The Genius of Charles Darwin, Channel 4

by | Aug 13, 2008 | All, Reviews

Did we like it?

Passion, intelligence, eloquence, wonder – by God we don’t always agree with the cantankerous polemics of Richard Dawkins, but he is a modern messiah for common sense over dubious myopic fantasists.

What was good about it?

• Rather than berating God-fearing church goers with promises of eternal, unconscious decay in maggot-ridden graves upon death, in this episode Dawkins took on a far trickier foe – himself, which made for absorbing, if bewildering viewing.

• Dawkins wanted to reconcile his utter devotion to the theory of Darwin that states humans are the fifth ape with the less digestible concept that because humans are nothing more than apes they are in thrall to the primal whims of natural selection, which demands that the weak and conservative are persecuted or abandoned.

• Professor Dawkins savouring the conflict with a Kenyan bishop who dared to suggest that people weren’t related to apes. As usual, Dawkins took him to the cleaners. Sometimes you wish he’d challenge an adversary with a little more stubbornness and mental guile in his religious austerity – although it’s perhaps a forlorn hope given that Dawkins is right about evolution

• Dawkins applied natural selection and its predominant “dog-eat-dog” philosophy to the corporate world. He enlightened us that such a policy was used to justify unbridled capitalism and that it is the poor’s fault that they are poor, countering that Darwin had been misrepresented to suit the selfish ideologies of extreme right wing politicians such as Hitler.

• To quell his own guilt that he may have spent his entire career advocating the antithesis of his own personal beliefs, he embarked on a voyage to discover if the more complex emotions, such as trust, sympathy and gratitude, are just part of the evolutionary process along with more primitive instincts like fear, hate and lust.

• As we shared in Professor Dawkins’ awe as he sought to discover why he felt sympathy for a stranger in distress, which contravened all laws of natural selection and both theorised forms of altruism, it seemed fairly obvious to us that humans behave in such a manner because it is simply part of the evolutionary process – that the scramble for survival seen in the animal kingdom is no longer so desperate and “dog-eat-dog”, so the next step of compassion is quite logical as strangers are often no longer “competition” for food and the basics of life.

• And, to our surprise, Professor Dawkins confirmed our layman’s theory and joyously expatiated upon it in his conclusion, stating that our genes have gone wrong and that humanity has rebelled against natural selection and “we have extracted ourselves from it”, demonstrating this through care for “the most vulnerable in our society”.

• Perhaps the most intriguing element of this documentary is watching the process of natural selection being played out before our eyes. Dawkins’ crusade – which he peppered with sensual exclamations such as “abhor” and “hate” – to tell every creationist in the world that they are wrong, hopelessly deluded and generally a blight on the human race is, in a sense, one branch of evolutionary thought seeking to crush the other branches through its imperious strength and make it as much a part of the past as the Homo Erectus skulls being exhibited in a Kenyan museum.

• Of course, his adversaries are fighting him tooth and claw through a combination of superstition and fear with the same ferocity as species have fought for the right to exist since the first single-celled amoeba came into existence billions of years ago, after an act of God sent a thunderbolt down coursing into the primordial soup to kick-start life on Earth.

What was bad about it?

• Dawkins’ rather abortive efforts to determine what women look for in a potential partner. He chatted with a number of women who assured him that kindness and other altruistic traits are just as important as the more common factors such as physical attractiveness, height and athleticism in the sperm donor catalogue they were browsing.

• Sadly, because since the advent of TV people have evolved a sense of cynicism about how they will be perceived there is a trend amongst both men and women to want to seem more profound than they actually are. The women here may genuinely require kindness in any prospective mate, but the fact they are being filmed for TV adulterates the experiment.

• Dawkins also made the rather contradictory point that, “It is only genes that survive down through the ages”. Speaking in an stoical scientific tone he’s correct, however, the whole programme is based on a seminal tome that was published almost 150 years ago and has “survived down the ages” pretty well. And Dawkins, too, will survive long after his soul has rapped nervously on the Pearly Gates, partly because of any descendants but also through his life’s work.

• The dishearteningly short advert breaks that suggest that nobody wants to show off their products to an intelligent, and presumably richer, audience and instead flog their wares during the evolutionary cultural nadir of Big Brother’s Little Brother.

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles


Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!


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