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Randal Keynes: When Darwin Is In Your Family Tree

Randal Keynes is a conservationist and author who is actively involved in the Charles Darwin Foundation and the Galapagos Conservation Trust. (Getty Images)

Have you ever wondered about the personal life of the man who developed the theory of evolution?

On today's Fresh Air, the conservationist Randal Keynes — Charles Darwin's great-great grandson — talks about the man behind the science: his relationship with his wife, Emma, and how they handled the death of their daughter.

In 2002, Keynes wrote a book on the subject called Annie's Box, which shares personal letters and diaries documenting how Darwin cared for his daughter in the last months of her life. The book is the basis for the new film Creation.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Charles Darwin's great-great-grandson, my guest Randal Keynes, is the author of a book about how the death of Darwin's 10-year-old daughter Annie affected Darwin's thinking about evolution, religion and human nature, and that's what we're going to talk about.

That book has just been adapted in a new film starring Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly. The book, which was originally titled "Darwin, His Daughter and Human Evolution," has been published in a new edition with the same title as the film, "Creation."

My guest, Randal Keynes, is not only related to Darwin, he's the great-nephew of economist John Maynard Keynes. His book "Creation" is based on Darwin family papers, manuscripts in the Darwin archive, as well as the memoirs and letters published after Darwin and his wife Emma died.

Keynes book begins in 1838, just before Darwin got married. This was a couple of years after his five-year voyage on the HMS Beagle, sailing around the world as the ship's naturalist. His observations on that trip led to his first book.

Randal Keynes, welcome to FRESH AIR. Your book had me at the very first paragraph. And it's about the quandary that Darwin was in, deciding whether to marry or not. I'd like you to read that paragraph.

Mr.�RANDAL KEYNES (Author, "Creation: The True Story of Charles Darwin"): (Reading) When 29, Charles Darwin thought about marrying. He took a piece of paper and wrote: "This is the question." Under "Not Marry" he jotted down: "Freedom to go where one liked - choice of society and little of it. Conversation of clever men at clubs. Not forced to visit relatives and to bend in every trifle - to have the expense and anxiety of children - perhaps quarreling - loss of time... How should I manage all my business if I were obliged to go every day walking with my wife. Eheu! I never should know French, or see the Continent, or go to America, or go up in a balloon."

Under "Marry," he wrote: "Children, if it please God, constant companion and friend in old age who will feel interested in one." He weighed up the points for and against and made up his mind. "My God, it is intolerable to think of spending one's whole life like a neuter bee, working, working and nothing after all. No, no, won't do. Imagine living all one's days solitarily in smoky, dirty London house. Only picture to yourself a nice, soft wife on a sofa with a good fire and books and music perhaps... Marry - Marry - Marry. Q.E.D."

GROSS: You know, this - outside of a slight touch of sexism there, it's such a contemporary way of thinking about marriage, you know. Everybody wants to balance work and family, everybody's having trouble doing it, and here's Darwin trying to figure out how to do it in the 1800s.

Mr.�KEYNES: Yes.

GROSS: And I thought - yeah.

Mr.�KEYNES: Darwin writes it all out.

GROSS: Yeah, and he writes it all out. So he did marry. He had a - it sounds like he had a really good relationship with his wife, a very intelligent woman. He loved his children and even was doing, like, a natural history of babies. Why was he studying his babies?

Mr.�KEYNES: He was studying his babies because before he married, he had realized that humans might be cousins to the great apes and the whole of the animal kingdom if this idea that he had found, that species might change, turned out to be true. And he started by looking at an orangutan, a young orangutan that was brought to London Zoo, and seeing how like a human she was by giving her things to play with and watching what she did and watching how she responded to his comments and remarks and so on.

When he married, for the first time he was able to experiment with an infant to see whether the infant behaved in similar ways. And he did this first with Annie's elder brother, and then two years later, as a scientist, just to check that this was a regular pattern of behavior with infants, he repeated all the little experiments with Annie, and she did what her brother did. They were both doing very much the same thing as the orangutan was doing, and this to him was very important confirmation of the closeness of the link between human and animal.

