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A. N. Wilson’s Charles Darwin

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

When word got out that well-known English novelist and biographer A.N. Wilson had set his pen to the subject of Darwin, many of us (myself included) couldn’t wait for the British release by John Murray — the very publisher who had issued On the Origin of Species 158 years earlier! — to make its way across the Atlantic. And now Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker is here in its American debut under the HarperCollins imprint. It’s a handsome volume. The rather stark black-and-white jacket conceals a beautifully done cover with birds, plants, insects, islands, lizards, assorted sea creatures, and a ship amidst the bearded and august figure of Charles Darwin. Augmented with an eye-catching gallery of illustrative plates (some color), the volume has impressive production values. Beyond that it is an imposing tome, 438 pages, 367 of which are text divided into seventeen chapters. As the reader settles down to its contents, the anticipation that something special is in store is palpable.

To begin, Wilson pulls no punches. He opens his narrative with the simple but attention-getting sentence, “Darwin was wrong.” Wrong about exactly what is the dominating theme of this book, but simply put Wilson sees two Darwins: Darwin the brilliant, meticulous, and tireless naturalist who was perhaps the greatest cataloger who ever lived, and the second Darwin, Darwin the theorist. It is this second Darwin that Wilson takes issue with, referring to the theorist Darwin as Thomas Henry Huxley and his generation’s “magic genie” not revealed but “conjured” and “concocted” out of an amalgam of speculation and laissez-faire economics — all this within the first ten pages! Then he states his thesis:

It is this book’s contention that Darwinism succeeded for precisely the reason that so many critics of religions think that religion succeeded. Darwin offered to the emergent Victorian middle class a consolation myth. He told them that all their getting and spending, all their neglect of their own poor huddled masses, all their greed and selfishness was in fact natural. It was the way things were. The whole of nature, arising from primeval slime and evolving through its various animal forms from amoebas to the higher primates, was on a journey of improvement, moving onwards and upwards, from barnacles to shrimps, from fish to fowl, from orang-outangs to silk-hatted Members of Parliament and leaders of British industry. It was all happening without the interference or tiresome conscience-pricking of the Almighty (17-18).

As anyone even remotely familiar with the tumultuous field of evolution knows, these are fighting words; evolution is not some socially constructed response to conditions, it is about Science (capital intended). Society and their media journalists believe the myth and proclaim their faith from their bully pulpits. Thus most reviewers have been quick to express their righteous indignation over Wilson’s daring suggestion that all is not well with this secular icon of truly mythic proportions. Christoph Irmscher writing for the Wall Street Journal accuses Wilson of digging up familiar dirt and even of “intentional falsification.” Some of his (as well as other reviewers) attentions are directed to scientific aspects of Darwinian theory; these will be left for another reviewer better equipped than I to address. Similarly, John van Wyhe’s review in New Scientist calls Wilson’s biography “unreliable and inaccurate.” Kathryn Hughes writing for The Guardian asks, “How wrong can a biography be?” Hughes charges Wilson with blame mongering. According to Hughes, Wilson unfairly and unreasonably demotes Darwin to a privileged, eccentric, psychosomatic recluse who cast out his controversial theory of common descent by means of natural selection (emphasizing slow, gradual evolution in a natural state of warfare) and let others (especially Thomas Henry Huxley) do his fighting for him. Given Wilson’s frank and fearless challenge to the Darwinian paradigm, these responses were predicable. But are they right?

A Stylist and a Genuine Wordsmith

It should be said at the outset that Wilson is a stylist and a genuine wordsmith. This was an easy and interesting read. His capacity for explaining complex ideas and historical phenomena in interesting and sometimes remarkably succinct ways is a reader’s delight. His discussions of Victorian society and the interconnectedness of Darwin’s upper middle-class confreres are intimate and well informed. On more technical issues, such as the rapidly changing field of geology in nineteenth-century Europe, Wilson is able to lay out complicated issues such as the debate between the Neptunists (those who argued for geological change by means of a turbulent universal sea) and the Vulcanists (those who believed geological change came about through a series of vast global catastrophes) in just a page and a half. Then, in two well-managed pages, Wilson explains how Charles Lyell (Darwin’s close friend and confidante), taking his cue from James Hutton’s uniformitarianism, changed the field forever with his wildly successful Principles of Geology going through twelve editions, 1830-1875.Thus, the reader gets a clear and reliable introduction to nineteenth-century geology in under five pages. This takes skill.

