A. N. Wilson beats up Darwin again, this time in The Times

I don’t know how A. N. Wilson managed to get several deeply misguided pieces published about his new Darwin biography, Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker (out on September 7 in the UK, December in the U.S.), but the piece in the Evening Standard, “It’s time Charles Darwin was exposed for the fraud he was” (oy!), has now been supplemented with a piece in The Times (screenshot below; click to see the article). I haven’t yet read this book, but nearly every statement that Wilson makes in the two pieces is dubious, and seems designed to push two ideas: that Darwin’s views were not original with him (Wilson claims he stole them all from either A. R. Wallace or Darwin’s own grandfather), and that evolution is neither true nor a science. Added to this mixture is the notion that Darwin really used evolution to buttress the status quo: to elevate white supremacy, with rich British families like the Wedgwoods (Darwin’s wife’s family) at the top of the heap (I’m not making this up).  Wilson’s distortions have not gone unnoticed by scientists; see the damning review in New Scientist.

As I said, Wilson has got his ideas printed in a long piece in the Times with a wonky title:

If you know anything about Darwin or his works, you’ll see that this piece is the equivalent of the Times printing a long screed about how Einstein stole the theory of relativity from someone else, and it wasn’t even true anyway. I’ll give just a few quotes from the piece, which seems, like the one in the Standard, to be a precis of his book.

Wilson’s first paragraph in the article:

Charles Darwin’s version of the evolutionary idea was presented to the world in 1859 with his book On the Origin of Species. It is often spoken of as a work of science. Some have even called it the greatest scientific work ever written. Whatever you make of it, it is a strange book. 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.

Here are what I see as The Origin‘s central contentions:

  1. Evolution occurs: that is, populations undergo a change in their genetic constitutions over time.
  2. That change is “gradual” rather than instantaneous: it can be rapid or slow, but substantial change takes hundreds to millions of years.
  3. Species lineages split over time, so that one species can divide (“speciate”) into two or more. This creates the “branching bush” of life starting from a single ancestor.
  4. Because of (3), all species have common ancestry; that is, any pair of species has a common ancestor some time in the past, and more closely related species have more recent common ancestors.
  5. The driving “force” for the evolution of adaptive evolution is natural selection. (It’s not really an externally imposed “force,” but a description of the differential propagation of genes based on their ability to replicate, which is often correlated with how many offspring are produced that contain those genes.) This materialistic process of gene sorting results in the wonderful adaptations we see in plants and animals; divine creation is not needed.

None of these “central contentions” are “disbelieved by scientists.” They are standing tall and firm after 158 years.

Here’s some of Darwin’s “theft of ideas”:

Darwin had several reasons for wishing to conceal where his evolutionary ideas came from. He was acutely conscious that the most famous evolutionary scientist in British history was his own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin who, 70 years before the Origin of Species, had posited the idea that life had a single origin, from which all the different species evolved.

While Erasmus Darwin suggested the idea of evolution, most notably in a posthumously published poem, he was not “the most famous evolutionary scientist in British history.” He wasn’t even an evolutionary scientist. And Erasmus never came up with the idea of natural selection. His suggestion that species had evolved, which of course others had made before, were not worked out and don’t deserve any of the credit that his grandson got for The Origin. In fact, a man named Patrick Matthew even came up with the idea of natural selection independently of Darwin (as, of course, did Wallace). Darwin gets the credit because, in The Origin, he worked out the consequences of his ideas in detail and showed how they explained previously enigmatic facts about biogeography, embryology, morphology, vestigial organs, and so on.

Oh, and get a load of this:

We see here a classic evolution of mythology. And this is not surprising. Because Darwinism, as opposed to some of his groundbreaking work of natural history, such as in his studies of barnacles and earthworms, and his wonderful book on the expression of emotions in animals, was a religion from the start.

A religion? Where is the god? Where the supernatural? Although Wilson said he spent five years “researching” his Darwin biography, it knocks me flat that he can produce a paragraph like that. Yes, the studies of barnacles and earthworms were interesting and scientific, as was his work on emotions in animals, but, as Steve Gould noted, all of Darwin’s work beginning with The Origin can be seen in some way related to the tenets of that groundbreaking book. The earthworm book (which is a good read, by the way) tries to show how slow forces working over long periods of time can create great changes—one of the lessons of The Origin. The emotion book was designed to show that human emotionality and behavior was continuous with what we see in other animals, ergo our own traits could have been a product of evolution.

Often declared to be dead, as it is here, Darwinism and its major tenets refuse to lie down. But why on earth did the Times publish something so manifestly wrong?