GROSS: So what were they doing in common, the infants and the orangutan?

Mr.�KEYNES: They were responding to expressions, you know, smiles and fierce expressions. They were showing an interest in objects given to them, and one point that was particularly interesting was how the orangutan, and then the infant, responded when it saw its reflection in a little hand mirror.

Darwin noticed that this little orangutan put her hand behind the mirror to see if she could see, touch this thing that she could see in the mirror, to see whether it was there. And Annie didn't do that, from which he concluded that on that comparison, the ape was more intelligent than his loved child.

GROSS: How did he get access to an orangutan? You describe in your book about how, you know, monkeys, apes were basically unknown in England and Europe...

Mr. KEYNES: Yes.

GROSS: ...at the time that Darwin was beginning his work.

Mr.�KEYNES: Yes, there's a great irony about this because they were unknown because all that were brought, as a number had been from Africa and from Asia, caught very quickly the human diseases that they were subject to because they were so close to us.

So a number had been brought, but they had all died almost immediately on arrival in England. Jenny(ph) the orang was brought from Asia in 1838 and was taken to London Zoo and was put on show in London Zoo. When Darwin heard that this extraordinary creature was there, this animal that was so close to a human, he went along with his notebook and with a little hand mirror and a harmonica and I think some peppermints to see if the creature liked peppermints, points like that.

And he spoke to the keeper of the orangutan and was allowed to go into the cage and play with her, which he did. And then he made notes of everything that's happened, and those were his basis for the comparison with his children when he was able to play the same games with them.

GROSS: One of the things I find so fascinating about your book "Creation" is your discussion of Charles Darwin's changing beliefs about religion as he got deeper into his scientific pursuit of evolution. What were his religious beliefs before he started to create the theory of evolution?

Mr.�KEYNES: When he was on the voyage of the Beagle, which took five years, immediately after he left university, he spent these five years traveling around the world, seeing so much and picking up the clues to the possibility that species might change. At that time, his beliefs were entirely orthodox. He was a loyal and orthodox young Christian gentleman. I think that's how he would have seen himself. He believed that the first chapter of Genesis was a literal account of the creation of the world and then of life and then of humans.

With his realization of the possibility that species might change, he started questioning his own beliefs. He asked, now what is this based on? How does this idea that I have that species might change compare with the Bible's account of God creating all the different kinds of animal in the Garden of Eden?

He questioned the biblical account. He went on questioning. He asked himself: Why should I believe the biblical account alongside what I can see and work out from what I see around me? And he grew increasingly uncertain that he should and could believe the biblical account.

GROSS: My guest is Randal Keynes, and he's the great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin, and we're talking about his book "Creation: The True Story of Charles Darwin." This book is the basis of a new film called "Creation."

Let's talk a little bit more about Darwin and religion. He was brought up as a Unitarian. His wife, Emma, was a very devout Unitarian. What did it mean to be a Unitarian for his wife, Emma?

Mr.�KEYNES: The Unitarians had one pointed doctrine on which they differed from the Church of England, and that had to do with the Trinity. They felt that God was one and that Christ was a mortal who had pointed the way towards faith in God.

Emma was a devout Unitarian. She wasn't, as many people believe, a dogmatic and certain Christian. What she felt, and this was a feature in - for many Unitarians, was that faith was all-important, and the commitment to faith was the important commitment of religion.

GROSS: You write that one of the reasons why Darwin started to challenge Genesis is he learned about the vastness of geological time.

Mr.�KEYNES: Yes.

GROSS: And that led him to question the historical parts of the Hebrew Bible.

Mr.�KEYNES: That's absolutely right. And he always lived with the Bible, and he knew all the parts that everyone else knew very well. He thought about them. He found himself increasingly uncertain whether they could be a true and accurate account of everything they claimed to be.

GROSS: You write that at some point, Darwin thought that his theory of evolution accounted for cruelty and pain better, or at least differently, then the Christian faith did. What did evolution have to say about cruelty and pain?

