What I did for Darwin’s Birthday

February 14, 2020 • 9:30 am

by Greg Mayer

As Jerry noted at the time, this past Wednesday was Darwin’s Birthday. My evolutionary biology class met the previous day, Tuesday, and the first slide I showed for the day was the following.

The “click here” in the middle of the slide led to a performance of the Beatles’ song “Birthday”. (For copyright reasons, the video features the Beatles, but the sound is Paul alone in a post-Beatles performance.)

On Darwin Day itself, I watched Creation, a 2009 biopic about Darwin starring Paul Bettany as Charles and Jennifer Connelly as Emma. I did not see it at the time of its release, and it had some difficulty finding a U.S. distributor, ostensibly because Darwin and evolution were too controversial for the American public.

Jerry gathered a few reviews at the time, which were not terribly enthusiastic. I took a look at those reviews, one in the N.Y. Times by A.O. Scott, my favorite film critic, and one by Ryan Jay, another favorite critic. Both were also lukewarm on the film, Jay giving it his middling score of “Rent It”, with Scott being a bit more harsh:

It aims for a liberal-minded balance, at least on the thematic level. But at the same time the film traffics in the pseudo-psychological mumbo-jumbo that is the standard folk religion of the film biography, and undermines its interest in reason by dabbling in emotive pop occultism. Recoiling from the possibility that ideas themselves might impart tension and interest to this tale, Mr. Amiel [the director] and Mr. Collee [the writer] induce a kind of literary brain fever and reduce Darwin’s work to a symptom of his mental and emotional anguish.

I did not look at the reviews before watching the film, so the following comments are not “pre-influenced”. A

ll in all, I was disappointed. The production values are high, and some filming was even done at Down House. The level of production design accuracy was fairly high (e.g., the washroom with curtain in Darwin’s study). Parts of the dialogue I recognized as being taken from Emma’s and, especially, Charles’ letters. Bettany, as made up, does a fair Darwin impersonation, and I was charmed by Benedict Cumberbatch’s unexpected turn as Hooker. (Cumberbatch was largely unknown, at least to American audiences, at the time, and is buried in the credits.) But Connelly is given almost nothing worthwhile to do, wasting her talents; and Huxley (played by Toby Jones) is written as crankily aggressive, rather than as the erudite explicator he seems from his public writings.

And the plot seems quite muddled. The film centers on Darwin’s relationships with Emma and, even more so, on their daughter Annie, who died in 1851. But most of the action takes place several years later, with frequent flashbacks (some to the Beagle voyage), yet Annie is everywhere (except the Beagle). This may be a case of knowing a little being dangerous, as I kept trying to fit the various scenes into a coherent timeline, and only later realized that Annie is a ghost, or better, a symptom of Darwin’s hallucinations, in many, though not all, of the scenes. I don’t know if a naive viewer would be more or less confused than me by this.

Were I someone not versed in the history of evolutionary biology, I would thus give it a mixed review. But knowing some of the actual history, I found some of the themes of the film suffered from being, at best, misplaced in their emphases. The film shows Darwin as losing (most of) his Christian faith as the result of wrenching inner turmoil, leading to open conflict with Emma, with the death of Annie pushing him towards the edge of madness and final loss of faith. Darwin’s well-known ill health is portrayed as essentially psychosomatic, the result of guilt over Annie’s death and his loss of faith. And, his nagging internal torments delayed his work for many years. While there is a grain of truth in each of these elements, the resulting picture is distorted. Darwin did mourn the death of Annie; he did love Emma dearly, and fretted over their differences with regard to faith (see especially this); he knew that consanguineous marriages could lead to “weakness” in children; and he was ill. But he wasn’t nearly mad; his faith more nearly slipped away; he probably didn’t delay terribly long; and the child whose illness was vexing him at the time was not Annie (long dead), but little Charles (who died shortly after Darwin received Wallace’s letter from Ternate).

