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Darwin Correspondence Project

The Darwin and Human Nature film series

We chose four films to cover a broad chronology from the early 19th to the early 20th century; and a range of themes, including teaching Darwinism, slavery and race, degeneration in Victorian society, the boundaries between normal and abnormal in the nineteenth-century sideshow, and the tension between science and art. We wanted a good mix between films that were difficult to see on the big screen and old favourites that deserved another airing.

The most important criteria for selection were films that would make surprising connections to Charles Darwin’s work on human nature, and that contained though-provoking material to facilitate an interesting discussion at the end of each screening. Finally, all the films offered an account of real events, which could be questioned and discussed in the light recent historical scholarship.

The programme ran from 22 to 31 October 2012 at Cambridge Arts Picturehouse, as part of Cambridge Festival of Ideas.




Monday 22 October 2012:  Inherit the Wind 
Speakers: Joe Cain (University College, London) and David Kirby (University of Manchester) 
Director: Stanley Kramer. Starring: Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, Gene Kelly. 
USA 1960. 128 mins, b/w.

Wednesday 24 October 2012: The Elephant Man 
Speaker: Vanessa Toulmin (University of Sheffield) 
Director: David Lynch. Starring: Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Anne Bancroft. 
USA 1980. 124 mins, b/w.

Monday 29 October 2012: Proteus: A Nineteenth-Century Vision 
Speaker: Nick Hopwood (HPS, Cambridge)
Director: David Lebrun. Starring: Marian Seldes, Corey Burton, Richard Dysart. 
USA 2004. 60 mins.

Wednesday 31 October 2012: Black Venus (Vénus Noire) 
Speakers: James Moore (Open University) and Sadiah Qureshi (University of Birmingham) 
Director: Abdellatif Kechiche. Starring: Yahima Torres, Andre Jacobs, Olivier Gourmet. 
France/Belgium 2010. 159 mins. In French, Afrikaans and English, with English subtitles.



Proteus is a bit of an Unidentified Film Object. A work that mixes documentary with animation, its subject is a scientist who walked a tight line between arts and sciences. Is the film a documentary or an artistic vision? As our guest speaker Nick Hopwood pointed out, Proteus is not an academic essay. Nor is it a documentary as we have learnt to expect them – with actors walking around pretending to be nineteenth-century naturalists on a day trip. The connections it draws between Haeckel’s inner life and work and the Ancient Mariner may be the fruit of director David Lebrun’s poetic and imaginative take on the great scientist life rather than a historical fact.


However, the tension between Haeckel’s scientific mind and his artistic bent could be felt even in a short, self-deprecative letter to Darwin – although he seems to have hidden behind a light, and apparently slightly condescending reference to Darwin’s family female members:

“You may, however, apart from a detailed representation of the Rhizopod organism, not find much that is valuable, particularly not much that is useful for the theory of descent. Perhaps the delicate siliceous shells can provide you an aesthetic pleasure, or at least, perhaps, they might serve the female members of your family as embroidery patterns or architectural ornaments in the making of feminine works.”

(Haeckel to Darwin, 2 January 1864)


Haeckel’s radiolarian collections of plates became an example of art forms in nature that influenced the pattern books of Art Nouveau design. A propagandist of Darwinism, who coined the word ‘ecology’, Haeckel was also a visionary artist whose work is strikingly remembered in this unexpected, entrancing movie.



Listen to the invited speakers
Joe Cain and David Kirby on Inherit the Wind

Vanessa Toulmin on The Elephant Man

Nick Hopwood on Proteus

James Moore and Sadiah Qureshi on Black Venus


Read Sadiah Qureshi on Black Venus

Proteus, the 'Unidentified Film Object'