This series is about perhaps the most powerful idea ever to occur to a human mind. The idea is Evolution-by-Natural-Selection, and the genius who thought of it was Charles Darwin.
Incredible though it may seem, with the weight of evidence accumulated since Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species over 150 years ago, 4 out of every 10 British people still believe a god created every species as you see them today. It is with this daunting task of re-education that popular biologist Richard Dawkins presents a modern and exciting first hand look into Charles Darwin’s discovery in the Channel 4, 3-part TV series The Genius of Charles Darwin.
Author of The Selfish Gene, which built on Darwin’s theory with more recent discoveries and proof of genetic evolution, Dawkins is a uniquely credible source of certainty. More than a theory, “Evolution is a fact.” The viewer is transported with Dawkins as he travels around the world, from the modern English classroom, to the Galapagos and Kenya, in search of the same clues and evidence by which Darwin discovered Evolution.
It is, in Dawkins’ words, “nothing less than a complete explanation of the complexity and diversity of human life”.
The series offers fascinating insight into Darwin’s personal life, the genius’ personal struggles and reluctance to spread a knowledge that would undo centuries of belief in a supernatural order. Born in 1809, science could not as yet supply Darwin the proof we have today, the genetic coding of our species’ ancestors and relations. By naked observation however, Darwin’s five year round-the-world voyage yielded samples of hundreds of species, where tiny differences among sub-species in neighbouring islands yielded huge heretical questions. Lifeforms were not fixed, but changed over Time and circumstance. On the Origin of Species was the result of 20 years’ research, combining the best scientific opinion from geologists such as Charles Lyle, and the study of fossils dating specie developments over millions of years.
Dawkins takes us through the historic collections of Darwin’s studies. A ‘pigeon fancier’ Darwin could observe first-hand how characteristics in the species could be bred out or encouraged, demonstrating the ‘plasticity’ of a species over generations. Similarly, chance cycles of variation occurred in Nature over an extended period, and favoured those variations most successful in being reproduced.
In Kenya, Richard Dawkin’s birthplace, Dawkins shows that there is “nothing orderly about the relations between predator and prey”. Nature leads animals in a generational “arms race” to greater speed and physical weaponry in the pursuit of finite resources. As Darwin wrote in On the Origin of Species,
Natural Selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing the world every variation and even the slightest, neglecting that which is bad and preserving all that is good, silently and insensibly working. We see nothing of these slow changes in progress until the hand of Time has marked the lapse of Ages.
In 1859, the possibility another biologist named Wallace might ‘scoop’ his discovery finally encouraged Darwin to publish his findings and its explosive implications. Still timidly afraid of presenting the mountain of evidence gathered, observed and deliberated before him, Darwin’s book was finally released to the public, selling out in its first two days of release. 152 years later, it has never again been out of print.
The genius of Charles Darwin, his personal struggles and domestic losses, are presented against a viewer backdrop of Darwin’s own home and grounds, lending elegant and historic setting to Darwin’s step by step development as biologist and author. Dawkins’ own genius has been to present the soundness of this at once complex and “elegantly simple” solution to the origin and diversity of lifeforms inductively. That is, we are lead through each stage to observe as Darwin did, the sameness and variety by which variation led from prehistory to the present.
Popularly conceived as a dry theory devoid of moral import, Dawkins’ feat of genius is to present to the layperson the grandeur of the evolutionary world view. We humans are the result of a long line of millions of the most successful pairings of gene and generation, developing brains that can examine our self origin like no other species can. We are a ‘nervous system’ for a planet at last waking up. Over 150 years old, evolution-by-natural-selection represents the most modern and genius of ideas. What’s more, Dawkins shows, it’s true ♦
[Charles Darwin's complete works are now available online. imodernreview has previously reviewed Richard Dawkin's editorship of The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing in a new 'turing test'. The TV series The Genius of Charles Darwin is available to order on DVD]