New reviews of A. N. Wilson’s debunking biography of Darwin

September 2, 2017 • 12:00 pm

The reviews are starting to come in for A. N. Wilson’s new Darwin-debunking book, Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker (out on September 7 in the UK, December in the U.S.),which I mentioned here. The book not only trashes Darwin as a white supremacist, careerist, and purloiner of other people’s ideas, but also goes after evolution itself, which Wilson says is now a “religion” and that “Most of its central contentions, such as the idea that everything in nature always evolves gradually, are now disbelieved by scientists, and the science of genetics has made much of it seem merely quaint.”  Well, I’ll have more to say about this when I’ve read the whole book.

Most of the reviews, especially by those who know something about evolution and Darwin’s life, are negative, but there are at least two that are either glowing or at best neutral. The glowing one was mentioned by geneticist, author, and broadcaster Adam Rutherford in this tw**t (h/t Matthew Cobb); it quotes a review in the Times, which previously published an inflammatory excerpt from Wilson’s book:

And yes, that quote is accurate. The Times review, by Daisy Goodwin, a television producer and novelist, says things like this:

Wilson’s book has inevitably stirred up a storm of criticism. How can a man who is not a scientist claim that Darwin is wrong? I am not an evolutionary biologist so I cannot judge whether Wilson is right or whether he is simply teasing one of the last sacred cows. But as a historian trying to put Darwin in the context of his time, there is surely no better biographer than Wilson. The author of numerous books including The Victorians and a biography of Victoria, he understands the Victorian period better than most.

This is a deliberately provocative book that argues that Darwinism is not scientific fact but a belief system. “The idea that he was alone responsible for the scales falling from the eyes of the human race is a piece of mythology as implausible as many of the more ancient mythologies which his disciples believed themselves to have demolished.” While Wilson’s scientific judgments are disputable, he will have done a service if the “survival of the fittest” political credo that has attached itself to the theory of evolution goes the way of “other cranky Victorian fads — the belief in mesmerism or in phrenology”.

Why on earth would the Times choose a reviewer who “cannot judge whether Wilson is right”? At the very least we’d want a reviewer who knew something about evolutionary biology, yet much of the media has chosen reviewers who aren’t even scientists to evaluate a book that trashes the most compelling theory in biology. I’ve noticed that recently the media is turning to science journalists, or even non-scientists, to evaluate science trade books. Yet there is no dearth of scientists who write well and are qualified to produce such evaluations.

As for “a historian trying to put Darwin in the context of his times,” I’d recommend the magisterial two-volume biography of Darwin by Janet Browne, which Goodwin doesn’t seem to know. An understanding of “the Victorian period” doesn’t qualify one to judge Darwin’s personal history or, especially, his science.

On this morning’s BBC Radio 4, Stephen McGann interviews Wilson on his book (go here and start at 1:13:30; it ends at 1:24:00). Wilson imputes the terrible reviews he’s gotten to the self-interest of scientists who are sworn to push back against any Darwin criticism.

For another non-critical review by someone who doesn’t deal with Darwin’s science, see the Spectator piece by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst.

41 thoughts on “New reviews of A. N. Wilson’s debunking biography of Darwin

  1. From the reviews and what little I have scanned on Wilson, I cannot see any reason to waste time with his book. It appears his religion and person judgement prevents him taking any trip back in history without screwing it up. Anyone who can trash a person in writing with nothing to back it up does not deserve anyone’s time.

  2. The ‘Spectator’ piece is pretty bad. Quite plainly the author has no real understanding of the fundamental theory-nor I would say, of the fragility or expendability of living organisms-nor quite what Malthus was getting at or the possible implications of a clear view of that expendability.
    To my somewhat scrappy reading of the background of the idea of evolution in the nineteenth century it was certainly in the air-but no one could come up with the kind of scenario or mechanism whereby it could happen. Darwin put together Malthus and formed the basic outline. I’m not sure how A.R. Wallace put the pieces together but he certainly did.
    To carp about gradualism vs.whatever is simply irrelevant. Darwin had nowhere near enough data to make any of those distinctions and from his limited knowledge gradualism was entirely reasonable.
    There is so much more to learn about what facilitates ‘rapid’ change in populations and what facilitates apparent stasis and how genetic structures themselves evolve.
    I have a hard time understanding how folks who do not understand/accept the theory of evolution actually regard the world.But I do see how the can be be very incorrectly applied.