There are also good insights into Darwin himself. Wilson sees Darwin “as a man of towering ambitions” (146), so much so that despite numerous predecessors who had followed a similar path (including his own grandfather Erasmus), he “apparently believed that he had made the subject his and his alone. With the rigour of an industrialist or retailer branding his particular product, he was determined that the concept of evolution should be stamped with his surname” (180). This deep passion to own outright evolutionary theory forced Darwin into a number of impostures, the most telling of which was trying to portray himself as the objective, patient investigator carefully amassing his evidence and slowly building his theory. As Wilson points out, “Darwin, the man with one big simple idea, started first with the theory [which he acquired as a teenager at Edinburgh through his friendship with Robert Edmond Grant and his association with the free-thinking Plinian Society] , and was doing his best to make the evidence fit his theory” (208). There were others impostures too, such as his “personal deviousness” (239) and his refusal (or inability) to come clean about his own religious disbelief. Less indicting but no less insightful is Wilson’s observation of the synergy between himself and his wife Emma. Their marriage was “a direct correlation between the motherless Darwin’s need for his lost mother’s love [Susannah “Sukey,” his mother, died when he was eight and a half] and Emma’s constant willingness to pander to his psychosomatic whims” (271).

Wilson at times seems to judge Darwin harshly, perhaps even a bit unfairly. This impression seems to undergird Kathryn Hughes dismissal of the entire book. But it should be remembered that with Wilson there are always two Darwin’s lurking about. One is the ambitious, self-promoting propagandist; the other is the hardworking and passionate naturalist. They have their social counterparts too: in the class-conscious Victorian recluse on the one hand and the compassionate family man and faithful friend on the other. One should always take journalist’s indictments with a grain of salt. For example, Hughes charges Wilson with making the “beastly” accusation that “Darwin was secretly sympathetic to slavery.” Wilson, in fact, makes no such claim. What he says is that Darwin found slavery shocking, but this didn’t mean he believed in racial equality. Like nearly all Victorians (especially those of his class), Darwin thought that races could be ranked on scales of their cranial capacities with Europeans at the top on down to Africans and aboriginal Australians. Nevertheless, this in itself doesn’t endorse slavery. After all, “His Wedgwood grandfather had campaigned against slavery, and, whatever Darwin’s view of ‘savages,’ he never stooped to regarding them as a saleable commodity” (304). Hughes plea for fairness cuts both ways.

There is also Andrea Wulf’s dismissal in the New Statesman of Wilson’s link of Darwin with Hitler. Citing Robert J. Richards’s “erudite rebuke to those who have made similar claims,” she confidently concludes the association is wholly spurious. But historian Richard Weikart’s counterclaim in From Darwin to Hitler seems compelling. Wulf should read Professor Weikart’s reply to Richards before passing such certain judgment.

Simple Factual Errors

Wilson understands Darwin the man, his times, and his social relations; these are all good features of this biography. But there are problems, bad problems. First there are simple factual errors. For example, Wilson claims Darwin’s daughter-in-law, Amy Ruck, and his first grandchild both died in childbirth. This isn’t true. The baby was Bernard Darwin who grew up to become a popular golf enthusiast and sports writer. He died in 1961. Another faux pas occurs when Wilson indicates that the Linnean Society where Lyell and Hooker planned to present the Darwin-Wallace theory of evolution was cancelled on June 1 and moved to July 1 out of respect for the death of their illustrious president, Robert Brown. The problem is, Brown died on June 10, nine days after the original meeting date! Was the June 1 meeting cancelled in anticipation of his death? On its face this makes no sense. In fact, what happened was when Robert Brown died a special meeting was called in his honor, in part out of respect and partly out of the necessity to fill his vacated position. The previous meeting had not been on June 1 but on June 17 at which time the special meeting for July 1 was called. Then Wilson missteps again in claiming that “survival of the fittest” was suggested to Darwin by Herbert Spencer when the two met before publication of Origin. This would suggest that the 1st ed. included the Spencerian phrase. Wrong on both counts. It is true that Herbert Spencer coined the phrase, but it was actually suggested by Alfred Russel Wallace in a rather long letter to Darwin on July 2, 1866 (see Marchant, Alfred Russel Wallace: Letters and Reminiscences, v. 1, 171). Accordingly, Darwin incorporated the phrase for the first time in the 5th edition of Origin published in 1869. If Spencer had recommended the phrase to Darwin before Origin was published, it should have appeared in the 1st edition. It didn’t.