55 Comments

  1. Posted August 29, 2017 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    I too have always liked the earthworm book and the demonstration of gradual influences, as Jerry noted: “The earthworm book (which is a good read, by the way) tries to show how slow forces working over long periods of time can create great changes—one of the lessons of The Origin.” I have a (perhaps false) memory of reading something of Darwin in which he explicitly articulated this principle … called the law of accretion, or something like that. Does anyone know whether Darwin ever did write something acknowledging this general principle, which ran through much of his work? Or perhaps it was someone writing about Darwin.

  2. Posted August 29, 2017 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    But why on earth did the Times publish something so manifestly wrong?

    Because A. N. Wilson is a “man of letters”, notable in the arts and humanities and therefore to be taken note of. And because nearly all the people at The Times are themselves educated in the arts and humanities and know nothing about science.

    • Steve Pollard
      Posted August 29, 2017 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

      But they also have a hard-nosed science journalist in Oliver Moody, and an outspoken, and very scientifically literate, columnist in Matt Ridley (a close friend of RD’s). It will be interesting to see what happens if they are let loose on Wilson.

      • Leigh Jackson
        Posted August 30, 2017 at 7:34 am | Permalink

        Ridley is very friendly with climate “sceptics” and believes that science and the the free market is the solution to… you name it. He’s bonkers, like Wilson.

        • Steve Pollard
          Posted September 3, 2017 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

          I’ve met him a number of times. He isn’t. Evidence for your assertion, please.

  3. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted August 29, 2017 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    “It is a strange book”

    ^^^^^ this is a key tactic, I think – because Darwin’s book DOES _look_ different from, say, a textbook, or journal article from today. If you READ it, the 19th century prose is a bit jarring, if you never encountered it. That’s what happened to me when I read Sherlock Holmes stories for the first time. Using these perfectly normal and expected facts, the writer tips the balances towards their favor, gaining readers who would otherwise dismiss the piece.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted August 29, 2017 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

      … it also goes to show that, nearly in 2018, there is no shortage of writers with nothing better to do than to try taking cheap shots at enormous targets. I’d say bravo to PCC(E) for stepping in to “defend” things, but it’s really sad that things have to go this way.

    • Ted Fontenot
      Posted September 6, 2017 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

      If the most difficult prose you’ve read is Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and Darwin’s Origin you’ve led a charmed life.

  4. Historian
    Posted August 29, 2017 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    The Wikipedia page on Wilson lists his previous publications, which are numerous and deal with a great variety of topics that include, but not limited to, Hitler, Victoria, and the bible. Many of his publications are fiction. I contend that it is humanly impossible for one person to become an expert on all the subjects that Wilson has dealt with. At best, he is a popularizer and doesn’t have the qualifications to talk about Darwin as a real scholar would. Therefore, I would give little credence to his views on the complex topic of evolution.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted August 29, 2017 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

      Also, his other books are on inter-related topics with this one being way out in a different field.

      Wilson had street cred, because he has a good track record in other fields. He has a recurring focus on Victorian England, and on other novelists, such as Sir Walter Scott or Leo Tolstoy. I’m prepared to believe these are excellent. (As such Hitler seems a bit out of his provenance.)

      Some authors when they venture out of their field still produce good stuff, and others do not. For example, after producing several good books on modern history, Barbara Tuchman produced a superb one on medieval history.
      On the other hand, renowned mathematician Roger Penrose has written books on Artificial Intelligence which the computer science community regards as somewhat doubtful.

      Wilson spent 20 years now and then debunking Christianity, and then reconverted. Now he needs an axe to grind against something else.

    • Posted August 29, 2017 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

      I really liked David Quammen’s bio of Darwin: The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution.

  5. Posted August 29, 2017 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    A.N. Wilson has not read “On the Origin of Species”, nor has he produced one whit of prose that supports that he has. He simply says he had, and maybe he read the first few sentences but doesn’t even present an example of what he is talking about. He just throws out false “oh I know betters”. He’s a fraud, pure and simple and is living off of his credentials and the hearsay perusals of anti-Darwin blogs. He’s regurgitating the opinions of other people and getting paid for it.

    Methinks he spent five years wasting grant money he was supposed to be using on research and now has to deliver, so he delivers total crap, and especially crap that a large chunk of the population will eat up because now they don’t have to think for themselves.