I searched for, and found two contemporaneous reviews from a more scientific/historical (as opposed to film criticism) perspective. The first was a review by Janet Browne, Darwin’s most authoritative biographer, and professor of the history of science at Harvard. As do the film critics, she takes a lukewarm view

The movie Creation gives . . . a fictionalized perspective. . .  Once one gets over the mismatch between the known historical record and the sentimental version of Victorian family life that is presented here, the film has some rather good sections. . . . [Darwin’s] love for his nine-year-old daughter Anne excessively dominates the plot. There are some delightful scenes, mostly in flashback again, followed by some stupid ones in which Darwin becomes so deranged by her death that he has nightmares (overly tinged with Henry Fuseli) and continuously hallucinates her presence. About ninety minutes into the film, the storyline goes haywire with Darwin vomiting, weeping, and hallucinating. The death of this daughter is presented as the emotional fulcrum of the film, bringing the religious differences of her parents to the fore and serving as a foil for drawing out Darwin’s doubts about publishing. Perhaps.

The other review was by James Williams, senior lecturer in science education at Sussex. His review is scathing. He notes the confusing chronology, details a number of errors and lapses, and laments that the actual events would have made for a better film. Some excerpts.

It promised so much, yet delivered a turkey! . . .

Granted, the film did give some excellent and accurate portrayals of events, but why deliver them out of sequence and why leave out some important details, yet include others? . . .

The film is set in 1858-59, seven years after Annie’s tragic death. Yet the filmgoer is left firmly with the impression that she is alive in 1858 and dies sometime in 1858/9. . . .

At least Alfred Russel Wallace (my personal hero) did get a mention – but only just. It was the receipt of Wallace’s letter by Darwin that prompted Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker to urge Darwin to write Origin, not a visit by Huxley.

Darwin was distraught by the letter he received from Wallace (accurate in the film), but what put pressure on him was not Annie’s health (she was already dead at this point remember) but the health of his newborn son Charles – who did actually die during the period of his receipt of Wallace’s letter – and the fact that children in the village were sick and dying. Just how Emma could be pregnant with Charles junior, at the same time as worrying about Annie’s health, defies biological understanding.

The film makers were determined to make Annie the focus of Darwin’s angst during the writing of ‘Origin’ and deemed this to be the dramatic ‘device’. When you look at the REAL story of how Darwin was almost forestalled and what was happening in his life during June/July of 1858 and through to the publication of ‘Origin’ in 1859 – there was drama enough without having to destroy historical accuracy.

The film is based (loosely, as Williams insists) on Annie’s Box, by Darwin’s great-great grandson, Randal Keynes. I recalled a paper by John van Wyhe debunking the hypothesis that Annie’s death ended Darwin’s faith.  (We have had a number of occasions here at WEIT to comment favorably on van Wyhe’s work, including his editing of Darwin Online, and Jerry was able to meet him on a visit to Singapore, while I did the same when I invited him to speak as part of our Darwin bicentennial celebrations.) The paper was from 2012; Van Wyhe and his coauthor, Mark Pallen, wrote

That Annie’s death caused great distress to her parents and family is beyond dispute. A week after her death Darwin penned a tender memoir of Annie, which was first published (in part) by his son, Francis, in The life and letters of Charles Darwin (1887) . . .  Darwin closed the memoir with a cry from the heart: ‘We have lost the joy of the Household, and the solace of our old age:—she must have known how we loved her; oh that she could now know how deeply, how tenderly wedo still and shall ever love her dear joyous face. Blessings on her.’ However, it must be stressed that nowhere in the millions of written words by Darwin that survive did he ever indicate, directly or indirectly, that Annie’s death had anything to do with his loss of faith. Of course it would be naïve to restrict the evidence only to explicit statements. But first we must acknowledge that there are none. Furthermore, as we shall see, the balance of all surviving evidence that bears on his loss of faith suggests there was no connection with Annie at all. . . .

