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:
— Dr Adam Rutherford (@AdamRutherford) September 2, 2017
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.