Mr.�KEYNES: He didn't feel that his theory explained cruelty and pain. He simply suggested that there might not be any explanation of cruelty and pain like the ones offered in the Christian faith that had to do with punishment, reward and so on and so forth. It was - his idea was that you shouldn't be looking for explanations of cruelty and pain in what happens to people during their lives and into their death.

GROSS: That there's no reason for it. There's no ordained reason for it.

Mr.�KEYNES: Yes, that God isn't up there engineering events for anything - you know, for any reasons to do with how we conduct our lives.

GROSS: My guest is Randal Keynes. He's Charles Darwin's great-great-grandson and author of the book "Creation: The True Story of Charles Darwin." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Randal Keynes. He's a great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin, and he's written a book called "Creation: The True Story of Charles Darwin." And the book has been adapted into a film, which is called "Creation," and it stars Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly.

Some of your book revolves around Charles and Emma Darwin's daughter Annie. It was their first daughter, and she died at the age of 10, after suffering some pretty severe symptoms. What were her symptoms?

Mr.�KEYNES: She became restless and ill at ease when she was nine. It was clear that she wasn't well, and she - nobody could say what was wrong with her. She was taken for a cure for this illness, unknown illness, and while she was at the spa where she was being treated with a form of water treatment - water therapy to avoid medicines that many people at the time felt were poisons, not medicines, and in fact they were poisons, not medicines - while she was at the spa being given this treatment, she developed a fever. And the fever killed her in a fortnight.

GROSS: One of the many parts of the story of Charles Darwin, as you tell it, that has very contemporary resonance, is that, you know, the Darwins sought out alternative therapies for their daughter Annie when she was sick, as so many people seek out now. Let's talk a little bit about what the alternative therapies of the time were. You mentioned water therapy. What was that therapy?

Mr.�KEYNES: Yes, this was a very important point I found in the story, and it all stemmed from the almost hopeless inadequacy of most medicine at the time. The medicine that was taught in the medical schools, most of it was pretty useless, and much of it was based on no proven efficacy of the medicine being used. Many of the medicines were actually toxic because the doctors had no idea of the effects of continuing to dose a child with mercury or other compounds that they were...

GROSS: Strychnine is one of the things that you mentioned.

Mr.�KEYNES: Yes, yes. So a person like Darwin wanted to find a treatment that he could be confident would work. And the water treatment was offered by a doctor who hated the medicines and could see how noxious they were to many people that they were given to, and the other things like bleeding and so on.

This doctor formed an idea of how water might be able to help many conditions. And he devised a set of treatments, and he offered them to people, and they were found by many people to be effective. And Darwin found them to be effective, and we have his notes of his treatment to show that, for him, they were effective. And this wasn't...

GROSS: He had a lot of problems, too, very severe digestive problems.

Mr.�KEYNES: Sorry, I should have explained it, yes.

GROSS: And some fever...

Mr.�KEYNES: He was chronically ill himself with digestive problems, with skin conditions, and he found empirically that this treatment was effective. And he therefore, when the doctors couldn't cure Annie of her lingering malaise, he took her to the spa to see if the water doctor's treatments might help.

GROSS: And the water treatment was what? You were wrapped in sheets of water, in very wet sheets?

Mr.�KEYNES: Yes. You were - it was an alternation of hot water and cold water, shivering and sweating. You were wrapped in towels. You were - water was thrown over you. You lay in a warm room with - one treatment was heating by the lamp when you encouraged a sweat. And it was based on a theory of how the body worked. The theory doesn't stand up now - treatments of that kind.

GROSS: When Annie, the Darwins' daughter, died at the age of 10, they were -the Darwins were devastated. You write that Emma hoped that Annie would go to heaven and that eventually Emma would be able to join her there. But on the other hand, after Annie's death, Charles gave up the Christian faith. He didn't attend church services with the family. He walked them to the church door but didn't go in. Why was Annie's death a turning point for him in terms of his faith?