There are other Wallace-related blunders. For example, Wilson claims Wallace was a vegetarian. He was not, never was. In fact, although he agreed with a vegetarian diet in principle, he felt that poor “vegetable cookery” and “inadequate knowledge” of sound vegetarianism “often produces bad results.” Sufferers from illnesses produced by too starchy a diet could “find immediate relief from an exclusive diet of the lean of beef,” Wallace insisted, and he personally consumed some meat all his life (Wallace, My Life, v. 2, 230). Then there are Darwin’s pall-bearers that Wilson counts at seven in all but no Wallace. Actually Wallace was a pall-bearer, along with nine others (My Life, v. 2., 102-103). Wilson makes another factual error when he says that “among the Darwin-worshippers, it had become bad form to attribute too much of the glory of Wallace” (309). This is supposed to be one of the reasons Saint George Mivart’s review of Darwin’s Descent of Man (1871) was viewed as so appallingly by his critics and led to the Catholic convert’s anathematization. But this is nonsense. Although Huxley’s X Club did its fair share of bullying, and Wallace was viewed as something of a renegade and an outsider, he was liked, well known, and widely praised in his own lifetime (see Charles H. Smith, “Just how well known was Wallace in his own time?,” The Linnean Society Newsletter and Proceedings 30 [April 2014]: 27-30). The golden anniversary celebration of the unveiling of Wallace and Darwin’s theory of natural selection held on July 1, 1908, included Wallace as its guest of honor along with a veritable who’s who England’s leading intelligentsia (see The Darwin-Wallace Celebration). The deletion of Wallace from the record was largely a post-Wallace phenomenon, and was accelerated with the rise of the Darwin industry particularly in the last half of the twentieth century. Only relatively recently have really good biographies of Wallace been available (see especially Martin Fichman’s An Elusive Victorian [2004], Ross A. Slotten’s Heretic in Darwin’s Court [2004], and even partial but excellent coverage in Iain McCalman’s Darwin’s Armada [2009]), and Flannery’s Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life [2011]).

Some other factual errors include Wilson’s odd claim that the publication of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation in 1844 demonstrated that, “Broadly speaking, . . . he [Robert Chambers] scooped Darwin” (195). Vestiges caught the public’s attention (among them Darwin and Wallace) but no one thought this was a complete, thorough , rigorous explanation of what was then known as transmutation. Most readers who were at all favorably disposed to it regarded Vestiges more as intriguing than as definitive. Darwin was no more “scooped” by Chambers than he had been scooped by Lamarck’s Philosophie Zoologique (1809), Giambattista Brocchi’s Conchologia fossile (1814) , or even his own grandfather’s Zoonomia (1794-96). The final factual error worth mentioning is Wilson’s apparent ignorance concerning Darwin’s subsidiary theory, sexual selection. Whether the idea is flawed or perhaps misplaced (Wallace, for example, regarded it as either inaccurate or unnecessary to explain speciation) I will not say, but it became an increasingly important feature of Darwin’s intellectual landscape and should be acknowledged in any book purporting to render a complete biography of Darwin. Yet in Wilson’s entire book, one searches in vain for even a modest recognition of it (pro or con). The closest I could find was some peculiar mention of “sexual suggestion” on page 174 in reference to Edward Byth’s two essays in the Magazine of Natural History published in 1835 and 1837. I have no idea what “sexual suggestion” means, but doubtfully anything connected with Darwin’s sexual selection theory.

