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No. 3287:
Darwin Goes to Hollywood

by Frank Dello Stritto

Today, offbeat lessons in evolution. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Evolution is the change and diversification of biological populations over successive generations. Charles Darwin introduced Evolution by Natural Selection in his 1859 book, Origin of Species. Darwinian Evolution has been controversial ever since-never more so than during the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. No surprise that public schools often shied away from teaching it.

Through my youth in the 1950s and 1960s, my formal education ignored evolution. It was never mentioned in my science classes or on what little educational television was then available. Yet when I graduated high school, I had a basic understanding of Darwinian Evolution. Where did I get that knowledge? I got it from monster movies.

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin.
  Photo Credit: Public Domain

If my schools weren't interested in evolution, the movies definitely were. A lot was going on in the 1950s. The golden age of science fiction films launched, and evolution was the basis for outlandish plots. The same decade saw a surge of interest in the Abominable Snowman. The search for the Yeti inspired a handful of movies with evolution as a theme. And the 1950s saw the discovery of DNA, which would in time work its way into popular entertainment.

In good movies like The Time Machine and in bad movies like Half Human, doctors, mad and sane, explained evolution as they launched incredible quests. Some got it right, some didn't, but they generally led me in the right direction. Monster movies filled a gap left by formal education. I was eight years old when I saw Creature from the Black Lagoon in a theatre. It opens with a quote from Genesis and deftly shifts to evolution "The restless seas rise," says the narrator, "find boundaries and are contained. In their warm depths, the miracle of life begins. In infinite variety, living things appear and change, leaving a record of their coming, their struggle to survive, and their eventual end."

Many movie doctors' notions of evolution are simply wrong. One of them is Dr. Moreau in 1933's Island of Lost Souls. I saw that film on television at age 12. Moreau turns animals into men, and proclaims that "Man is the present climax of a long process of organic evolution. All animal life is tending toward the human form." I would later learn that evolution teaches nothing like that. Humans are not a climax, and life will evolve as it needs to survive.

  Photo Credit: Public Domain

I was 16 when I saw 1932's Murders in the Rue Morgue. It is based on an Edgar Allan Poe story, but the filmmakers threw out most of Poe and replaced him with Darwin. The film's Dr. Mirakle may be mad, but his explanation of evolution is not bad. "In the slime of chaos," he tells us, "there was a seed which rose and grew into the tree of life. Life was motion. Fins grew into wings, crawling reptiles grew legs. There came a time when a four-legged thing walked upright."

Evolution Lecture in MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE
Evolution Lecture in MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE.
  Photo Credit: Public Domain

So, is it a good or bad thing to learn about science from movies more concerned with entertaining than instructing? That may depend on the viewer and on the doctor. Purists may argue with Dr. Mirakle's wording, but he and a few other movie doctors gave many young movie fans their start on the exciting story of life on Earth.

I'm Frank Dello Stritto, for the University of Houston, and interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Bojarski, Richard, 1980. The Films of Bela Lugosi, Citadel Press, New York.

Darwin, Charles, 1859. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, John Murray, London.

Dello Stritto, Frank J. 2003. A Quaint & Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore: “The Mythology & History of Classic Horror Films, Cult Movies Press, Houston, Texas.


This episode was first aired on February 21, 2023