The BBC TV series Darwin’s Dangerous Idea1
First published: 5 May 2009 (GMT+10)
Re-featured on homepage: 4 May 2021 (GMT+10)
“Charles Darwin and his followers have shown how all life on the planet evolved from a single source. The mechanism they call evolution by natural selection means competition, extinction and the emergence of new life forms without the need for a director or conductor. The Creator shimmers and vanishes like a mirage.”
So says political pundit Andrew Marr, one of the BBC’s most senior journalists, in the first of his three BBC2 programmes celebrating evolution and its legacy during the last century and a half. While there was much to agree with in this thought-provoking series, Marr is careful to point out, “At a stroke Darwin had demolished the biblical account of creation.” Of course, it’s hardly surprising to see that the BBC would be celebrating Darwin, given its self-confessed anti-Christian bias. At a 2006 “impartiality” summit called by its chairman, Michael Grade, “Senior figures admitted that the BBC is guilty of promoting Left-wing views and an anti-Christian sentiment. … executives admitted they would happily broadcast the image of a Bible being thrown away—but would not do the same for the Koran.”2
Marr himself admitted that the corporation was unrepresentative of British society:
“The BBC is not impartial or neutral. It’s a publicly-funded, urban organisation with an abnormally large number of young people, ethnic minorities and gay people.”
The full implications of Darwinian philosophy are given considerable treatment during the course of three hours of footage, so it is not possible in a short review to do more than distil a few of the many major points made.
The first programme, Body and Soul, shows how evolutionary theory was taken to logical, but extreme conclusions by some world leaders and dictators and has been used to justify war, atrocities, ethnic cleansing and genocide. While Marr tries to argue that these were abuses of Darwin’s theory, this is at odds with his own statement:
“Multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die. He called this law Natural Selection. This was creation according to Darwin, no Adam and Eve, no need for God. And in God’s place, an indifferent mechanism that relentlessly scrutinised every single individual of every species. It selected the best adapted and remorselessly eliminated the rest.”
During 1915, American pacifist and entomologist Vernon Kellogg had cause to dine with members of the German high command.
“Kellogg was horrified by what he heard. ‘The creed of natural selection, based on violent, competitive, fatal struggle, is the Gospel of the German intellectuals’, Kellogg wrote. … Kellogg was shocked by this grotesque Darwinian motivation for the German war machine.”
Questioning his own pacifism, Kellogg wrote an account of the late-night conversations and tried to influence America to enter the war.
Marr discusses how the likes of Sigmund Freud and JBS Haldane applied Darwin’s ideas to human behaviour and morality, not least in the area of sexuality. In the second half of the twentieth century, “[Darwinian scientists] … showed how sympathy, empathy and compassion, the building blocks of human morality, weren’t unique to humans at all, but part of our animal inheritance.”
Marr opines that many of the world’s religions have embraced or accepted Darwin, but realises that those with traditional biblical and Christian moorings have put up a resistance.
“[Darwin] has returned us to Nature, to its wonder, to its glory and to its danger. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution questions almost everything we thought we knew about ourselves: Where we come from, why we behave as we do, the origins of our morality.”
Yes indeed. One must wonder how Christians compromising with Darwin’s big idea cannot see that ‘theistic evolution’ is an oxymoron because it tries to embrace two systems of thought that provide competing and diametrically opposing world views.
In Born Equal, Marr explores the influence of Darwin’s theory on culture and politics—and particularly the issue of racism and the Nazis’ ‘Final Solution’. Following the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, Darwinism began to influence a number of the leading thinkers of the day. Herbert Spencer, a champion of ruthless extreme business tactics,3 coined the now-famous term ‘survival of the fittest’ to describe natural selection. “Spencer was the first to turn Darwin’s theory into a political manifesto … go with [the struggle of life], don’t resist it; reward the strong and purge the weak. But it gave Darwin’s theory a misleading spin. Darwin proposed that Nature favours the best adapted individuals, not necessarily the strongest.”
Nonetheless, Darwin was happy to use Spencer’s description of his theory in his 1869 revision of The Origin:
“Darwin’s adoption of those four words would have consequences for a hundred years. … Darwin might have been an enemy of slavery, but [his ideas] were soon being used to justify the triumphs of the white colonialists over indigenous populations.”
