Sunday, November 01, 2009

The history of evolution in cinema

From The X-Change Files (via Framing Science)

Distributors’ concerns about Creation’s marketability are not surprising when we examine the history of cinema in regard to depicting Darwin and evolution. In my academic work I have followed the evolution of how Darwin and evolutionary thought have been depicted in cinema. Darwin’s demonstration of humanity’s link to its primate past was first played for comedic purposes in films of the early twentieth century. Films such as Reversing Darwin’s Theory (1908), The Monkey Man (1908), and Darwin Was Right (1924) poked fun at those who took Darwin’s evolutionary claims seriously. People who believe they are descended from apes will act like apes.

After the highly publicized Scopes Monkey trial in 1925 the notion of a human/primate connection changed from one of comedy to one of horror in cinema. Several post-Scopes films, beginning with The Wizard in 1927, feature “mad evolutionist” characters who design evil experiments in order to prove their “crazy” evolutionary theories about humanity’s connection to the animal world. Likewise, the goal of the mad evolutionists in The Beast of Borneo (1934) and Dr. Renault’s Secret (1942) is to prove humanity’s link to the animal kingdom. In front of a chart detailing the evolutionary “ladder of life,” the mad evolutionist Dr. Mirakle (played by Bela Lugosi) from Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) informs an unbelieving carnival audience that “the shadow of the ape hangs over us all” and that he will mix human and gorilla blood to “prove Man’s connection with the ape.” While this evolutionary-minded scientist is ultimately punished for his heretical conceptions, the film actually conveys the human/primate connection through Mirakle’s grotesque appearance and his clearly “animalistic” actions. In mad evolutionist films, the only human beings with a clear connection to primates are the evolution spouting evil scientists and their simian-like assistants.
Recognizing the uphill battle facing the Darwin biopic Creation, the blogger notes that given this cinematic history and the on-going antipathy fundamentalists have to Darwin and evolutionary theory, it's:

unfortunate given how well the film depicts Darwin’s conflict with his wife over faith, his struggles concerning his theory’s moral implications, and his disagreements with his colleagues (especially T.H. Huxley). Most importantly, the film humanizes Darwin through his grief.

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