A book on Darwin damned in New Scientist

August 22, 2017 • 8:45 am

A while back, several readers sent me an Evening Standard article by A. N. Wilson, “It’s time Charles Darwin was exposed for the fraud he was.” That turned out to be a precis of a new book by Wilson, Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker (out on September 7 in the UK, December in the U.S.). Of course the title of Wilson’s article got my hackles up, and the Amazon summary of the book didn’t make me feel much better:

In this beautifully written, deeply erudite portrait, Wilson argues that Darwin was not an original scientific thinker, but a ruthless and determined self-promoter who did not credit the many great sages whose ideas he advanced in his book. Furthermore, Wilson contends that religion and Darwinism have much more in common than it would seem, for the acceptance of Darwin’s theory involves a pretty significant leap of faith.

Armed with an extraordinary breadth of knowledge, Wilson explores how Darwin and his theory were very much a product of their place and time. The “Survival of the Fittest” was really the Survival of Middle Class families like the Darwins—members of a relatively new economic strata who benefited from the rising Industrial Revolution at the expense of the working classes. Following Darwin’s theory, the wretched state of the poor was an outcome of nature, not the greed and neglect of the moneyed classes. In a paradigm-shifting conclusion, Wilson suggests that it remains to be seen, as this class dies out, whether the Darwinian idea will survive, or whether it, like other Victorian fads, will become a footnote in our intellectual history.

Brilliant, daring, and ambitious, Charles Darwin explores this legendary man as never before, and challenges us to reconsider our understanding of both Darwin and modern science itself.

His article in the Evening Standard says pretty much the same thing.

I didn’t write about the book, as I haven’t read it, and I didn’t write about the article (and won’t now) because I’d like to formally review the book when it appears in the U.S.

Andrew Norman Wilson (born 1950) is a prolific author: I counted 47 books, many of them biographies, on his Wikipedia page—an astounding production. It may be relevant to Wilson’s takedown of Darwin that, once an atheist (he claimed he lost his faith while writing a biography of C. S. Lewis), he became a Christian again after 20 years of nonbelief. His deconversion and conversion experiences, also documented in the New Statesman, include this telling passage:

Do materialists really think that language just “evolved”, like finches’ beaks, or have they simply never thought about the matter rationally? Where’s the evidence? How could it come about that human beings all agreed that particular grunts carried particular connotations? How could it have come about that groups of anthropoid apes developed the amazing morphological complexity of a single sentence, let alone the whole grammatical mystery which has engaged Chomsky and others in our lifetime and linguists for time out of mind? No, the existence of language is one of the many phenomena – of which love and music are the two strongest – which suggest that human beings are very much more than collections of meat. They convince me that we are spiritual beings, and that the religion of the incarnation, asserting that God made humanity in His image, and continually restores humanity in His image, is simply true. As a working blueprint for life, as a template against which to measure experience, it fits.

Well, perhaps this attitude drove him to the Darwin debunking—a debunking itself debunked by Darwin scholar John van Whye in the latest New Scientist. van Whye’s title gives his assessment: “‘Radical’ new biography of Darwin is unreliable and inaccurate.” van Whye knows his Darwin, and finds the book full of inaccuracies—not just in Wilson’s description of Darwin’s theory, but in Wilson’s assessment of the evidence. A few quotes from the review:

This book provides an appallingly inaccurate rendition of Darwin’s theory and its scientific context.

. . . Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, as any competent reference work describes, is about the differential survival of individual living things based on tiny differences between them. This differential survival (or selection) in effect filters living things to become adapted to a changing world. DNA evidence indicates that all living things are related genealogically on a vast ever-branching tree of life. This is Darwinism. Wilson instead erroneously describes variations in “species”, not individuals, and he mocks a “Darwinian” scenario in which the short-necked ancestors of today’s giraffes were supposedly “panting to reach those leaves, but without success”. This is not Darwinism, this is Lamarckism.

