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Darwin Doubting Playwright Matt Chait Returns to the Hollywood Stage

Matt ChaitI’ve just read a new play by Matt Chait, whom we’ve met before in this space. Very interesting! John West reviewed Chait’s earlier work, Disinherit the Wind, and interviewed Chait here. The new play, A Misunderstanding, now being performed in Hollywood, CA, is essentially a reimagining of the first. Both center on a disgraced biologist seeking redress after he was terminated for questioning Darwinian orthodoxy.

The play runs through February 3, and if I planned to be in the L.A. area I’d love to see it in performance. What’s so delicious here is that this plea for free speech on evolution is distinctly not from a stereotypical theistic viewpoint but from Mr. Chait’s own preferred Eastern meditative perspective. The play is, in fact, a great wrecker of stereotypes. It’s chatty but also scientifically informed, mixing a troubled romance with contentious courtroom argumentation. Along with the Yiddishisms, there a few f-bombs as well. So if you’re acutely bothered by the latter, I suppose you’d best keep that in mind.

Homeostasis Takes the Stage

In a two-hour stage play, trying to present counterpoints on something like the origin of life, of biological novelties, or the origin of the universe is a tall order. Chait writes smart, concise dialogue on these subjects, and seems to have learned more than a thing or two from biologist Scott Turner’s recent book, Purpose and Desire: What Makes Something “Alive” and Why Modern Darwinism Has Failed to Explain It. Yes, he even refers to homeostasis.

The Darwin skeptic, Dr. Cates, argues that some identity or non-material being, a source of desire, lies behind every life. That must have been the case with the very first life:

Let’s go back before computers and before even brains, to the very beginning of evolution as you described it. In your opening statement, Dr. Brownstein, you said that a simple light sensitive membrane in tiny creatures, tiny brainless creatures, allows ‘it’ to distinguish light from dark; regarding the starfish you said, ‘it’ can tell roughly where the light is coming from; and the gelatinous material behind the light sensitive membrane increases ‘its’ sensitivity to light. What is this ‘it’, whose survival chances are being improved by these membranes and materials? That ‘it’ must be something that wants to survive, that prefers surviving over not surviving. However far back you go in your evolution of life, if it is predicated on a competition for survival, then it must include a consciousness, a being, with the capacity to experience, who prefers survival, or the continuation of its own particular experience, over death, or the cessation of that particular experience. 

An Optimistic View

The “misunderstanding” of the title is actually two misunderstandings — one between the young engaged couple whose relationship takes a tumble and one between the University of California biologists (one a Darwin doubter, one a staunch Darwinist) who fight it out in court. Mr. Chait’s premise is that in this debate, an amicable solution could be found, given greater sympathy and striving to understand by the respective of parties. That’s an optimistic view. But for taking on this challenging and of course radioactively controversial material, in a lively, accessible way, he deserves kudos.

If it’s convenient for you, try to check out A Misunderstanding — which has received some really nice reviews — and let me know how you think it works on the stage. For tickets and more information, see here.