However, Marr’s attempt to relieve Darwin of guilt by association is unconvincing, as Darwin himself wrote in his Descent of Man that the ‘civilised races’ would exterminate and replace the ‘savage’ ones. And he really was a “social Darwinist”.4 Genuine skulduggery involving the Royal College of Surgeons in London and the Tasmanian authorities is described honestly by Marr and will undoubtedly have shocked some viewers—aboriginal people certainly suffered greatly at the hands of Darwin’s dangerous idea.5
There is also an informative potted history of eugenics, beginning with its brainchild (and Darwin’s cousin) Francis Galton, who became obsessed about using Darwinian selection to produce improvements in the human race.6 Science fiction author Herbert George Wells supported both Darwin and eugenics.7 His book Time Machine was a stark warning about the dangers of the degeneration of the human race. Few British people are likely to have heard of ‘The Feeble-minded Persons Control Bill’, put forward almost a century ago, the aim of which was to segregate selected men and women in special institutions to control their breeding—this was Great Britain! Moreover, the first international conference on Eugenics was held in London in 1912, at which Winston Churchill called for the sterilisation of the ‘inferior’ by a simple surgical operation. The presidential address was delivered by none other than Charles Darwin’s son Leonard.
“When it was debated by the House of Commons, [this] bill was voted down by Parliament. The 1912 eugenics conference marked the end of any real idea of state-sponsored eugenics in Britain, but not in Scandinavia, not in Germany, not in America.”
In the US, a distinguished Harvard biologist called Charles Davenport advocated eugenics. He was funded by the Carnegie Institute in 1910 to encourage the breeding of a superior American population.8
Eugenics was supposed to be the answer to all society’s ills, from dealing with ‘imbeciles’ and invalids to controlling criminals and preventing over-breeding by paupers! And the churches that compromised with Darwin were among the strongest supporters of eugenics, while the biblical churches opposed it.9
Of course, it was in Germany that the brew of eugenics, genetics and Darwinism produced its worse fruit—the idea was that the Aryans (the German “Master Race”) were being threatened by contamination from the other races.
“Darwin’s theory gave a veneer of scientific respectability to the struggle for ‘racial purity’ that was central to Nazi philosophy. … In 1935, Heinrich Himmler, the leader of the S.S., introduced a eugenic breeding programme to strengthen the Aryan race. German officers were encouraged to father children with Nordic or Aryan mothers.”
This was just one small part of the Nazis’ attempt to create a fitter “master race”.10 American ideas were implemented in Germany to justify the sterilisation of many people. Doctors who didn’t comply were penalised.11 Later, the Gestapo started to round up people of “impure race”. The Nazis sent around 250,000 of these men, women and children to the gas chambers from 1939–1945 in what was code-named ‘Operation T4’.
“ ‘Survival of the fittest’ had become translated to mean ‘murder of the weakest.’ ”
Of course, the Jews had been singled out as a dangerous genetically inferior race. Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’ “resulted in the deaths of gypsies, communists, Poles, Slavs, mentally and physically disabled, homosexuals, political and religious dissidents and six million Jews.” Following the War, attitudes radically altered in the realisation of the full horror of Nazism, and the similarities between different peoples were emphasised as being far greater than the differences. Yet evolutionary thinking still had a strong influence on the western conception of humankind.
While discussing the mapping of the human genome, Marr says
“The uncomfortable truth at the heart of Darwin’s theory is still with us in the twenty-first century. We are all one species but we aren’t all the same.”
His own Darwinian world-view shows through clearly as he discusses the prospect of genetic testing, which “allows us to find out more about our own evolutionary history than ever before.” But he admits that such tests could be used to influence how governments, schools, potential employers and even marital partners treat people—a very bleak, though not unrealistic, prediction. While Darwin might well have balked at such an outcome, it is indeed a natural consequence of rejecting divine revelation and embracing an anti-biblical world-view.
The last of the series is aptly titled Life and Death. In it, Andrew Marr argues that Darwinism and environmentalism are closely entwined, moreover that the former is the key to averting “one of the greatest disasters in the history of our planet.” The approach he takes is not new and it is not subtle.
“Most people thought [extinction] was the result of the Great Flood, sent by God to punish man, as described in the Bible story of Noah’s Ark. Darwin doubted this.”
(It’s thus hardly surprising that the BBC has also mocked the biblical Flood and Ark account.12) He chose to interpret fossils differently and decided that “extinction was a vital and necessary part of the process of evolution. … But burdened by his thoughts of life and death, and extinction, he soon began to retreat from the limelight. He knew that he had the seed of a dangerous idea, one that would undermine the Bible and Christian teaching” (emphasis added).
Marr spends time discussing the events surrounding Darwin’s publication of The Origin and the contributions of other natural scientists of his day, followed by a consideration of the conservation of the English countryside. Several uncontroversial examples of natural selection are described, although viewers who are aware that the standard textbook example of colour changes in peppered moths (Biston betularia) has been exposed as badly flawed,13 will have been surprised to see it featuring in Marr’s programme. In spite of the fact that major books and articles exposed the numerous problems with this evolutionary icon over ten years ago, it is claimed “Peppered moths had excellent pale camouflage and were almost invisible on pale, lichen-covered trees but there was also a dark form of the moth. This was much rarer than the light variety as it was easily spotted and eaten by birds.”