And what’s most damning of a biographer—factual inaccuracies:

Wilson’s book contains numerous and serious factual errors such as “if Darwin were correct, there would be hundreds, thousands of examples” of transitional fossils. There are. Darwin’s first grandchild did not die in childbirth as Wilson states. A fragment of Wallace’s letter to Darwin from when Wallace was living in Ternate does not survive. “Darwin believed that his own theory… made it impossible to believe in the Bible.” Not so. The first 50 pages of Darwin’s evolution notebook are not missing, they were located and published by 1967. (Wilson copied this claim from a conspiracy-laden essay, “Darwin, Coleridge, and the Theory of Unconscious Creation“, published by Loren Eiseley in 1965, two years before Darwin’s pages were published.)

Wilson claims Darwin “never” persuaded the scientific community in Britain during his lifetime “that one species could evolve into another”. In fact, Darwin was world famous for having done so. There are very, very many more. Footnotes lead to incorrect references and many dates are quite wrong. It’s hard to see how any care for either historical or scientific accuracy could result in such a book.

Indeed. van Whye’s conclusion?

The book claims to be a “radical reappraisal of one of the great Victorians, a book which isn’t afraid to challenge the Darwinian orthodoxy”. The result is one of the most unreliable, inaccurate and tendentious anti-Darwin books of recent times.

The “Darwin was wrong” trope persists for a variety of psychological reasons, but the detractors can never make the charges stick. Apparently Wilson didn’t, either. What’s ironic about all this is that Wilson’s debunking book is published by John Murray—the very same outfit that published Darwin’s On the Origin of Species!

h/t; Matthew Cobb

60 thoughts on “A book on Darwin damned in New Scientist

  1. This would be the A. N. Wilson who is “best known as a biographer, novelist, journalist and essayist”. In other words he has no education in or standing in science at all. But, after he found God again, he has turned anti-Darwin. What a surprise.

    1. Pretty revolting that he wrote such ignorant rubbish and that it got published, but then there’s a lot of idiocy available in the marketplace masquerading as fact.

        1. Yes, great! ‘specious fartgargles’, it rolls through mouth and mind (much better than the ‘decorated piffle’ I was going to use). How unimaginative not to have thought of that!

  2. “5 years” mastering Darwin yet it doesn’t seem he read the one book by the man that matters most. 47 books in a career isn’t so hard when the scholarship is this lazy.

    1. Exactly. As a rule of thumb, I do not trust authors who are so prolific (except maybe if they write fiction). Quantity and quality are generally in opposition.

    2. If he took only five years per book he must be over 235 years old. A mere youngster compared to Adam or Methusalah. 🙂

    3. Was about to make the same point. It’s easy to publish dozens of books when you don’t do any real research. What was he actually doing during those five years?

    4. Indeed, a glance at his entry in Wikipedia shows that his previous biographies have been criticized for factual inaccuracies and biases.

  3. Looking at Wilson’s prodigious list of publications, I am struck by the range of historical figures he has written about: from Jesus to Dante to Hitler, for example. As a person somewhat familiar with what it takes to do historical research, including the time it takes to understand the subject enough to make a scholarly contribution, I can only conclude that Wilson’s biographies are superficial at best and prone to errors that actual scholars in the field would not make, such as in the case of the Darwin book. When deciding on a book to read that is biographical or on an historical subject, I always ask myself whether the author is likely to be an “expert” on the topic and whether the narrative is likely to be distorted by biases. Now, all authors have biases. The question is whether these biases so distort the narrative to essentially render it worthless as a guide to understanding the past. It would seem that Wilson fails the tests of scholarly knowledge and bias, at least based on the van Whye review.

