Monday, August 18, 2008

The Genius of Charles Darwin

Rather late, I’ve watched the first episode of Richard Dawkins’s The Genius of Charles Darwin. I’ve seen all his shows and thought this was the weakest of the three he has done for Channel 4 over the last couple of years (the other two were the Root of All Evil? and the Enemies of Reason). Dawkins’s is not really a television natural and he usually looks quite uncomfortable on screen. If I recall, he actually doesn’t enjoy TV work and has avoided doing it until recently. Another problem was that the script had been dumbed down to a level that only an ill-informed five year old would have learnt anything new. Certainly, if you’ve read any of Dawkins’s books, there was nothing in the show that you would not already know. This is almost certainly not the fault of Dawkins who is famous for communicating difficult ideas and helping his readers understand things that they might have thought beyond them.

The biographical bit of the show telling us about Darwin’s life was based on a very old fashioned reading of the history. There is no mention of Lamarkism or other theories of evolution doing the rounds when Darwin was researching. You would have imagined from the show that, until the Origin of Species was published, everyone was a young earth creationist. Charles Lyell is briefly mentioned, but not the fact he was a Christian despite demonstrating the enormous age of the Earth. As is well known, Darwin lost own his faith after the death of his daughter Annie, rather than because of his theory of evolution. We see a brief flash of Annie’s sketchbook but no mention was made of her importance to Darwin’s life. Perhaps this will come in the later episodes.

Still, the show had its moments. Dawkins comes face to face with a class of media-savvy teenagers. They know perfectly well what his hobbyhorse is and decide to pose as a bunch of unreconstructed fundamentalists. Dawkins appears to be blissfully unaware that they are winding him up. He should have remembered the old adage never to work with animals or children. Finally, it was a pity that even Richard Dawkins, the brightest star in the British scientific firmament, couldn’t get Channel 4 to part with a half decent budget for his programme.

My thoughts on episode 2 will follow when I’ve had a chance to watch it.

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