York film professor has ‘ideas’ about Darwin

To mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s transformational and contentious book, On the Origin of Species, York film Professor Seth Feldman, director of York’s Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies, has produced his 26th documentary for CBC Radio’s "Ideas". In his series "The Evolution of Charles Darwin", broadcasting over four weeks starting Nov. 11, Feldman explores the life and ideas of the evolutionary – and revolutionary – scientist. 

Right: Seth Feldman with a massive 2.2-tonne statue of Charles Darwin that was moved into the landing of the central hall of London’s Natural History Museum as part of the scientist’s 200th birthday celebrations

Episode 1, “The Prepared Mind” (Nov. 11), follows the young Darwin on his voyage of discovery around the world on the H.M.S. Beagle. In Episode 2, “The Transmutationist” (Nov. 18), Darwin thinks his way from the Beagle to the book. “Primates vs. Primates” (Nov. 25) looks at what Darwin said in his groundbreaking book, and what was said about it – and him, while the concluding episode, “The Enduring Legacy of Charles Darwin” (Dec. 2), finds science and society still reeling from Darwin’s big idea. The series is produced by "Ideas" veteran, Sara Wolch.

In addition to covering the well-documented aspects of Darwin’s life and work, Feldman explores some of the lesser-known facts about the man.

Left: Darwin as a young man

“What many people don’t know about Darwin is that his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was also a published evolutionist,” says Feldman. “Erasmus was a rich, eccentric and politically radical medical doctor and a founding member of the Lunar Society, a group of well-heeled scientists and philosophers who met monthly under the full moon. The only significance to meeting under the full moon was it made it easier to stumble home in the evening, but it also gave rise to a popular nickname for the group: the Lunaticks.”

Among the Darwin experts and evolutionary thinkers Feldman interviewed for the documentary is Niles Eldredge, curator of paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History as well as curator of the recent Darwin exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum. Eldredge and his colleague Stephen Jay Gould proposed the theory of "punctuated equilibrium" that actually contradicted one aspect of Darwin’s own theories of evolution.

“Eldredge said he could identify with Darwin’s experience, after proposing a new idea that flew in the face of what was currently accepted in the 1970s,” says Feldman. “Eldredge and Gould found a great deal of fossil evidence that evolution was not a slow and gradual process as Darwin and the majority of the modern scientific community believed, but that it happened in great fits and starts over time.

Right: Darwin’s country home in Downe, England, where he did much of his writing

“Eldredge qualified his struggle, going against popular belief, as lesser than Darwin’s must have been, and he didn’t have too much of a problem with church groups – at least no more of a problem than any other believer in evolution. But both Darwin and Eldredge faced a backlash from the their friends and colleagues in the scientific community.”

Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies humanities Professor Bernie Lightman, an historian of Victorian era science, was Feldman’s gateway to Darwin’s world and is a featured guest in the documentary. As the editor of Isis (see YFile, Feb. 5, 2004), a leading journal about the history of science, Lightman’s vast knowledge and network proved invaluable to Feldman’s research.

“After all,” Feldman laughs, “I’m not a scholar of Victorian science. I only play one on the radio.”

Feldman also interviewed two of the most famous Darwin biographers, Janet Browne and James Moore, as well as several scientists, including Rosemary and Peter Grant, professors emeritus at Princeton University, whose genetic research into the Galapagos Islands finch population documents Darwin’s theories in action. Representing the other side of the evolutionary coin, the philosopher and sociologist Steve Fuller, an influential proponent of the intelligent design movement, makes an argument in the documentary against what he calls Darwin’s “ideology”.

These interviews and many more are interspersed with dramatic scenes where noted actors R.H. Thomson, Colin Fox, Nonnie Griffin and Barry MacGregor read excerpts from the writings of Charles Darwin and those around him. The broadcast also features original music composed by Andy McNeill as well as songs about evolution ranging from a rap about Darwin to a country music song called You Can’t Make a Monkey Out of Me, which came out around the time of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee.  

"The Evolution of Charles Darwin" is not Feldman’s first foray into natural history in the Victorian era. His 2006 "Ideas" documentary “Inventing Dinosaurs” (see YFile, Jan. 16, 2006) retraces the passion of early English fossil hunters who helped lay the foundation for the science of paleontology. Reflecting his wide range of interests, Feldman’s other "Ideas" programs range from investigations into television talk shows, dogs, and the contemporary university, to the invention of "perfect machines" through the ages, the bombing of Pearl Harbour and the story of Robin Hood. His radio productions have garnered a George Armstrong International Radio Award and a New York Festivals Gold World Medal.

Asked about the difference between working in the mediums of documentary film and radio, Feldman doesn’t mince words. “It’s the research and the storytelling aspects of documentary-making that I love,” he says. “Working on radio lets you do that without spending years between projects trying to raise the kind of money needed for a film.”

Given his track record and the continuing popularity of CBC’s "Ideas", which boasts approximately 400,000 listeners every week, "The Evolution of Charles Darwin" is unlikely to be the last radio documentary Feldman makes.

"Ideas" airs Wednesdays at 9:05pm Eastern Time on CBC Radio One, 99.1 FM in Toronto. A CD boxed set of "The Evolution of Charles Darwin" will be available for purchase online at the CBC Shop.