The suggestion of a sudden death knell for Darwin’s religious belief built on strong emotion stands in stark contrast to his consistent accounts of his loss of faith, which followed from an assessment of the evidence for Christianity and which took place at a‘rate:::so slow that I felt no distress’ (Barlow, 1958, p. 87). Yet Annie’s death was the most distressing event in Darwin’s life. No explanation for this dramatic contradiction has ever been provided. The time has come to bury the Annie hypothesis.

So, in 2009, it was perhaps defensible, or at least popular, to suppose the truth of the so-called “Annie hypothesis”, but van Wyhe and Pallen seem to have laid it to rest.

Another element of the film, though not quite as prominent, is Darwin’s “delay”. Van Wyhe has also addressed this in his paper “Mind the Gap

In this essay it is argued that not only is there no evidence that Darwin avoided publishing his theory for many years, but the evidence is overwhelmingly against that interpretation. By re-examining the historical evidence, without presuming that Darwin avoided publication, it can be shown that there is no reason to introduce such a hypothesis in the first place. If we come to the evidence already believing that Darwin put it off, then vague and ambiguous passages will seem consistent with such a view. . . .

A fresh analysis of Darwin’s manuscripts, letters, publications and the writings of those who knew him intimately shows the story to be quite different from one of a lifetime of avoiding publication. It will be demonstrated that Darwin’s delay is a historiographical theme of quite recent date and unknown not only to Darwin and his contemporaries but also to generations of writers after them. Furthermore, this theme is not the product of the greater knowledge of Darwin produced by modern historical scholarship since the 1960s. Modern writers inherited Darwin’s delay from earlier writers who did not have access to the full manuscript corpus.

In fact, Darwin hardly veered from his original plans for working out and publishing his species theory in due course.

If you are a Darwin completist, you’ll want to see the film, but otherwise you can skip it. Its emphases seems wrong, perhaps to the point of no return; but I did enjoy some parts, and the segment conjoining Annie’s death, and the death of a young orangutan at the London Zoo, moved me near to tears. As Janet Browne concluded, “In my view the juvenile orangutan was outstanding.”

Browne, J. 1995. Charles Darwin: a Biography. Volume 1. Voyaging. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.

Browne, J. 2002. Charles Darwin: a Biography. Volume 2. The Power of Place. Knopf, New York.

Browne, J. 2010. [Review of ] Darwin’s Darkest Hour [and] Creation. Bulletin of the History of Medicine 84:671-674. gated

Wyhe, J. van. 2007. Mind the gap: did Darwin avoid publishing his theory for many years? Notes and Records of the Royal Society 61:177-205. Darwin Online

Wyhe, J. van, and M.J. Pallen. 2012. The ‘Annie hypothesis’: Did the death of his daughter cause Darwin to ‘give up Christianity’? Centaurus 54:105-123. pdf

Darwin Day in Kenosha, 2016

February 12, 2016 • 12:30 pm

by Greg Mayer

Jerry should be getting ready to sign books in London about now as part of the lead up to his talk for the British Humanists, but for those not in the UK but in my vicinity, I will be giving a Darwin Day talk tomorrow, February 13, at 2 PM, at the Kenosha Public Museum in Kenosha, Wisconsin. My talk will be “What Darwin Did for Biology”, on what the key puzzles in natural history were, how Darwin solved them with a unified explanation, and how this led to the rise of such modern disciplines as ecology, genetics, and geology, and, somewhat paradoxically, to the divisions among these disciplines. The Darwin Day events at the Museum run 10 AM to 4 PM, although I don’t know what the full schedule is. It’s also an excellent chance to see the “Dinosaurs Take Flight: The Art of Archaeopteryx” exhibit. For those who’ve been to past Darwin Days in Kenosha, this year it’s at the main Public Museum, not the Dinosaur Discovery Museum. If you arrive early, I’ll be across the street at Ashling’s having a bloody Mary at noon– stop by and say hello.

