An attack on evolution, disguised as a Darwin biography


Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” was published in 1859 and is considered the basis of evolutionary biology. PHOTO/Oli Scarff/Getty Images

I’ve been an evolutionary biologist for nearly half a century and have read hundreds of books about Charles Darwin and his science. If we exclude books written by creationists — a group that A.N. Wilson doesn’t identify with — “Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker” is by far the worst. Appalling in its sloppy arguments and unrelenting and unwarranted negativity, its most infuriating flaw is its abysmal failure to get the most basic facts right. It’s a grossly inaccurate and partisan attack on both Darwin and evolution.

Given that many of Wilson’s earlier biographies have been admired for their style and insight, and not criticized for pervasive errors, this new project is baffling. Where Darwin’s other biographers have seen a sensitive and kindly man, a scrupulous scientist who willingly credited his predecessors, Wilson finds a greedy “self-mythologizer” desperate to become famous, even if it required ignoring or plagiarizing his forerunners and fellow naturalists. Because the documentary record is so rich — we have some 15,000 bits of correspondence to and from Darwin, and he was a meticulous note-taker and letter-keeper — and because Darwin and his ideas occupy such a prominent place in the history of science, a vast amount of scholarly energy has been devoted to understanding his life and influences. We truly know a huge amount about him. How is it, then, that Wilson can come up with a completely new take on his subject?

There are two possibilities: All preceding Darwin scholarship is wrong, or, alternatively, the mistakes lie with Wilson. Parsimony alone would suggest that Wilson is the anomaly here, unless of course he has discovered some important new information. But there’s nothing remotely new in this book beyond Wilson’s anti-Darwin bias. That Wilson is the confused outlier among Darwin biographers is easily confirmed by even a cursory inspection of the book, which is replete with factual errors. This is not the place to describe all of Wilson’s misrepresentations, many of which are frankly daft. A few examples must suffice.

Wilson says repeatedly that Darwin didn’t persuade his contemporaries of evolution’s truth, but in fact by Darwin’s death in 1882, virtually all scientists — and most educated people — accepted evolution (he was, after all, buried in Westminster Abbey). The rediscovery of Mendelian genetics in 1900 did not undercut evolution, as Wilson argues, but supported it, even correcting Darwin’s mistaken ideas about how inheritance worked.

Wilson also asserts that Darwin had low libido, which, in Wilson’s world, is apparently a character flaw. Yet he fathered 10 children. Wilson claims Darwin feigned illness to avoid commitments and visitors that would interrupt his work, yet Darwin complained incessantly that severe and lifelong gastric problems cost him weeks of productivity. We’re not sure what disease afflicted him: Cyclic vomiting syndrome or lactose intolerance are the latest hypotheses. But hypochondria is not credible.

In the most embarrassing error, Wilson claims that the first 50 pages of an important Darwin notebook have been lost forever, asserting that Darwin destroyed them to hide his intellectual cribbing from his contemporary Edward Blyth. In reality, Darwin simply placed those pages in a folder for later use, and they can easily be found online. Whatever Wilson was doing during the five years he spent researching and writing this book, it bears little relation to what we call “scholarship.”

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