Analytical and Methodological Blunders

Wilson’s blindness to Darwin’s important subsidiary sexual selection theory leads him to make what I would consider an analytical error in his analysis of Descent of Man (1871). He complains that “Darwin makes little or no attempt to follow a tightly argued structure, preferring to flood his chapters with information about matters which have, at most, an indirect bearing on his subject” (302). But Wilson is ignoring the book’s subtitle Descent of Man And Selection in Relation to Sex. This was not just Darwin’s application of his theory of natural selection to mankind, it was also his explanation of a related theory he developed — sexual selection — to help bolster what he now recognized was the incapacity of natural selection to explain some important features of the human condition (in part made clear to him by Wallace). Wilson cannot complain about extraneous material without addressing why it is there in the first place. In a sense one can agree that much of the hefty Descent volume is indeed “extraneous,” and anthropologist Ashley Montagu was so annoyed with it that he edited a suitably trimmed, leaner version in 1979 that is still well worth examining. But he did so after first explaining in his preface why he thought the sexual selection material could be removed without significant loss. Wilson, however, seems clueless as to why Darwin really wrote Descent, and thus missed the opportunity of subjecting sexual selection theory to serious analysis.

I will not dwell on other analytical errors, such as the claim that Wallace was a “religious believer” in “the Almighty.” Wallace was a spiritual man opposed to scientistic reductionism, but this is a bad mischaracterization. Other analytical errors include the notion that Wallace’s theory of evolution was “all but identical” to Darwin’s theory. It was not. And the implication that Wilberforce first objected to Darwin’s argument of natural selection as analogous with domestic breeds is also wrong. It was plain and explicit in Wallace’s Ternate letter (the very one that prompted Darwin to publish Origin in the first place) that domestic animals were clearly not like beasts in the wild. In fact, Wallace pointed out that domestic hybrids returned to their natural conditions would either revert to their original types or perish. Most of these factual errors have their roots in Wilson’s poor methodology, something to which I shall turn shortly, but not until mention is made of perhaps the most serious analytical error of all, namely, Wilson’s obsession with the notion that Darwin was an intellectual “thief” who stole Edward Blyth’s earlier ideas on natural selection.

It Gets Ugly

Here it gets downright ugly. As mentioned earlier, Edward Blyth published two essays in 1835 and 1837 in the Magazine of Natural History suggesting a process similar to Darwin’s. Wilson repeatedly offers up sinister suggestions of plagiarism even going so far as to use the first fifty pages of Darwin’s Transmutation Notebook that “have been cut out” as proof of Darwin’s deliberate suppression of evidence that he had relied upon Blyth in developing his theory. In fact, Wilson harps on this “theft” idea; his narrative with peppered with it (134, 149, 174, 219). John van Wyhe thinks this is a howler since the “missing” pages have been recovered years ago. Actually, van Wyhe is correct. The majority of Darwin’s missing pages were recovered in 1960, 1961, and 1966. When the notebook material was compiled and published in 1989 the “excised portions” were restored. A complete listing is given on pages 643-652 of Charles Darwin’s Notebooks, 1836-1844. It should also be pointed out that nothing sinister should be inferred from Darwin’s habit of tearing out pages of his notebooks. Gavin de Beer who headed the editorial team noted that this was Darwin’s means of preparing for his big book on evolution (never written). These were the pages Darwin felt were most needed for that task, and as such pages were removed not just from the section of which Wilson complains, but throughout. Happily, Sandra Herbert and David Kohn could report in the published Notebooks that the former defects have been corrected with “the excised pages from Notebooks B, C. D and E, having been replaced in their original positions” (7). And what did de Beers and his editors find when they examined these excised pages with regard to Blyth? There are only two references to him; both concern Blyth’s observation on birds, and nothing about the 1835 or 1837 papers (see Joel S. Schwartz, “Charles Darwin’s Debt to Malthus and Edward Blyth,” J. Hist. Bio. 7(2) (1979):301-318). What makes this so ugly is that Wilson had all this information under his nose. The published Notebooks are clearly listed in Wilson’s bibliography, and yet he repeats the missing pages story first given by Loren Eiseley. At least Eiseley did this in 1959 before the missing pages were recovered. Wilson has no excuse.

