"You'd be the first naturalist to set foot on the islands, I'll wager," the ship's captain promises. The islands are the Galápagos, and the naturalist, played by Paul Bettany, encounters there a bewildering array of biological diversity leading him to a momentous conclusion: The species on these islands are changing.
"Did God make them change?" asks a curious sailor.
"Did God make them change?" Bettany repeats thoughtfully. "Yes, certainly. But do they also change themselves? Now that is a question, isn't it?"
Bettany plays Charles Darwin in Creation, directed by Jon Amiel (Entrapment, Sommersby) and written by John Collee—but the dialogue above isn't from that film. It's from another Collee-scripted film with Bettany as a 19th-century naturalist dazzled by the diversity of the Galápagos: Peter Weir's Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, with Bettany playing Stephen Maturin, physician of the H.M.S. Surprise in Patrick O'Brian's swashbuckling novels.
Despite these resonances, cinema does not repeat itself. Darwin's real-life journey to the far side of the world on the H.M.S. Beagle isn't depicted in Creation. Nor does the film ever consider the question that Master and Commander raises in those brief lines: whether divine causality and natural processes might be compatible and complementary rather than contradictory explanations.
Instead, every character in Creation falls into one of two neatly opposed camps: those who devoutly believe that God created the world and therefore reject evolution, and those who enthusiastically accept the evidence for evolution and therefore reject faith in God. The first camp includes Darwin's Unitarian wife Emma (Bettany's real-life wife Jennifer Connelly) and her pastor, Reverend John Innes (Jeremy Northam); the second, biologist Thomas Huxley (Toby Jones) and botanist Joseph Hooker (Benedict Cumberbatch). Only Darwin himself struggles with the tension between the two, and even he has no thought of a possible reconciliation.
Doting on the devout Emma, Darwin has no wish to undermine the faith of Christendom. "Suppose the whole world stopped believing that God had any sort of plan for us?" Darwin muses darkly in a remarkable speech. "That nothing mattered—not love, not trust, not faith, not honor—only brute survival."
Like Bill Condon's Kinsey, which allowed its protagonist to be disparaged as "churchy" and "square" to exonerate him from any charge of subverting science out of revolutionary intent, Creation distances Darwin from the aggressively atheistic Huxley's anti-religious passion. When Huxley cheers, "You've killed God, sir … And I say good riddance!" Darwin winces.
"We live in a society," Darwin counters, "bound together by the church—an improbable sort of barque, I grant you, but at least it floats … You would have us all rebuild, plank by plank, the very vessel in which we sail?"
Huxley, though, isn't buying it. "Our behavior, like our physical forms, evolves according to our needs. Your very own words, sir! And thus, in time, we lose those parts that are no longer required. Like the appendix, the male nipple, and finally, thank Christ, our belief in an utterly redundant Almighty!"