    1. In the Origins of Species Darwin repeatedly acknowledges the work and ideas of others (prior to and contemporary with him). Clearly thought at the time was trending toward what would become known as evolution, but it was Darwin’s contribution to put together the mechanisms by which it operated: variation (or descent with modification) and natural selection. The Origin is a systematic, sustained argument for this view of evolution. If Darwin and Wallace hadn’t come up with it independently, eventually someone else would have.

      1. Yes, every history of the development of the ideas about evolution describes how the ideas become ever more succinct as ways of observing and measuring developed from late 18th thru mid 19th centuries. Rationalisation of recurring layers of rock, categorisation of fossils found in those layers, estimates of the amounts s of time involved in accumulating those layers etc etc.And certainly Darwin was well versed,as must have been AR Wallace,in the hypotheses and arguments of the time. His painstaking and thorough presentation, plus his knowledge of variation within populations of domesticated animals and the insight from the work of Malthus is what allowed the hypotheses to gel. AN Wilson’s contention that Darwin was hypercompetitive and wished to be seen as sole discoverer is way off the mark. Newton was more than happy to say that, if he could see further it was because he stood on the shoulders of geniuses and I do not think Darwin thought differently. He was also quite aware of the philosophical, religious implications of the theory and therefore strove to make an unarguable case.If the theory had been less thoroughly argued it would have been that much easier to let it pass by. As it was,it created such a storm that it drew many more people into the vortex and became impossible to ignore.Very savvy.

        1. Wilson’s assertion that Darwin was hypercompetitive doesn’t really ring true when one considers that Darwin buried his ideas on natural selection for 14 years, letting only a few close colleagues in on the secret. A hypercompetitive person would surely have published as soon as they could and promised to fill in the gaps later.

  3. … goes after evolution itself, which Wilson says is now a “religion” …

    Isn’t it weird that when religious people want to insult and denigrate something they call it a religion? (When scientists want to denigrate something they don’t call it “scientific”, quite the opposite.)

    Do religious people have some sort of inferiority complex, knowing that their beliefs are worthless?

  4. It’s very frustrating that so many blame Darwin for Eugenicists using his theories dishonestly to justify and support their own theories.

    Eugenics is NOT Darwin’s fault.

    Further, I’ve never heard of anyone worshipping Darwin, using his writings to determine moral truths, praying to him, or any of the other things that make up a religion. Religionists just use that attack like kids name-calling in the schoolyard because they know how much it will irritate atheists. It’s pathetic.

    1. Darwin’s on the hook for eugenics. But always remember that if a theist does something bad in the name of his faith, even if he can point to scripture telling him to do it, it’s nothing to do with religion.

    2. Entirely agreed, but it occurs to me that one thing Darwinian belief has in common with religion is that different subscribers disagree about what its ethical implications are.

      But Darwinism per se is ethically neutral, and it is up to philosophers to separately decide what its moral implications are, whereas a whole code moral obligations is woven into the very fabric of religion in a way it is not in science, other than the mandate to be scrupulously honest in interpretation of data.

      1. “But Darwinism per se is ethically neutral”

        Yep, just like gravity. But it’s all Newton’s fault. Every time an airliner crashes or the faithful throw someone off a roof, we can blame Newton for starting it all.


        1. I’d give Galileo some of the blame. Remember all those pool balls he rolled down ramps? The bowling ball off the leaning tower? If it smells like science, well, ya got trouble, my friend, right here in River City.

    3. Religion has its OWN eugenics which is explicit. Modern religions are normally primarily spread by particular races. the sunni shia split is characterised by Arab versus Iranian leadership. Western Christianity is a primarily European thing. Eastern orthodoxy slavic. Confucianism chinese etc and modern china is promoting its version of Confucianism (to chinese -not evangelising). There is no eugenics implicit in darwinism though racists can take it so.
      Eg Leipzig monument to defeat of Napoleonic forces by forces including Prussia Austria, Sweden Russia but it specifically memorialises the german dead personified by four statues of attributes historically attitude to the German peoples by themselves namely bravery, faith, sacrifice and fertility. So often religion is linked with imperial or at least expansionist projects of a particular peoples and their culture indeed religion is historically identified as the major component of a peoples culture since the rise of monotheism.

        1. Also on the subject of monuments – in the spectacular Schollenen gorge north of Andermatt, at Tiefelsbrucke (Devils Bridge) there’s a huge monument set into the rock with Cyrillic text. It commemorates the place where Russian (!) troops stopped Napoleon’s forces.

          In the middle of Switzerland. European history has a lot more complicated twists to it than I ever knew.


  5. “Why on earth would the Times choose a reviewer who ‘cannot judge whether Wilson is right’?”

    Come on, Jerry. Everybody knows television producers make the best reviewers for books about science!