I mentioned that there are methodological problems with this book. I’ll get to the ugliest first. Wilson notes Wallace’s stunning break with Darwin by quoting from his review of Charles Lyell’s 10th edition of Principles of Geology that appeared in the April 1869 issue of the Quarterly Review. It is true that Wallace made his break with Darwin by calling upon an “Overruling Intelligence” to explain the special and unique capacities of human beings, but that is not what Wilson quotes. He actually quotes from Wallace’s 1864 paper to the Anthropological Society, “The Origin of Human Races and the Antiquity of Man Deduced from the Theory of ‘Natural Selection’,” in which he declares there is good reason “for placing man apart” from the rest of the animal kingdom. This happened because although Wilson cites this paper in his bibliography, he actually relies on Janet Browne’s biography, The Power of Place, for the Quarterly Review quotation that he does not include in his bibliography. The problem is Browne mistakes her quoted passage (318) for Wallace’s 1869 review when she is, in fact, quoting from his 1864 anthropology paper. In other words, Wilson merely repeats Browne’s misattributed quote. Like Browne, thinking that he’s quoting form Wallace’s review in 1869, he then claims that the reason for Wallace’s break with Darwin was his conversion to spiritualism. If this had been the source actually quoted he could at least have made an arguable case, but quoting from this 1864 piece reveals the lie: Wallace delivered this paper to the Society on March 1, 1864, and he didn’t even attend his first séance until July 22, 1865! Sometimes methodological errors like this have a multiplying or cascading effect. Why Wilson didn’t actually look at the 1864 paper he cites but instead repeats Browne’s mistaken quote and why Wallace’s review in the Quarterly Review was not referenced in Wilson’s bibliography is hard to say. As every undergraduate history major is taught, there are dangers in relying too much on secondary sources.

Wilson’s other methodological errors are not quite so disturbing, but they are there nonetheless. For example, Wilson argues that “Edinburgh was the making of Darwin’s young mind” (59). I completely agree. But why Wilson prefers to cite Keith Thomson’s The Young Charles Darwin (2009) as first revealing this fact is strange. Desmond and Moore exposed Edinburgh’s influence on the young medical student masterfully in their Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist 18 years earlier( see their chapter “Sea-Mats and Seditious Science,” 33-44). Also, where are Wilson’s important predecessors such as Jacques Barzun, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and even more recent ones such as Ben Wiker and Paul Johnson? These are all strong critics of Darwin and his theory and yet they are conspicuously absent from Wilson’s bibliography. It is particularly surprising to see Himmelfarb’s work on the Victorian era listed, but not her Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution (1959, rev. ed. 1962)!

It was mentioned earlier that many of the factual errors made by Wilson had their basis in methodological errors, and here an over reliance on monographic sources in preference to carefully chosen journal literature makes itself painfully evident. One will find scant reference in Wilson’s bibliography to the multitude of sources available in many peer reviewed journals. Had Wilson done a due diligence search he would have realized that many scholars today now recognize significant differences between Darwin’s and Wallace’s theories (e.g., Jean Gayon [1998], Michael Bulmer [2005], Melinda B. Fagan [2007], Michael Ruse [2013]). The distinct impression one gets is that despite a sizeable bibliography, he actually only seriously looked at a few sources, and most of those were secondary.

One also finds some of Wilson’s assessments of Darwin’s theory disappointing, such as his rather bland observation that “The distinctive and Darwinian idea . . . was that one species changed into another, that the building-blocks . . . had somehow themselves evolved by a mysterious, impersonal process” (15-16). Impersonal process? Aren’t all natural processes impersonal?

