Jan. 22nd, 2010

ericcheung: (Default)
Last year, I came across this blog entry from Roger Ebert.  MB is a fan of his writing and, I too, find him to be my favorite, and maybe the best critic today.  It's regarding the film Creation about the marriage between Charles Darwin and Emma Wedgwood featuring excellent character actor Toby Jones in a supporting role as Thomas Henry Huxley, one of Darwin's champions.

The Los Angeles Natural History Museum has a Darwin exhibit that's a tie-in to the movie.  It stars Paul Bettany as Charles Darwin (which is especially appropriate because Bettany played the naturalist doctor who wanted to catch insects and birds on the Galapagos in the film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World).  The clip from the opening of the exhibit, along with the trailer is here.

I recognized the Natural History Museum from the clip because the last time I was there was to see a rock show there.  On Friday January 9th, I went to something called First Fridays.  It's something that the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History does the first Friday of every month for the first six months of the year.  It combines scientific lectures with indie rock bands (that month were the bands Plants and Animals, from Quebec, and local favorites The Little Ones).  Since it's near the USC campus, and I used to work at a Santa Monica annex of UCLA, it was one hell of a long way from my job.  So I couldn't make it for the lecture, but I was there to see the speaker signing her book Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent: The Importance of Everything and Other Lessons from Darwin's Lost Notebooks by Lyanda Lynn Haupt

As I had my copy signed, Haupt cheerily offered me a sticker--a portrait of Darwin with his fighting height and weight (5'11" and 163lbs., almost exactly my own statistics), and I attached the sticker into the new book next to Haupt's:

To Eric--

Happy Darwin's 200th Birthday.

Lyanda Lynn Haupt

The book is really a piece of literary criticism through the eyes of a fellow naturalist.  An ornithologist, she focused on Darwin's relationship with birds, opening many of her chapters with quotes from his Ornithological Notes.  Though the scientific material is challenging to the layperson, it's completely unpretentious, passionate, and a valentine to Darwin's philosophy.  First she set up the background of her subject before swooning over his sensitivity, his charming quirkiness, and genuine curiousity.

He came from a rich family; his father was a wealthy doctor and financier, and sent young Charles to the University of Edinburgh (well-known as the graduate school of the brilliant MB), and he went to study under the tutelage of botanist John Stevens Henslow so much he became known as "The Man Who Walks with Henslow."  He would prepare for his journey on the HMS Beagle intending to study not only the nature around him, but how to study the nature around him.  He was a man of gentle awe, even innocence as he came of age on his trip around the world.

Haupt reviews with intimate detail excerpts from his Ornithological Notes, intent on examining the development of Charles Darwin from a mere boy to a man in the time on the ship and afterwords, as he developed his theories and honed them for publication.  Her relationship to the subject matter recalls a Sarah Vowell-esque mix of memoir, research diary, and editorializing, perhaps in a less overtly comic writing style.  There is an optimism in her voice that demonstrates what a kindred spirit she's found in Darwin.

When reading the book I found myself comparing Darwin to Jane Goodall.  Both scientists came of age as naturalists and people during their most famous endeavors.  As a result, both scientists reinvented their professions through lack of knowledge of proper procedure.  That's a risky tactic that only works for geniuses.

It worked for Orson Welles who taught himself filmmaking in the director's chair of Citizen Kane, and it worked for Darwin and Goodall.  It was their innocence, curiousity, and youth that enabled them to empathize with the animals they encountered.  The terminology Darwin used was an attempt at proper taxonomy, but he also used language as a way to personalize his subjects.  He saw through their eyes in a time when that simply wasn't done.  It was a unique concept even more than a century later when Goodall would name her chimpanzee subjects.  As with most legendary breakthroughs in history, Charles Darwin was not the first person to come up with the idea of evolution.  But it was the importance of his methodology that transformed him and Goodall from simply scientists with new knowledge to share in their given fields to the true innovators and geniuses we remember today.  Without that philosophy Darwin would not have been able to theorize just why species evolve, and without it Goodall would have dismissed the idea that chimpanzees could have so much in common with humans such as war, compassion, and tool-making.

And just as Haupt's book was a character study of Charles Darwin, so too will this film be one.  Based on what I've read so far Creation is not so much about the struggle between science and religion as it is a portrait of a family within the context of that cultural and philosophical shift in history.  Sadly it was only recently that distribution in America was granted.  Apparently we in this country are still in the eye of that storm.  I'd very much be interested in seeing the impact of this film.

September 2012

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