A new PBS TV series shows how his theories continue to affect us.
"Evolution" means change. But the theory of evolution means war - at least for certain religious groups that take Genesis literally. And the new seven-part, eight-hour series on PBS, Evolution, does its best not only to explain Charles Darwin's theory of the origins of material life, but to take seriously conservative Christians' religious objections to it.
The two-hour opener is a kind of " 'Masterpiece Theatre' meets 'Nova,' " as one publicity agent puts it. We are introduced to Darwin, a 19th-century gentleman of leisure who loved his wife and children dearly - and was so considerate of his wife's religious feeling that he put off publishing "The Origin of the Species" for years.
He also feared the derision that he knew would come with his dangerous ideas about a common ancestry, variation, and natural selection. (He didn't know about the mechanics of genetic mutation - later discovered by Gregor Mendel.)
Laced throughout the biography are modern illustrations of Darwin's discoveries. Because the theory of evolution is the cornerstone of modern biology, the series details how it has been applied, particularly to medical research.
Episode 2 takes on the diversity of life on earth, and investigates the evolutionary ideas of the journey of sea creatures to land and land mammals back to the seas, as well as the emergence of primates and humans.
Later episodes go on to explore the five mass extinctions that have occurred over the life of the planet, new ideas about "survival of the fittest" (cooperation is seen to be as important as competition), and symbiosis among different species. One whole episode is devoted to sex, asserting that the driving force behind culture itself may be sex (certainly a controversial hypothesis).
The emergence of the modern brain is called "The Mind's Big Bang": Some 50,000 years ago, there was an explosion of social, technological, and creative expression - all explained as "adaptive."
The last hour is devoted to the social and religious rejection of the theory of evolution. "What About God?" outlines the struggle in schools waged by conservative Christian parents for the right to have "creationism" taught as an alternative to evolution.
Students of science at a conservative Christian college discuss their own struggles with their faith and with what they are learning about science.