A Better Approach by Jacques Barzun

A much better approach was taken by Jacques Barzun more than seventy years ago:

Contrary to popular belief, Darwin’s distinctive contribution to this movement [towards materialism and scientism] is not the theory of evolution as a whole, but a theory which explains evolution by natural selection from accidental [i.e., wholly random] variations. The entire phrase and not merely the words Natural Selection is important, for the denial of purpose is Darwin’s distinctive contention [emphasis added]. By an automatic or natural selection, variations favoring survival would be preserved. The sum total of the accidents of life acting upon the sum total of the accidents of variation thus provided a completely mechanical and material system by which to account for the changes in living forms (10-11).

None of this has anything whatsoever to do with being “impersonal.” Do processes come with personalized tags: “To A.N. Wilson”? It is unpurposeful versus purposeful that matters. In fact, the complete rejection of teleology in nature is a consistent Darwinian theme. As Ludwig von Bertalanffy pointed out at the Alpbach Symposium in 1968:

Neo-Darwinism or the “Synthetic Theory” of evolution has incorporated genetics, cytology, molecular biology, physiological and population genetics, into its framework. . . . What has not changed compared to Darwin’s original conception is the essentially accidental nature of evolution. . . . I think the fact that a theory so vague, so insufficiently verifiable and so far from the criteria otherwise applied in “hard” science, has become dogma, can only be explained on sociological grounds (64, 66).

Although Wilson would apparently agree with Bertalanffy, calling natural selection “impersonal” hardly gets at it.

A Bombshell or a Dud?

Wilson wants to close his biography with a bombshell, but even here his bombshell is a dud. He believes he has found a stunning clincher to his study in the auction on September 21, 2015, of a newly discovered letter (a real rarity in Darwiniana these days) written by an aged Charles on Nov. 24, 1880, to a young lawyer, Francis McDermott, answering his question, “Do you believe in the New Testament?” Darwin said he did not. Now, at last Wilson declares, Darwin supposedly had come clean, and we now have the letter to prove it. But Darwin’s candid reply to McDermott is hardly a revelation. Even in the original edition of Darwin’s Autobiography, edited by his son Francis in 1887, he admitted that “I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation.” As if that wasn’t enough, he added, “I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.” This statement was excised from the original by Emma as too “raw.” Darwin’s granddaughter, Nora Barlow, added this missing passage in the 1958 restoration edition of her grandfather’s Autobiography. So we’ve had available for nearly sixty years a fairly complete statement of Darwin’s disbelief. How is this Darwin/McDermott letter such a stunning revelation? Should we applaud Wilson for carrying the coals to Newcastle?

Added to all these deficits it must be said that when Wilson is not being flat-out wrong, he’s being unoriginal. His whole theme of “mythmaker” was presented in an interesting little book The Darwin Myth by Benjamin Wiker eight years ago. Wiker has stated, “Darwin and Darwin’s biographers have created a myth where there should be a man” (x). Wiker adds that Darwin had one major character flaw, “he was oddly possessive about his theory, so much so that he failed to acknowledge his predecessors, including his own grandfather until his detractors pointed out the glaring omissions [and he was obliged to make amends with “An Historical Sketch” added to the 3rd edition of Origin in 1861]. He wanted the theory of evolution to be his discovery, his creation, his baby. He was, to say the least, single-minded in the intensity of his devotion”(60). This is essentially Wilson’s argument, except that he goes too far in alleging actual “theft” on Darwin’s part. There is, in fact, nothing in Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker that hasn’t already been said (often better and without the litany of Wilson’s errors) by Barzun, Himmelfarb, Wiker, or Desmond and Moore. Perhaps Wilson should have done a better job of acknowledging his predecessors.

More could be said about this unfortunate effort, but enough is enough. Sadly, I must concur with John van Wyhe (though perhaps for different reasons): this new biography is unreliable and inaccurate. True, some of the factual errors mentioned here have been minor, but not all of them; and in any case they have a cumulative effect. Added to this are so many analytical and methodological blunders that the book can hardly even be referred to with any confidence much less cited. The book will be now shelved with the rest of my Darwiniana where it will remain gathering dust as an attractive nuisance.