Accompanying pictures show the moths resting on bark on tree trunks, in spite of the fact that it is now widely acknowledged that they rest on twigs in the canopy. It was reported in Nature that experts had only observed them on tree trunks twice in 40 years! Moreover, bats are as likely as birds to be predators of these moths and since they hunt by echolocation—not by sight—it is far from settled that bird predation was the major factor in shifting proportions of light and dark Biston moths. But not wanting the facts to ‘mar’ a beautiful story, viewers are assured that this “remains the classic textbook example of Darwinian natural selection in action”. And of course, most people are still sadly unaware that natural selection is something perfectly logical and factual, and in fact was first described by creationist Edward Blyth.14 All examples of adaptation by natural selection occurring to date involve elimination or culling of genetic information. Extrapolated over time, this would lead to extinction, not uphill evolution.15
The basic idea in this final instalment seems to be that Darwin’s vision was responsible for giving human beings the impetus and rationale to look after the environment in which we find ourselves. Biblical revelation is seen as irrelevant.
“We have to preserve the environment, the natural world inside which we live. And it’s that—not equality or the existence or not of God—which is the most urgent message from Darwin’s essential idea. We have to change our behaviour as a species. If we don’t we know what follows.”
This is the Gospel according to Darwin, as expounded by one of his self-confessed modern-day disciples—some readers of this review may recall that Marr nominated Charles Darwin as his ‘Greatest Briton’ in a BBC series, several years ago.16 At the time he said: “[Darwin] is destined to be the prophet and guide of the next few hundred years. His time is only just beginning.”17 Again, Christians who see no harm in adding evolution to the Bible should pause and reflect long and hard on their reasons for clinging to Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.
- This was first screened in the UK in 3 parts on 5th, 12th & 17th March 2009. Return to text.
- Paul Revoir, Yes, we are biased on religion and politics, admit BBC executives, Daily Mail, 22 October 2006. Return to text.
- J. Bergman, Darwin s critical influence on the ruthless extremes of capitalism, Journal of Creation 16(2):105–109, 2002. Return to text.
- Bill Muehlenberg, Darwin and eugenics: Darwin was indeed a Social Darwinist , 18 May 2007. Return to text.
- Darwin s body snatchers, One Human Family, pages 51–61. Return to text.
- R. Grigg, Eugenics death of the defenceless: The legacy of Darwin s cousin Galton, Creation 28(1):18–22, 2005. Return to text.
- J. Bergman, H.G. Wells: Darwin’s disciple and eugenicist extraordinaire, Journal of Creation 18(3):116–120, 2004. Return to text.
- Edwin Black, War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race, Four Walls Eight Windows, New York/London, 2003; see review by J. Sarfati, America s evolutionists: Hitler s inspiration? Creation 27(2):49, 2005 <creation.com/weak>. Return to text.
- Christine Rosen, Preaching Genetics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement, Oxford University Press, New York, 2004. See also reviews by R Grigg, ‘Hooray for eugenics’, Creation 30(3):50–52, 2008 and by J. Bergman, The church preaches eugenics: a history of church support for Darwinism and eugenics, Journal of Creation 20(3):54–60, 2006. Return to text.
- Richard Weikart, R., From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2004; see review by J. Sarfati, The Darwinian roots of the Nazi tree, Creation 27(4):39, 2005; <creation.com/weikart>. Return to text.
- Augusto Zimmerman, The Darwinian Roots of the Nazi Legal System, J. Creation 22(3):109–114, 2008. Return to text.
- B. Hodge and J. Sarfati, Yes, Noah did build an Ark! Refutation of Did Noah really build an ark?, by Jeremy Bowen, BBC, 26 March 20o4. Return to text.
- C. Wieland, More about moths: A recent attempt to restore the reputation of the peppered moth as an evolutionary icon falls flat, 5 January 2008. Return to text.
- R. Grigg, Darwin’s illegitimate brainchild: If you thought Darwin’s Origin was original, think again! Creation 26(2):39–41, 2004; <creation.com/brainchild>. Return to text.
- See C. Wieland, Muddy Waters: Clarifying the confusion about natural selection, Creation 23(3):26–29, June 2001,<creation.com/muddy>. Return to text.
- Great Britons, BBC 2, screened in 2002. See www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2002/10_october/19/great_britons.shtml, Last accessed 28 April, 2009. The British public voted Darwin as the fourth greatest Briton of all time. Return to text.
- Andrew Marr, The most natural selection of all, The Daily Telegraph, Weekend, p. 1, 19 October 2002. Return to text.