Darwin’s life-long, internal battle sheds light on a different method of understanding the debate between creation and evolution

The older Charles Darwin that the world knows today has a white, candy-floss like beard. 

In textbooks, Darwin might even appear in a black and white portrait with a fedora hat beside a subheading that briefly touches on his life-long work on the theory of evolution.

But the Darwin that appeared on stage of Munson Chapel on the evening of Oct. 30 was much younger. The portrait that British playwright, Murray Watts, drew for the almost full auditorium was not black and white, but rich in the colors of every detail of Darwin’s life. 

From Darwin’s childhood, adolescence, young-adulthood fights with his father about his future occupation as a clergyman, to the death of his daughter, British actor Andrew Harrison masterfully captured it all in the span of a 70-minute, one act, one man show entitled “Mr. Darwin’s Tree.” But perhaps the most astonishing aspect of Harrison’s performance was not the swiftness with which he was able to switch from the young, shaky voice of a timid Darwin to that of his authoritative father that could not understand his son’s obsession with collecting and inspecting beetles. Rather, it was the way that a single actor could convey Darwin’s hamartia: his own genius. 

During a panel that took place on stage after the play, Cahleen Shrier, a professor in the Department of Biology and Chemistry at Azusa Pacific, weighed in on how phenomenal the way Darwin thought was. 

“I mean, he took seeds to see if they could float and populate another island,” Shrier explained. “You don’t see scientists like that today.” 

At the same time, Darwin half-jokingly refers to his wife as “the most serious specimen in the category of vertebrates” in the play. He is also fascinated by his newborn son’s reflexes, to the extent that he sometimes referred to him as “it” in his meticulous research notes.

It was his very brilliance that trickled into his private life as well, and created a void in his marriage to his Christian wife, Emma, whom he did not see eye to eye with. 

At one point in the play, Emma asks him to read a chapter from the Gospel of John to her. Darwin replies, “Of course I’ll read it.” But then, Harrison recalls, “‘there’s that lovely line where she says ‘But I don’t want you to tell me your opinion of it.’”

This line encapsulates the underlying conflict of Darwin’s scientific discoveries: the clash between the theory of evolution and the myth of creation. Every one of Watts’ elements in the play seemed to follow suit. From the illustration of how Darwin’s agnosticism stained his relationship with the person he loved most, to stage props, the dispute between science and religion prevailed. 

One of the focal stage props was a wooden ladder, which had sharp-angled planks attached to it to mimic a ‘reconstruction’ of the tree of life, as it appears in the Book of Genesis. Throughout the play, Darwin would climb up the ladder during climactic moments, almost as if the breadth of his mind and imagination could bring him closer to heaven and the unknown, only to make plain that the higher he seemed to climb that ladder, the further he drifted away from God, his wife, and in a sense, his compassion as a human. 

However, Watts’ desire to humanize Darwin throughout his life-long, internal battle of answering the mystery of mysteries was deliberate. After all, ascribing human attributes to a man who was less known than his scientific work, and whose theories were misconstrued to propel the 1860’s American Eugenics Movement to the forefront of American minds, shows that his intentions to interpret the nature of the cosmos around us were not malicious. 

Stanley Rosenberg, founder and director of Scholarship and Christianity in Oxford (SCIO) — the program that produced the play— attributed the negative attitudes that many Americans have toward Darwin today lie in the context in which Americans received and understood Darwin’s work.

“‘In the U.S., what we often forget, is that Darwin’s book, “The Origin of Species,” coming out in 1859, came right before the American civil war,’” Rosenberg said. “And war changes a culture.”

This delayed the development in the presentation and reception of his work. But when it did finally begin circulating in the late 1860’s, Rosenberg explained, it emerged in a culture that was distorted by war, particularly when it came to the issue of race. 

“It doesn’t make Darwin right or wrong, but that can help us understand why different people responded in different ways,” Rosenberg said. 

To fully understand the impact that Darwin’s work had on both his private life in the play, and on the rest of the world at the time of its publication, Watts urged the auditorium during the panel discussion to keep an open mind at all times. Whether it is grappling with the idea of how science can coexist with religion, or questioning the authority of Scripture, Watts wanted to show his audience that even one of science’s greatest minds struggled with these internal debates. 

This is why the SCIO sees the production of this play, as well as its tour throughout North American Christian college campuses, as an educational tool that aims to promote conversation around the debate of science and religion. 

“I wanted to just live the questions and that’s it,” Watts said. “People learning to listen, but not feeling like we’ve always got to agree. It’s profound. If we don’t get that right there won’t be a world. And we’re in a situation now where we’ve got polar opposites in politics, in Britain and in the U.S. and elsewhere, as well as in the scientific and faith world. We have to do something more about learning to listen, and live the questions.”

For some, this may signify a harmony between their religious and scientific beliefs. 

But for the rest, it signifies a harmony with oneself. Only then, can we sit back and fully enjoy a production such as “Mr. Darwin’s Tree” for all that it is with an open mind.