Darwin Day at the Dinosaur Discovery Museum: report

February 15, 2015 • 4:11 pm

by Greg Mayer

Jerry has just returned from his Darwin Day activities in Mississippi, and I’m sure we’ll be receiving a report on how things went (including in the culinary department). In the meantime, here’s a report on how things went at the Dinosaur Discovery Museum’s Darwin Day event last weekend.

The museum has one main exhibit hall, having a very large number of dinosaurs (especially theropods); most are high quality reproductions. In the lobby, I set up a temporary exhibit table on the theme of “Highly Evolved Tetrapods”, meaning ones that have lost or rearranged major parts of their skeletons. My table, manned by my son Christian and myself, featured live animals.

The tetrapod table.
The highly evolved tetrapod table.

The hit of the exhibit was Vivian, an adult ball python (Python regius). Many people, as urged to by our signage, asked to see Vivian’s hind legs.

Vivian-- the star of the show.
Vivian– the star of the show.

Most people (even biologists) don’t know that some extant snakes have vestigial hind limbs, and my son and I have always liked to show them off. Once, when he was in grade school, he told a naturalist at a creationist nature camp (admittedly an odd combination) about the legs on a python they had on exhibit. She demurred, but my son, in good faith (he didn’t know they were creationists) persisted, and offered to show the legs to her. She allowed as she had seen the structures, but that they weren’t legs. He again persisted, stating (correctly) that the leg bones and pelvis were still there, and that they were legs. She could only sputter that they were not legs “in my world view”!

Curator of Education Nick Wiersum with a friend.
Nick Wiersum, Curator of Education, ain’t afraid of no toad.

The giant toad (Bufo marinus; called cane toads in Australia, but native from Texas to Argentina) was also quite popular. You can see the large ellipsoid poison glands behind the eye, and the swelling of the body to make swallowing difficult, another defensive attribute. We also had an American toad (Bufo americanus; common throughout most of the eastern United States and Canada) for comparison. Both are good-sized adults.

American Toad vs. Giant Toad
American Toad vs. Giant Toad

We also had Slidey, a red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans); we’ve noted before here on WEIT how highly evolved turtles are.

Slidey the Red-eared Slider
Slidey the Red-eared Slider

My paleontological colleagues Summer Ostrowski and Chris Noto set up a temporary exhibit featuring small, touchable fossils and a very fine selection of plastic animals.

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The plastic animals (all high quality collector-grade pieces) were arranged in correct phylogenetic arrangement. Although you can barely see him under the mammoth’s chin, humanity is represented by a 3D print of Charles Darwin as depicted in the sitting statue of him at the Natural History Museum in London.

The pyhlogeny of plastic animals.
The phylogeny of plastic animals.

Chris and I also gave lectures in the museum’s downstairs class room, on “How Evolution Works” (me) and “What the Fossil Record Tells Us about Evolution”. Nick Wiersum, Curator of Education, led special activities in the main exhibit hall.

“I once caught a fish, this big.”

I think the event was quite successful, with events suitable for kids, students, and adults. There was a good crowd, from kids through adults, with steady numbers the whole day, and lots of good questions. The attendees included WEIT readers, some who came from Milwaukee and Evanston– thanks so much for the support, and it was good to meet you!

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Thx for pix: Chris Noto, Jim Shea

Darwin Day 2015 at the Dinosaur Discovery Museum in Kenosha, Wisconsin (and at the University of Southern Mississippi)

February 4, 2015 • 11:32 am

by Greg Mayer (and Professor Ceiling Cat):

Darwin Day, Feb. 12, is fast approaching, so start making your plans now. The Dinosaur Discovery Museum in Kenosha, Wisconsin will be holding its event this coming Saturday, February 7, from noon to 5 PM.


There will be educational displays (including live herps), activities for children, videos about evolution from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Chris Noto and I will each be giving public lectures during the afternoon. Chris’s talk will be on  “What the Fossil Record Tells Us About Evolution”, while I’ll be speaking on “How Evolution Works”.  My talk is at 1 PM, Chris’s at 3 PM; each should be about 30 min.