    I mean, what kind of scholarly academic throws out sentences such as “and his wonderful book on the expression of emotions in animals” without actually using the title of the book he’s referencing? He hammered out this article without a second thought, and couldn’t even be bothered to be specific. “Oh yeah, there was that one book, you know, about the animals and their emotions? What was it called again? Oh… my notes… umm, well all I can say is it was a good book, there was a monkey… I think. The best book. No book better really.” Total fraud.

    He never read any of them. His work thus far has been nothing but a half-assed regurgitation of a subject he was supposed to be researching but wasn’t and now he’s making it up as he goes along because the teacher made him stand up in front of the class.

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted August 30, 2017 at 3:35 am | Permalink

      It might be worth buying the (e)book just to check for plagiarism…

  6. jimroberts
    Posted August 29, 2017 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    Erasmus Darwin:

    Organic life beneath the shoreless waves
    Was born and nurs’d in ocean’s pearly caves;
    First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,
    Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;
    These, as successive generations bloom,
    New powers acquire and larger limbs assume;
    Whence countless groups of vegetation spring,
    And breathing realms of fin and feet and wing.

    Erasmus apparently believed that life originated by natural processes and thereafter developed and differentiated, but he offered no adequate support for or explanatory theory of this version of history. I am not a Darwin scholar, but so far as I know, when Charles began to speculate on the non-fixity of species, he never referred to his grandfather’s views as support or explanation. (Of course, if his intention had been to steal Erasmus’ ideas, he wouldn’t have credited Erasmus: if he was stupid enough to think that nobody, even within his family, would notice.)

  7. Posted August 29, 2017 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    Also, don’t forget Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle which is also excellent.

    Good take-down. I share your incredulity at this rubbish.

  8. Kevin
    Posted August 29, 2017 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    Wilson has a pedestrian view of science.

    I know of no working physicists who go around saying, well Schrodinger said this is the case, therefore…. or Fermi was a genius, therefore this particular equation is irrefutable, or Einstein said this and therefore…

    Wilson’s understanding of Darwin and evolution and how science approaches the subject based on facts not stature appears to be seriously flawed.

  9. Barney
    Posted August 29, 2017 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    It’s not in the least surprising that The Times would publicise Wilson’s book. Although it’s behind a paywall (for UK internet users, anyway), I don’t find it inconvenient to not have access to it. It trades on its ‘establishment’ status from decades past, but rather than having any commitment to impartiality or good journalism, it’s just another centre-right business looking for ways to attract centre-right-leaning affulent readers, or satisfy its owner, Rupert Murdoch. And if that means saying “science isn’t all that”, it’s only too happy to. For instance (yes, this is published by a competitor, but the criticism comes from scientists):

    The Times newspaper has been criticised for “poor quality” and “distorted coverage” of global warming by a group including some of the UK’s most eminent scientists, the chair of the government’s official advisers on climate change and a former chair of oil giant Shell.

    “If you lose trust, you lose everything; and on this issue, you are losing trust,” said the group, in a letter to the Times editor, John Witherow, seen by the Guardian.

    The group says the Times’s coverage: “appears designed systematically to undermine the credibility of climate science and the institutions that carry it out, and the validity of programmes aimed at reducing emissions.”

    According to the signatories: “The first is that neither the quality bar that broadsheet newspapers regularly apply to scientific evidence, nor the simple concept of balance, appear to exist in all of your paper’s reporting on climate change. The second concern is that many of the sub-standard news stories and opinion pieces appear to concern, in some way, the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF).”

    The GWPF is a thinktank led by former chancellor and climate sceptic Lord Lawson, and regular Times columnist Viscount Matt Ridley is a member of its academic advisory council. “It would be deeply perturbing to find that a paper as eminent as the Times could allow a small NGO, particularly one whose sources of financing are unknown, a high degree of influence,” says the letter to Witherow.

    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/apr/21/timess-climate-change-coverage-distorted-and-poor-quality

    • Veroxitatis
      Posted August 29, 2017 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

      Utter balderdash. Just as A.N.Wilson did not read the Origin of Species so likewise have you not read the Times.

    • Posted August 29, 2017 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

      It’s not paywalled. You have to give up an email address and then you can read the article.

      The comments, by the way, are almost universally scathing.

      • Barney
        Posted August 29, 2017 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

        Yes, by registering you can get 2 free articles a week. Rather than specifically about whether we can get access to this one article, I was talking more generally about whether The Times is worth paying for, and I don’t think so at all. I wouldn’t use it much if it were free.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted August 29, 2017 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

        I did give them my email address for some reason or other. Now I get Times spam in my inbox, it usually leads to some article that tries to make me pay to read the full article. I just delete the Times spam along with all the offers for cheap V*ag*a.

        cr

  10. Posted August 29, 2017 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    “… as opposed to some of his groundbreaking work of natural history, such as in his studies of barnacles and earthworms”

    … and here in A N Wilson we have the evolution of a worm to a barnacle.
    Impossible!
    ok, a crotchety barnacle.