Mr.�KEYNES: I have to say that I don't think Annie's death was a turning point in the sense that he wouldn't have made that turning if she had recovered and got better. It's clear that he was on a path, through the years before, of increasing doubt about the Christian faith. And it's clear that in the year after her death, he was no longer going to church. He would go with his family to the church. They would go in, he would go away and walk around in the countryside until they came out. Annie's death was just part of this long letting-go of the faith that he had been brought up with.

GROSS: You write that Darwin still believed in a divine creator but not in his infinite goodness. What were you able to glean about what Darwin's conception of God was after - yeah.

Mr.�KEYNES: Darwin thought long and hard about who, what God might be, what his purposes might be, what his plans for humans and all of that might be. He just couldn't form a clear picture. He worried, worried and worried at all the questions that others were also asking themselves.

He never gave up. We know that from some comments he made right at the end of his life, where he was clearly still worrying about these questions. He just couldn't decide. He couldn't see anything clear in one area or another that helped him to form a picture.

GROSS: How did Annie's death fit into his thinking about the survival of the fittest and the death of the weak?

Mr.�KEYNES: Annie's death showed him so clearly that this couldn't be anything other than a natural process. It couldn't have anything to do with the moral actions, deserts, whatever, of the child in question, the adult in question. It had just to be the outcome of some natural process, the catching of a disease, an accident or whatever.

GROSS: Randal Keynes will be back in the second half of the show. He's the author of "Creation: The True Story of Charles Darwin," which has just been adapted into a new film of the same name, "Creation." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Charles Darwin's great-great grandson, Randal Keynes. Keynes is the author of the book "Creation," about how the death of Darwin's 10-year-old daughter, Annie in 1851, affected Darwin's thinking on evolution, religion and human nature. The new movie "Creation," starring Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly, is adapted from Keynes book, which was originally titled "Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution."

Darwin published his now famous book "Origin of Species" in 1859. He knew it was going to be controversial, then - that was eight years after his daughter Annie's death. He published "Descent of Man" in 1871. You've researched what reaction was to Darwin's theories in his own time. Now, those theories are still controversial, probably more so in the United States than in England, where you live? But tell us a little bit about what reaction was like to his books in his own time.

Mr. KEYNES: When "The Origin of Species" was published in 1859, the reaction by most respectable commentators was fiercely hostile. In a few years, people had come to see that it didn't actually threatened religion in the ways that the first critics had claimed that it did and I think creationists still do. And there was much greater acceptance of the basic idea that he offered in the "The Origin of Species," that species have a history of change, all species including our own.

He published "The Descent of Man" partly because he felt that the Victorian age, the world was now ready for the second part of his theory, because it had been accepted enough for it to have a reasonable hearing. And Darwin ended up being buried in Westminster Abbey when he died. That was a mark of how his ideas had been accepted as worth thinking about, not rejected out of hand in the 23 years, I think, between the publications of "The Origin" and his death.

GROSS: Was the most controversial part in his time the theory that man evolved from apes?

Mr. KEYNES: It's quite clear, I think, that that was the point that really rattled people. Not that we evolved from apes but that we are close cousins of them. And that we, there is something animal at the heart of human nature. That was shocking to most people and it was so important for Darwin that we should face up to that because while some of the implications were bad for us, some were good for us and for animals, and he wanted everyone to understand the good things about our common nature with animals as well as the bad things.

GROSS: In Darwin's time, was his theory of evolution seen as a rejection of Genesis and therefore a rejection of religion?

Mr. KEYNES: Some people who wanted to reject the Bible argued that it was and took it as a text for atheism. Darwin was very unhappy for the argument to be used in that way. He wouldn't associate himself with attacks like that, uses like that of his argument. It was very important to him that many Christians felt that there was no contradiction between readings of his theory and the revelation, the faith that was so important to them. Very soon after the first edition of "The Origin of Species" appeared, a prominent Christian commentator wrote to him saying he welcomed Darwin's theory, there was a great deal of interest in it, and he saw no direct contradiction between his theory and the teachings of Christianity.

