Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has, over the past decade or so, grown closely associated in the public mind with atheism, and specifically with the cause of taking down creationism. While he has no doubt courted this fame by writing books like The God Delusion (wheraeas thirty years ago he wrote books like The Selfish Gene), we forget at our own peril that Dawkins can argue for things as well or better than he can argue against them. If Dawkins’ intellectual bête noire, the notion that an intelligent designer deliberately created life on Earth, already holds no appeal for you, you’ll enjoy The Genius of Charles Darwin, his celebration of the father of evolutionary theory, all the more. Even hardcore creationists, in referring to the acceptance of evolutionary theory as “Darwinism,” acknowledge the nineteenth-century naturalist’s extensive influence. Dawkins, an even more ardent Darwin admirer than he is a creationism detractor, lays it unambiguously out at the beginning: “This series is about perhaps the most powerful idea ever to occur to a human mind. The idea is evolution by natural selection, and the genius who thought of it was Charles Darwin.”
This British Broadcast Award-winning Channel 4 documentary series comes in three parts: “Life, Darwin & Everything” (the title a nod to Dawkins’ late friend, Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy author and biology fan Douglas Adams), “The Fifth Ape,” and “God Strikes Back.” Beginning with the basics, it has Dawkins explain how, exactly, species evolve by way of natural selection, at one point to a dubious high school classroom. After taking the students on a field trip to check out the fossil record for themselves, he returns to his colonial birthplace of Nairobi, Kenya — coincidentally, the geographical origin of homo sapiens itself. He explores the religious implications of of evolution, the wrongheaded nature of what’s called “social Darwinism,” and the even wronger-headed nature of eugenics. He interviews figures like evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, Creation Research president John Mackay, and Concerned Women for America president Wendy Wright. All have something to say about Darwin’s observation, whether for or against, and if against, Dawkins has a response. Call him overconfident if you must, but in a show like this, he certainly does take pains to approach his subject from every possible angle.