shook the World,” produced by Fathom Media of Australia and directed by Stephen Murray of Synergy Films, New Zealand. We were led to believe that the movie was being made to be shown as an educational film on Australian broadcast television and possibly elsewhere. Fathom Media was revealed to be a subsidiary of Creation Ministries International when publicity for the movie began to appear on the internet. We were alerted to the true nature of the movie by James Williams of the University of Sussex shortly before its release in about April of this year.

“The Voyage that Shook the World” is an expensively produced movie which charts Darwin’s life through interviews and reconstructions (docudrama) filmed on location. It is clearly intended to challenge evolutionism, but stops short of openly endorsing the more extreme alternatives favored by some creationists. It is highly critical of Charles Lyell’s uniformitarianism and features geologists who point to evidence of limited catastrophes in earth history, but it does not imply that the whole geological record is the product of a single flood. The interviews filmed with us have been edited to highlight certain aspects of Darwin’s views and character. Janet Browne’s remarks about his childhood delight in making up stories to impress people is used to imply that the same motive may have driven his scientific thinking. Peter Bowler’s description of Darwin’s later views on racial inequality is used in the film, but not Bowler’s account of Adrian Desmond and James Moore’s thesis that Darwin was inspired by his opposition to racism and slavery. Sandra Herbert’s comment that Darwin’s theory required explanation of many aspects of life was edited down to imply that his theory required explanation of all aspects of life. The overall impression is given that Darwin had an enquiring mind but was led astray by his theoretical preconceptions, a view backed up through interviews with several scientists, including one who expresses open doubts about evolution. The film also suggests that what is ultimately at stake is a clash of world views rather than the resolution of scientific questions.

The Darwin bicentenary has offered many opportunities for historians to reach out to a wider public. The film “The Voyage that Shook the World” is one project that turned out differently than we imagined it would. Academics perhaps do need to be more aware of the fact that the media organizations are not always open about their underlying agendas. Had we known the true origins of Fathom Media, we probably would not have contributed, but the producers do have a point: if academic historians refuse to participate when movements they don’t approve of seek historical information, these historians can hardly complain if less reputable sources are used instead. Because this article is available on the Web, we would like to suggest the following links that list works on the history of Darwin and evolution: (the Darwin Correspondence Project’s Web site which has a section on science and religion), (the National Science Foundation’s “Evolution of Evolution” Web site which features interviews with historians of science), and (the National Center for Science Education Web site which has a section on science and religion).

– Peter Bowler, Janet Browne, Sandra Herbert

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