      1. There are a couple of things to keep in mind when considering Wilson’s five year claim. The first is we don’t know how much actual time he spent on research during this period. Every day? Once a month? We have no idea. Wikipedia lists him publishing two books during this time frame: one on the bible and another on Queen Victoria. So, clearly, he wasn’t spending all his time on Darwin. Second, even if he spent a lot of time doing research, it is not certain that five years would be sufficient to master a topic as complex as evolution as well as gaining an in-depth understanding of Darwin the man and the times he lived in. In other words, his claim that he did five years of research is a meaningless assertion in terms of giving him credibility as being a scholar on the topic.

        1. I know of one New Age teacher who “studied quantum physics for ten years” before making the following statement:

          “Physicists have proven that there are 11 dimensions. Now, 3D is only one of them.”

    1. Beats me how anybody can believe Darwin was a fraud but Jesus wasn’t.
      This isn’t something new for christians to do, they often attack the man to undermine his crediblity because they cannot find evidence to undermine the truth of evolution.
      This is just another example of lying for Jesus something that began when Darwin was alive exemplified by Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and Sir Richard Owen.
      One wonders why christian writers themselves do not get bored by having to recycle the same old trash.

    1. I was thinking the same thing, too. Templeton’s surely at least aroused now, like a vulture detecting the aroma of putrescine and cadaverine.

  4. Getting the science wrong is awful enough, but I’m somehow more maddened by getting the personality wrong. This is supposed to be a biography, after all.

    Darwin always praised lavishly all those who influenced him, including Lyell and grandfather Erasmus; and even those who almost got it at almost the same time, including Spencer and Wallace.

  5. Jerry, when you write “I’d like to formally review the book” I take that to mean that we can look forward to a detailed review in The New Republic or similar place. Great! I can’t wait to see what you have to say!

    1. Well, I’m hoping that one of these venues will allow me to review the book, but that would be the editor’s decision. If I want to review a book in such places, I must refrain from giving anything more than a cursory evaluation on this site, as it wouldn’t be fair to a place who would pay for a full review.

  6. What a load of horse crap. CD was a brilliant man, diligent scientist and if there was anything “ruthless” about his personality, it was his ruthless search for scientific truth through observation and the use of the scientific method. This new book tries to cast a shadow on a man who sacrificed much, his mental and physical health, his potential standing in the then scientific and social community of Victorian England. Darwin should rightfully be praised as the co-discoverer (along with ARW)of natural selection. An idea centuries in the making and one which, like the fact of gravity, stands on its own merits.

  7. There is a lot in Wilson’s Evening Standard article and not dealt with by the NS article, that I find mystifying.

    Why does he think that Gould was an opponent of evolutionary theory? Is it really because he had a squabble with Dawkins?

    Why is Mendelian genetics a science and evolutionary theory not?

    And how can he blame eugenics on Darwin (despite it being, as I understand it, based squarely on artificial and not natural selection), and not on his beloved Mendelian genetics?

    I don’t know how he can even get to those conclusions.

    What I do see though is that he is just the next fool to treat evolution as an ideology — he even compares Darwin to Lenin and Stalin.

  8. This concluding sentence from the Amazon summary above shows up its total nonsense.
    ‘Brilliant, daring, and ambitious, Charles Darwin explores this legendary man as never before, and challenges us to reconsider our understanding of both Darwin and modern science itself.’

  9. Anyone who misunderstands Darwinism to the degree that his description of it is actually Lamarckism, should be dismissed out of hand. It’s clearly a book aimed at an ignorant segment of the US population. What a loser.

  10. It seems that reading Amazon’s summary of a book is about as beneficial as eating a book. Proof that any idiot can publish a book.

  11. The inaccurate rantings about how language developed and evolved demonstrate he is an idiot of the first order. Specious fartgargle indeed.

  12. Given the trends in recent posts here, it is worth noting that Wilson’s bio of Lewis is overly Freudian and also has some factual gaffes. At the time, the bio was notable as the first major bio of Lewis not treating him as a 20th-century saint.