If you’re in southeastern Wisconsin or northeastern Illinois, come by to join the festivities!


Professor Ceiling Cat will be lecturing on Darwin Day in the Deep South, my favorite place to spread the gospel. I’ll be talking about the evidence for evolution and the religious pushback against it, at the University of Southern Mississippi on February 13 (announcement here). There will be books on sale, and the good Professor will sign them; if you say “Felis silvestris lybica” (the wild ancestor of the house cat), you’ll get a cat drawn in your book.

I was going to combine this with an eating trip to nearby New Orleans, but discovered to my horror that that’s during Mardi Gras, an awful time to be nomming in The Big Easy. However, I’m told that Hattiesburg, Mississippi has two world-class barbecue joints. Stay tuned.

The evidence for evolution

November 11, 2014 • 7:28 am

[The internet is down at the Kirksville Holiday Inn. The only other time this has happened to me was when I was in Russia. What this means is that posting may be light today. Fortunately Greg prepared a post on a recent talk he gave about evolution, which is below. JAC]

by Greg Mayer

Jerry has posted a couple of times in the last week or so on the “creationist shenanigans” at Georgia Southern University, where a professor is apparently openly proselytizing for his religion in classes on the history of science. One of the items the professor has produced is an online document titled “No evidence for evolution“. It’s actually a rather sad document– and not just because it’s a typically dishonest creationist exercise in quote-mining, which would have us believe that Jerry Coyne, George Gaylord Simpson, Jeff Levinton, Niles Eldredge, and Steve Gould, among others, can all be rallied to the cause of creationism. Nor is it because he mixes in quotes from the likes of  Michael Denton and Francis Hitching, as though they had any authority at all. Nor is it even because of his schizophrenic view of Gould and Eldredge, who on the one hand he wields in support of creationism, but on the other he attacks (through quotes) because (gasp!) they are evolutionary paleontologists. No, it’s sad because it’s all so old. Other creationists did this decades ago– and, frankly, better. The quotes are almost all old ones– from the 1980’s and earlier (the latest quote I noted was 1997– the page is dated 2002). The reason it’s so sad is that not only does this guy know nothing about biology or paleontology, he’s not even a very good creationist– he apparently hasn’t kept up with developments in his own “discipline”!

Just a day or two after Jerry posted, my colleague Chris Noto informed me that a talk I had given at Darwin Day celebrations earlier this year was now available online. Entitled “The Evidence for Evolution”, it seemed like a happy coincidence, and so I share it with you here. (Note that the Parasaurolophus and sauropod behind me seem quite interested, the latter even bending his neck above and around me so he can read my notes on the podium! There was a human audience too, although, as usual, until a late attendee arrived, no one wanted to sit in the front seats.)

The talk was given at the Dinosaur Discovery Museum in Kenosha, Wisconsin, as part of their Darwin Day events last February. It was based on the chapter I wrote for The Princeton Guide to Evolution, edited by my friend and colleague Jon Losos, which was officially published right about the time I gave the talk. The talk is about descent with modification per se, and not on the mechanisms of evolution (except insofar as the observation of current evolutionary changes allows us to see such mechanisms directly), and the main topics were the fossil record; transitional forms; comparative morphology, embryology and genetics; biogeography; and evolution in action. I would particularly draw attention to the example of observed speciation in Spartina in England (about 30:44). It’s an example of allopolyloid speciation (a new species arises by hybdidization with increase in the number of chromosome sets), which is common in plants (though not animals), and is expected to occur very rapidly, but it’s nice to have a case where humans observed the speciation event start to finish (1829-1892).

(The camera battery went dead for a bit, so there’s about 5 minutes of the biogeography section missing; the dead space was edited out with a “wave”– you’ll notice it.)


Mayer, G.C. 2014. The evidence for evolution. pp. 28-39 in J.B. Losos, ed., The Princeton Guide to Evolution, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.