  11. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted August 29, 2017 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    So if Charles stole some or all of the theory from his grandfather, where did the grandfather steal it from?

    • James Walker
      Posted August 30, 2017 at 12:04 am | Permalink

      It’s Darwins all the way down.

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted August 30, 2017 at 3:39 am | Permalink

      According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

      The philosophy of Epicurus (341–270 B.C.E.) was a complete and interdependent system, involving a view of the goal of human life (happiness, resulting from absence of physical pain and mental disturbance), an empiricist theory of knowledge (sensations, together with the perception of pleasure and pain, are infallible criteria), a description of nature based on atomistic materialism, and a naturalistic account of evolution, from the formation of the world to the emergence of human societies.

      • Posted August 30, 2017 at 11:59 am | Permalink

        Evolution by natural selection is also in Anaximander, if I recall correctly.

  12. Paul Topping
    Posted August 29, 2017 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    It is a shame there’s no such thing as a negative book buying. I would pay money to negate A. N. Wilson’s profits from a book so clearly aimed at making money from the “controversy”.

  13. Posted August 29, 2017 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    I suspect this may really be an attack not on Darwin, but on Richard Dawkins.

    The reason Wilson decided that Darwin’s central idea was that “everything in nature always evolves gradually” seems to be because he thinks Dawkins lost a fight with Gould about punctuated equilibrium. Therefore evolution is fake.

  14. Posted August 29, 2017 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    🐜

  15. Posted August 29, 2017 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    Coyne in defense of Darwin is one of the best Coynes.

  16. BJ
    Posted August 29, 2017 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    I am so sick of this shit. How does somebody like Wilson get published in a place like The Times? Absolutely horrifying and unnerving. Papers are supposed to be better than this. Shouldn’t be in the Evening Standard either.

    • Paul Topping
      Posted August 29, 2017 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

      The Times publishing it doesn’t mean they think it is good science or history. They aren’t above making money and growing audience by feeding the “controversy”.

    • Posted August 29, 2017 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

      Never forget who owns The Times.

  17. James Walker
    Posted August 29, 2017 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

    I’m on the final chapter of “The Origin of Species” and it’s clear to me that Wilson has not actually read the book.

  18. Erp
    Posted August 29, 2017 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

    A.N. Wilson’s father, Norman Wilson, was the joint managing director of Wedgwood at a time when it was still privately owned by the family (including the Darwins) and when a few members were still involved in the day-to-day running of the firm (notably the 5th Josiah Wedgwood who was the senior managing director until shortly before his death in 1968). A.N. Wilson would likely have been steeped in Wedgwood and Wedgwood family lore (and myth and rumor). I do wonder how much of what is driving him to write this book (and a few others) is this childhood influence. Wedgwood has since been taken over by Waterford (in 1986) and the joint company went into bankruptcy in 2009 (which, if inherited stock, was likely a financial blow).

    On his father
    http://www.wedgwoodmuseum.org.uk/learning/discovery-packs/pack/working-at-wedgwood/chapter/norman-wilson-1902-85
    and for A.N. Wilson’s connection to Norman Wilson
    http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/an-wilson-on-wedgwood-8519898.html

  19. ploubere
    Posted August 29, 2017 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

    I suspect Wilson is a troll, looking for attention in the manner of Coulter and Yiannopoulos. Unfortunately, it seems to be working.

  20. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted August 29, 2017 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

    What a dick.

    Everybody knows about Darwin and A R Wallace. So far as I can tell, this was a case of two Victorian gentlemen behaving like perfect gentlemen. And none of the sensationalist conspiracists have been able to dig up enough dirt to make a dent in that.

    cr

  21. Ullrich Fischer
    Posted August 30, 2017 at 2:24 am | Permalink

    The Times slogan?

    It doesn’t matter if it’s shit
    As long as we sell lots of it.

    🙂

  22. Trevor H
    Posted August 30, 2017 at 2:43 am | Permalink

    Murdred in the Grauniad….

    https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/aug/30/charles-darwin-victorian-mythmaker-an-wilson-review

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted August 30, 2017 at 3:43 am | Permalink

      From the sub-head:

      It’s a prolific biographer’s cheap attempt to ruffle feathers.