    The best-known take-down of Wilson’s Lewis bio was from another Lewis debunker, John Beverslius.
    JB’s review was entitled “Surprised by Freud”- a good double pun since Freud does mean joy in German, and Lewis’ auto-bio was entitled “Surprised by Joy”.

    I kind of liked Wilson’s history of 19th century atheism, “God’s Funeral”.

    1. I have said this before on this website, I think, but the late C.H. Sisson, who was a very good poet and a Christian of a rather odd kind, responded to me, when I remarked to him how much I disliked Lewis’s ‘Surprised by Joy’, “Yes, no surprise, and no joy.”

  13. I thought that all fossils are transitional.
    We say there are transitional fossils between modern whales and their land dwelling ancestor but every fossil you might find of any ancestor of modern whales is going to be transitional.
    So saying there are no transitional fossils is a rather ignorant thing to say.

    1. The whole of confusion over evolution is the conflict between the continuity of biological life and the human desire for discrete categorization. The two go together like oil and water.

      1. Essentially (for those in the know, pun intended) I agree with Harrison. Population thinking seems to be beyond the capabilities of the people, who are certain species were created by God and not by Linnaeus.

  14. A.N. Wilson is a nasty and dishonest piece of work. Many years ago, I reviewed, or took apart, rather, his biography of John Milton for PN Review in England. It was riddled with falsehoods and special pleading and grossly misrepresented Milton.

  15. I’m in the midst of reading “On the Origin of Species”, after having finished “The Voyage of the Beagle”. Darwin has a number of flaws but self-promotion and failure to acknowledge others’ work are not among them. It makes me wonder whether Wilson ever actually read any of Darwin’s writings.

  16. In the early 80’s I read a book of Wilson’s that was good – a scurrilous novel about a politician with naughty sexual proclivities called ‘Scandal’ and for a while afterwards I bought other Wilson efforts hoping for something as good. I gave up on him as he never came close again. No doubt the one good book was a product of his clear-headed atheistic years. Those who see the light cannot help but let their agenda shine through all they do.

  17. This isn’t just crap, it is *old* crap …

    “Following Darwin’s theory, the wretched state of the poor was an outcome of nature, not the greed and neglect of the moneyed classes.”

    I’m no Darwin scholar, but I’ve read _Origin_ and pieces of many other works over the years, so where exactly in them does he even *talk* about social matters? (Individual psychology, yes, in the emotions stuff.)


  18. “They convince me that we are spiritual beings, and that the religion of the incarnation, asserting that God made humanity in His image, and continually restores humanity in His image, is simply true. As a working blueprint for life, as a template against which to measure experience, it fits.”
    Makes Wilson’s agenda evident: a screed written by a vacillating Creationist (I’m a Christian, I’m an atheist. Oh I’m a Christian again. Oh I can use the same garbled thinking to sell my “biographies”, cos there’s a big Creationist market for this sort of stuff).
    What is disturbing is that the Times and Standard fell for it with “tabloid” headlines that would be better placed in the Sun and the Daily Mail. Guardian got it however.
    Wilson has shot his credibility as an impartial commentator: should keep away from science. Not his forte.

    1. P.S. Wilson’s next two tomes are real blockbusters: “The aberrant private life of Galileo” and “Copernicus couldn’t do arithmetic”

  19. Diwal! (Welsh for ‘the devil’) – when I read your comment, I thought at first that A.N. must have changed his name to P.S. Wilson – but I think we should take it as changed, since everything he writes is now a postscript to the depressing brand of Christianity he espouses.

    1. I had the P.S. thought myself: a bit like P.D.Q.Bach (pretty damn quick).
      I think Wilson knows that he has a ready Creationist market for the Darwin book (why was I born so cynical) and it will be a ‘must read’ for the fusty, dust-laden, C.S.Lewis credulent, Anglican establishment

  20. I think that we readers of WEIT must think hard how to reward our host if he decides to suffer for our good, that is, to read the crappy book in order to tell us first-hand.

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