Darwin was so pleased with that statement - he couldn't go along with the signing up to faith himself. But he was so pleased that other people found no contradiction that he put that statement into the second edition of the book. And when the book was published again a month after the first publication, that statement by this commentator, who was called Charles Kingsley, appears and shows that Darwin wanted his theory to be seen to be consistent with Christianity.

GROSS: Charles Darwin's wife, Emma, believed in an afterlife and hoped that in that afterlife she would be united with her husband, with Annie, her 10-year-old daughter who died. Darwin gave up faith in an afterlife, and I just try to imagine what it was like for Emma wanting to be united in the afterlife with her family, knowing that her husband didn't even believe in it and that he felt very strongly about the reasons why - I mean, there were scientific reasons for it too. I mean, he was able to reason out loud why he didn't believe in it.

How much do you think that that divided Emma and Charles during their marriage? How much do you think it hurt Emma to think that her husband didn't believe in it?

Mr. KEYNES: It hurt her very greatly. It's quite clear from a number of letters that survive in which she tried to explain to him why she so wished that he could believe in God and the Christian revelation. She believed that faith in God might be a condition for entry into heaven in the afterlife. She felt that through his inability to believe in God, Darwin was giving up the chance of eternal happiness in the afterlife with her. She was going to miss him.

These were intense and deep beliefs of hers and the tragedy for them was that he could do nothing about his doubts. And she could do nothing about her fear that with his doubts he was ruling out for them the possibility of eternal happiness in the afterlife.

GROSS: My guest is Randal Keynes. He is Charles Darwin's great, great grandson and author of the book "Creation: The True Story of Charles Darwin." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Randal Keynes and he is the great, great grandson of Charles Darwin. We're talking about his book, "Creation: The True Story of Charles Darwin." That book has been adapted into a movie that stars Paul Bettany as Darwin and Jennifer Connelly as his wife, Emma.

You know, you're in the United States right now. As we record this, you've been here a few days, you've been talking about the book, you've been taking questions from people. I think there's a different - I think that England, where you're from, is kind of different than the United States in the sense that in the United States there's a very strong Christian creationism movement that is very uncomfortable with Darwin's theory of evolution. Some people don't even want it taught in the schools.

So I'm wondering, are you, do you feel like you have to be on your guard when you're in the United States talking about Darwin? Is it different for you to talk about Darwin here than it is in England?

Mr. KEYNES: It is very different because of the charge that these issues have from the fierceness of the argument in the last 10 years, I think. I'm not sure that it was so fierce before. I think it's a development of the very recent past. It's different. I'm not worried by it because so many other people see the sense and value of Darwin's ideas. It's no surprise - it should be no surprise that many people have difficulty with the implications of the theory. And I am happy that the argument continues. I'm happy that people argue against it as long as there are people arguing for it in the ways that I think Darwin would have felt were the right ways.

GROSS: Are you amazed when you research Darwin's life at how he was able to come up with the theory of evolution not knowing so much of the science that has subsequently, you know, been discovered? I mean, we know about DNA now. But he didn't know about that. So are you amazed at everything that Darwin didn't know?

Mr. KEYNES: Yes. It is quite extraordinary. This point about how he produced, he developed the whole theory and offered it to the world without knowing, without understanding an absolutely key part of the modern-day account of the theory, which is the mechanism of inheritance and how inheritance works so that traits that have advantages through natural selection survive and develop. It shows, I think, extraordinary boldness on his part. He was so confident from the other evidence that there must be something to this theory that he offered it without this piece in the jigsaw - a theory of how inheritance worked.

And it's just wonderful to see how with Mendelian genetics and then with molecular biology, the theory has been strengthened and strengthened and strengthened and strengthened by the understanding that we've gained of these key processes.

GROSS: Randal Keynes, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. KEYNES: Thank you.

GROSS: Randal Keynes is the author of "Creation: The True Story of Charles Darwin," which has been adapted into a new film called "Creation," starring Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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