      • Posted August 30, 2017 at 4:30 am | Permalink

        That subhead is softened from earlier today: “A prolific biographer blames Darwin for totalitarianism and portrays him as a monster of ruthless self-interest. The only problem is he’s completely wrong”

        I guess there might have been complaints that that was defamatory.

        /@

        • Barney
          Posted August 30, 2017 at 5:11 am | Permalink

          It’s still pretty strong. The current version is “Wilson blames Darwin for totalitarianism and portrays him as a monster of ruthless self-interest. It’s a prolific biographer’s cheap attempt to ruffle feathers”.

          So maybe they dropped ‘completely wrong’, but with the main title being “how wrong can a biography be?”, they’re not pulling their punches.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted August 30, 2017 at 6:37 am | Permalink

            Nice to see the Grauniad getting it right.

            Anyone think the pic of A N Wilson in that account looks like Vladimir Putin? (Relevance? – well, none. Just struck me that way).

            cr

  23. wetherjeff
    Posted August 30, 2017 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    A N Wilson is an arrogant tosser and has no idea about Darwin, evolution or science in general. He must know that most of his book is total nonsense, has he no shame? Well I did a bit of googling and he does seem to have previous for writing books outside his ‘comfort zone’! I found this some pretty funny (and damming) info at the telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/9189569/The-Hitler-biography-that-started-a-war.html

    Wilson wrote a biography of Hitler which was widely decried and properly slated by Richard J Evans. Evans is a Hitler & Third Reich Expert and Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University.

    From that page:

    “It’s hard to think why a publishing house that once had a respected history list agreed to produce this travesty of a biography,” Prof Evans wrote, claiming that Wilson used only English-language sources because he could not read German. While novelists and literary scholars have found new and provocative things to say about Hitler, Prof Evans, said, “there is no evidence of that here, neither in the stale, unoriginal material, nor in the banal and cliche-ridden historical judgements, nor in the lame, tired narrative style; just evidence of the repellent arrogance of a man who thinks that because he’s a celebrated novelist, he can write a book about Hitler that people should read, even though he’s put very little work into writing it and even less thought.” Ouch!

    Sounds very similar to his attempt at a Darwin biography, doesn’t it?

    This is the best bit

    • wetherjeff
      Posted August 30, 2017 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      I don’t know what happened there – but the message got truncated, here’s the rest:

      This is the best bit regarding another book he wrote:

      In 2002, he (Wilson) reviewed Bevis Hillier’s biography of John Betjeman and called it “a hopeless mishmash”.
      Four years later, Wilson wrote his own Betjeman biography and included a passionate love letter supposedly written by the poet’s mistress.
      It turned out to be a hoax concocted by Hillier, and the first letter of each sentence spelled out “AN Wilson is a s—”.
      All I can say to that is hahahaha……

      The man is an arrogant buffoon, I cannot wait to read Jerry’s review of his latest nonsense.

    • Posted August 30, 2017 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

      Who would write a biography (or at least one for adults) of Hitler and not have any German? This guy is sounding worse all the time!

  24. Aaron Ferguson
    Posted August 30, 2017 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    Instead of this ideology-driven nonsense it’s a pity that he didn’t take the opportunity of enlightening us on what Darwin got wrong (and right!) and why. But that would have taken an understanding of the science! Evolutionary Biologist Armand Marie Leroi does it beautifully here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kjaf1bxH2zc

  25. Posted August 30, 2017 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    Wilson seems completely unaware that his re-acquired affiliation (though I’d argue, if you go back to it you never left it in the first place) with team credulous, essentially disqualifies him from having any perspective on Darwin; knowing the religious mind’s disdain for Darwin. Perhaps he thinks no one would notice this agenda.

  26. Posted September 7, 2017 at 4:52 am | Permalink

    There seems to be a bit of a herd mentality here sadly. If you even bother to take a moment to check even the Wikipedia entry for Erasmus Darwin, for example, you will find he was indeed a very prominent natural philosopher and did contribute to the emerging science of evolution, and that poetry, I might add, was an accepted way of transmitting scientific ideas – you need to evolve your critical thinking as CD might have said

    • Posted September 7, 2017 at 7:49 am | Permalink

      Yeah, and thats why Erasmus Darwin should get the credit for evolution and natural selection instead of his grandson! Give me a break. And, by the way, you should have read the rules before commenting, as what you say is both rude and patronizing. Apparently you either bulled in here without reading the commenting rules, or are just an uncivil person on the Internet.


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