Darwin Day 2014 in Kenosha, Wisconsin

February 11, 2014 • 10:43 am

by Greg Mayer

Just a reminder that Darwin Day events in Kenosha, the heart of the Chicago-Milwaukee megalopolis, begin tomorrow morning at about 8:10 AM, when yours truly will be interviewed by Greg Berg of WGTD 91.1 FM’s Morning Show. There’s a talk by Scott Thomson on symbiosis tomorrow night at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside at 7 PM, a showing of the film “Flock of Dodos” at 7 PM Thursday also at UWP, and on Saturday from noon to 5 PM Darwin Day at the Dinosaur Discovery Museum, including family activities and talks by myself and Summer Ostrowski. Full details are here earlier at WEIT.

Darwin Day, 2014, events in Kenosha, Wisconsin

February 4, 2014 • 2:34 pm

by Greg Mayer

Darwin’s birthday, Feb. 12, is fast upon us, so, for those in the Chicago-Milwaukee corridor, I’d like to announce three upcoming events in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the approximate center of the megalopolis.

First, on Darwin Day itself, Wednesday, February 12, Scott Thomson of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside will be speaking at 7 PM in Greenquist Hall 103 on “Intracellular Stowaways: Cells that Live Within Cells”. There are many symbioses between cells, including the famous one that led to certain bacteria becoming mitochondria and chloroplasts. The talk will pay particular attention to intracellular stowaways found in mosquitoes.

Then, on Thursday, February 13, it’s Science Movie Night in Greenquist Hall 103 at UW-Parkside, with a showing of  “Flock of Dodos” by scientist-turned-filmmaker Randy Olson.

Darwin Day 2014 UWP filmAnd on Saturday, February 15, it’s Darwin Day at the Dinosaur Discovery Museum, including family events on the main floor, and three short talks in the classroom, including one by yours truly on “The Evidence for Evolution“.

Darwin Day 2014 DDM

Also, on Wednesday morning, February 12, from about 8:10 AM to 9 AM I’ll be talking live with Greg Berg on WGTD 91.1 FM’s “Morning Show“, talking about Darwin and the evidence for evolution. On the following morning, Nick Wiersum, Curator of Natural History Education for the Kenosha Public Museums, will also make a brief appearance on the “Morning Show”, about 8:50 AM to 9 AM.

All the events are free and open to the public. UW-Parkside is easily accessible via I-94, and the Dinosaur Discovery Museum is in downtown Kenosha, overlooking Civic Center Park from the west.

The Darwin Day events are the result of a collaboration between the Kenosha Public Museum’s Dinosaur Discovery Museum, the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, and Carthage College. Nick Wiersum of KPM and Chris Noto of UWP are the lead organizers.

Darwin Day at the Dinosaur Discovery Museum

February 8, 2013 • 9:43 am

by Greg Mayer

If you’ll be in or near southeastern Wisconsin on this coming Sunday (instead of being on your way to New Orleans), you’ll want to visit the Dinosaur Discovery Museum in Kenosha (5608 Tenth Avenue,  Kenosha, WI 53140, 262-653-4450) for their Darwin Day event.

Darwin Day

Sunday, February 10, 2013; 1-4pm

An international celebration of science and humanity recognizing the birthday of the father of evolutionary biology, Charles Darwin. Explore the discoveries and life of Charles Darwin, the man who first described biological evolution via natural selection. Learn about his research on natural selection, participate in discussions on evolution, and explore the Museum as an evolutionary biologist. Family crafts and hands-on fun throughout the afternoon.

Do you have a fossil or interesting rock you want to learn more about? Bring it in and have it looked at by a paleontologist.

Darwin in Obama-style poster
An image being used in the Museum’s promotional materials for the event.

My colleagues Drs. Chris Noto and Summer Ostrowski will be there, and I’m going to try to stop by. The Museum is home to the Carthage College Institute of Paleontology, headed by Dr. Thomas Carr.