by Craig Baxter
DARWIN: “Can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions?”
With The Atlantic Ocean between them, Charles Darwin in England, and Asa Gray at Harvard, correspond voraciously in an attempt to reconcile orthodox Christian beliefs with Darwin’s new theory of evolution by natural selection. Using their own words, we enter the worlds of these groundbreaking 19th century naturalists as they debate the great issues of science and religion whilst sharing news of personal tragedies and triumphs, holiday experiences and various gardening accidents! Serious thinkers, family men, patriots, wrestling with the issues of their own day and ours.
In this new version of the play, commissioned by the Darwin Correspondence Project, the characters of Darwin and Gray unfold through the eyes of Jemma, a modern day artist and film-maker coming to terms with the same issues 150 years on.
Introduction to Re:Design
by Craig Baxter
The world was Darwin’s laboratory. Confined to his home in rural Kent by his own ill-health, he wrote thousands of letters, using (quite brilliantly) his reputation, charm and self-deprecating humour to persuade amateur collectors and busy professionals from all over the world to collect and interpret data on his behalf. Darwin worked hard to get the best information out of the best people for feeding into his theories. Gray was perfectly placed to provide Darwin with information about the geographical distribution of plants in his part of the World. At Darwin’s instigation, a warm and lively correspondence was struck up and Gray became one of the very few fellow scientists to whom Darwin revealed his theory of natural selection before the publication of On the Origin of Species. As a committed Christian, Gray saw no conflict between his religious faith and Darwin’s theory and became a staunch champion of Darwin in the United States. The two friends discussed at length, over many years and not always agreeing, the evidence for divine ‘design’ in nature.
Re:Design was commissioned by the Darwin Correspondence Project, University of Cambridge, and funded by the John Templeton Foundation as a way of introducing wider audiences to the letters of Charles Darwin. The words the historical characters speak are verbatim, taken from the original, written words of Darwin and Gray. It has proved a highly mutable play, evolving into two- and three-actor versions of varying running time and being translated into Danish, German, Spanish and Turkish.
Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury in 1809. He studied medicine at Edinburgh University, but switched to Cambridge in 1827 where he studied theology and natural science. He spent five years sailing round the world on board HMS Beagle. He published articles and books about his observations and deductions, and began to piece together the data that led him to understand the mechanism by which new species develop. He called it `natural selection’ and his famous work, On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection, was published in 1859. He married his cousin, Emma Wedgwood in 1839. They had ten children; one daughter died soon after birth and another at the age of ten; one son died in infancy. Darwin died at his home in Downe, Kent, in 1882.
Asa Gray was born in New York State in 1810. He qualified as a doctor, but gave up medical practice after two years to teach and study botany. He travelled in England and Europe in 1838 and 1839 and met Joseph Hooker, son of the Director of Kew Gardens. Although Gray and Hooker first briefly met Charles Darwin during that visit, it was not until 1855 that Gray and Darwin first corresponded. Returning to the US, Gray was appointed Professor of natural history at Harvard University in 1842, a post he held until his death in 1888. He wrote numerous botanical works and was President of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1848 he married Jane Loring. They had no children.
Jemma, a video-artist, is an invented modern day character.
The Darwin Correspondence Project was founded in 1974
by an American scholar, Frederick Burkhardt, with the aid of Sydney Smith, a zoologist in the University of Cambridge (UK). They originally set out to locate, research, and publish summaries of, all letters written by Charles Darwin (1809-82), the most celebrated naturalist of the nineteenth century. Following a pilot project, it was decided to include letters written to Darwin also – an unusual step for a collection of correspondence at the time, and one now widely followed – and to publish complete transcripts in chronological order. Since then, the Project has had a staff of researchers and editors in both the UK and US, those in the UK being based in Cambridge University Library which houses the largest single collection of Darwin’s manuscripts, and his own library of books and journals. The papers include around 9,000 letters. www.darwinproject.ac.uk