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Darwin Descendant Reflects on Attacks on Evolution


More now about evolutionary matters, and we are joined by the great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin. He is Matthew Chapman, born in England but now working in the United States as a screenwriter and film director. A few years ago he wrote a book called the "Trials of the Monkey." It deals with his travels in the American South, including Dayton, Tennessee, where his ancestor's writings are still sometimes controversial.

Matthew Chapman, welcome to DAY TO DAY.

Mr. MATTHEW CHAPMAN (Great-Great-Grandson of Charles Darwin): Thank you.

CHADWICK: Were you famous when you were a kid because Charles Darwin was your great-great-grandfather?

Mr. CHAPMAN: In Britain, I really didn't think about it very much. I mean, as the theory of evolution is kind of not really in dispute in Europe, it sort of wasn't really part of the conversation.

CHADWICK: It's part of the conversation here in the United States, perhaps more than you'd expected when you came here.

Mr. CHAPMAN: I continue to be stunned by it.

CHADWICK: And when you traveled in the South and talked with people about evolution, how did they react when you told them who you are?

Mr. CHAPMAN: I have to say people were pretty nice to me down there. I remember when Mencken went down there to cover the Scopes trial, he remarked on the fact that even though he was a--you know, he was very cruel to the people there and he called them Neanderthals and all that kind of stuff, he couldn't help but have an affection for them because they were kind of basically very sweet. And people were very kind to me down there, except possibly for a couple of preachers who were a little overwhelming, shall we say, in their attempt to convert me.

CHADWICK: What is your view of the creationism movement in the United States and, indeed, the arguments for intelligent design?

Mr. CHAPMAN: Well, I think, really, these people don't understand what evolution is, and it's a period where people are kind of frightened and they kind of regress towards this simplistic view of the world, and I don't blame them. I mean, if you go down to the South and you kind of see people--you know, I was astonished, really, how poor people were in the South and how hard life was. And you can understand that if you don't understand the theory of evolution and you do understand the sort of simplistic idea of a God who is looking over you and being kind to you and will welcome you into heaven--if you contrast the two and you're desperate, it's not surprising that you go with the more comforting version.

CHADWICK: You have this other theory, de-evolution. Explain de-evolution, will you? And this is a personal story about your own life and your relations, your family relations.

Mr. CHAPMAN: Yeah. Well, you see, the way I look at it is this. There is this thing called regressing toward the mean, and I see this in my own life, where my great-great-grandfather was Charles Darwin, you know, a pretty smart guy. My great-grandfather was Sir Francis Darwin, who was a relatively good biologist who sort of--document a lot of his father's work. My grandmother was a very eccentric, rather mentally unstable poet. My mother was an alcoholic housewife, and I'm a screenwriter. So you see the degeneration, you see the descent of man till you reach me, a Hollywood screenwriter, which--what could be lower than that?

CHADWICK: (Laughs) Darwin descendant, film director and screenwriter Matthew Chapman joining us from New York City.

Matthew, thank you.

Mr. CHAPMAN: You're welcome.

CHADWICK: More just ahead on DAY TO DAY from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alex Chadwick
For more than 30 years, Alex Chadwick has been bringing the world to NPR listeners as an NPR News producer, program host and currently senior correspondent. He's reported from every continent except Antarctica.