    Perhaps this article should be titled “New reviews of A. N. Wilson’s *debunked* biography of Darwin”

  6. There seems to be a trope that scientists are motivated by self-interest to preserve their theories.
    What about motivated by self-respect??

    1. They never explain just what the self-interest is that would motivate a scientist to preserve an established theory. Wouldn’t there be much more glory (and gold) for a scientist who actually overturned an established theory?

      1. Reputation: if your life’s work is built on a theory and would be rendered meaningless if that theory were wrong, you’d probably defend it.

        Patriotism: John Gribbin wrote in his biography of science that English scientists were held back in the theory of optics for years because they refused to accept the eve theory of light because it would mean accepting that Newton was not infallible.

        Philosophy: Einstein did not accept quantum mechanics because “God does not play dice”.

    2. Frequently scientists are motivated by baser ideas than the noble pursuit of knowledge. Sir Fred Hoyle never gave up on the steady state hypothesis. Einstein famously refused to believe that God plays dice.

      Scientists are humans and we shouldn’t be surprised when they are motivated by greed, self interest or just plain stubbornness but science is a process that, in the long run, compensates for these human failings. That’s why it works.

      Opponents of science often conflate science and scientists, pointing to cases of fraud or incompetence but missing the big picture. The Piltdown man hoax was exposed by science not divine revelation.

    1. And, to add, it is shocking that the BBC give airtime to this nincompoop without someone pointing out all his many mistakes and asking him to explain his incompetence.

      1. Interesting link mkgjones, it shows how mixed up these religious types are. From the Wiki piece: He came to the Christian faith in his late twenties, after “the best of times, the worst of times”, pop success and the deaths of friends as a result of HIV.”

        Considering the attitude of the majority of the church to AIDS it seems odd he should embrace the people who were vilifying him and it is also insulting to all of us who were effected by AIDS.

        Apologies if I have posted this story on here before but have forgotten which sites I have put it on. When AIDS (it was some while after that the term HIV was used) first came about it was a time when Factor VIII was becoming better and haemophiliacs were able to live almost normal lives, that meant more of us were getting into serious relationships and starting families.

        Unfortunately when the first tests for AIDS came out no one was sure if the virus had a dormancy period and, if it did, for how long and for this reason a series of six tests at six monthly intervals was done and only if all six were negative were we safe. I got lucky, many of ms friends, including my cousin did not.

        Many UK haemophilia centres offered us free condoms, a kind and very necessary gesture but many groups of religionists protested this, spouting the usual anti-contraception garbage. I tried to talk this through with a couple but it was a complete waste of time. When it was put to them they were saying newlyweds or couples who had just got together should be forced to give up sex or risk killing their partner the reply was always negative, usually along the lines of contraception was a sin and we should accept that and not go against their god’s will.

        Until then I had been a fairly quiet atheist, not believing but rarely bothering to speak out against religion but at that point I began to hate religion and still do. I think a lot of them enjoy the suffering in others and glorify in telling us we are sinners, they have no compassion whatsoever.

        Just after my cousin died one particularly nasty priest, who knew very well I was an atheist, came up to me and said, at least you can be happy that David is with god because as he received bad blood he was an innocent victim. I told him I never cared how people became infected I was just sorry anyone had AIDS as it was a horrible way to die and no one should have to suffer like it. I also told him of the last time I saw my cousin, a well built young man had become little more than skin and bone, he had to use an oxygen mask and the disease had stripped all his dignity from him, he could not cough without shitting himself and that was a total embarrassment for him.

        I finished by asking the priest how he could justify his comments and his refusal to agree to at risk people using condoms, he just told me I should not question the lord and if I read the bible and accepted Jesus I would understand.

        That creep Richard Coles will have seen sights very similar to the ones I saw with my cousin and friends, yet he still sided with the Catholic church, who were among the worst offenders in helping the spread of AIDS and vilifying the victims.

        Sorry about the extended rant but vermin like Coles really get me annoyed.

        1. A sad tale, Stephen Mynett. I think my atheism became more vocal every time I heard a story, like yours, of dogma superseding reason and compassion.

          Just to clarify, by ‘nincompoop’ I meant A N Wilson, although Richard Coles has his issues too. His position, as a vicar in a gay celibate civil partnership with another reverend, is a living reminder of the perversity of church dogma. Such people appear to be victims of some form of Stockholm Syndrome.

  7. I remember Wilson announcing his “conversion” to atheism in the Observer or Sunday Times (a long time ago). He subsequently slipped back into the religion of his childhood. Since then it’s been the zeal of the re-converted.

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