Wilson’s book on Darwin trashed again, this time in the Guardian and the Evening Standard

A. N. Wilson, prolific but seemingly sloppy biographer, at least of Darwin, has published two excerpts of his new book, Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker (out on September 7 in the UK, December in the U.S.). One was in the Evening Standard, and the other in the Times, but both were misguided and splenetic. (I haven’t yet read the book, just the excerpts, but those are a good guide to what the book will be like.)

Two reviews of the book have just appeared. The first, in the Standard, which published the first excerpt, is short and not very sweet (click on screenshot to go to it):

Author Adrian Woolfson is a Wellcome Research Fellow at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, and the Charles and Katherine Darwin Research Fellow at Darwin College, Cambridge. That, I think, gives him scientific cred. And in typical polite British fashion, he gives with one hand and takes with the other. The taking is more vigorous than the giving. Two excerpts:

Wilson’s Charles Darwin, published by John Murray — the original publisher of On the Origin of Species — is for the greater part a lucid, elegantly written and thought-provoking social and intellectual history. His extensive use of the Cambridge Darwin project archives enables him to detail Darwin’s life, and reconstruct the origins of “Darwin’s dangerous idea”, in a fascinating and scholarly manner.

When it comes to the author’s speculations on evolutionary theory, however, the book is fatally flawed, mischievous, and ultimately misleading. It leaves the reader as the unfortunate witness to the uncomfortable spectacle of a magnificent social biographer being consumed by the alluring quicksand of hubris and scientific ignorance. In so doing, Wilson opens himself up to some of the very same criticisms with which he taints the ghost of Darwin.

By the false lights of Wilson’s selectively tutored imagination – and egged on and seduced by a theory whose outward simplicity invites, siren-like, the commentaries of those least qualified to do so –  the foundations of modern biological science are unsound, and “Darwin was wrong”. Not content with damning his evolutionary theory, Wilson proceeds to transform the charming, self-effacing, beetle-crazy and endearing gentleman naturalist into a ruthless egomaniac whose evolutionary theory was retrofitted to defend an unwholesome ideology and furnish a mandate for the excesses of Victorian materialism.

. . . Although grudgingly conceding the indisputable facts of evolution, Wilson incorrectly argues that the “science of the new genetics delivered its death blow” to Darwinism, that “Darwinism has been supplanted by scientific evidence” and that it is a “theory which had collapsed”. He challenges two key aspects of the Darwinian mechanism. First, the gradual nature of evolutionary change that Wilson regards as “metaphysical”, and second the Malthusian-inspired “struggle for survival”.

Well, surely there are better biographies that detail Darwin’s life: I can’t imagine, for example, a better “social and intellectual history” of Darwin than Janet Browne’s magisterial two-volume biography, which is not only comprehensive but written superbly.  If you want the story of Darwin’s life and accomplishments, that’s the go-to book. If you want to see Darwin trashed—if, for instance, you’re Michael Egnor or another mushheaded creationist—this new one is your book.

The other review, even more damning since it doesn’t have a word of praise, is in the Guardian. Its author is Kathryn Hughes, described as “a contributing editor to Prospect magazine and also writes for the Times Literary Supplement and the Economist. Her particular interests are Victorian history and contemporary popular culture.”

Some excerpts:

What Wilson is engaged in here, then, is not just a demolition of Darwin’s science, which he maintains is mostly bogus and outmoded, but an assassination of the man’s moral character. Darwin, Wilson contends, was not the nervy but benign magus of Down House, labouring patiently for decades in rural Kent to unlock the origins of human life for the benefit of all mankind. He was actually an egotist with an unfailing eye for “the main chance”, determined to go down in history as the greatest scientist of all time. According to Wilson’s long charge sheet, Darwin routinely stole ideas, couldn’t be bothered to go to family funerals and wasn’t keen on sex, despite having 10 children (some of whom were “notably plain”). Despite dying seven years before Hitler was born, he apparently paved the way for the Nazis’ love affair with eugenics. To cap it all, his unsavoury insistence of having a “privy” in the corner of his study meant that he probably smelled of his own poo.

First, let’s take the science. Wilson concedes with a smirk that Darwin “was among the foremost experts on the earthworm” but not much else. Specifically, the big picture stuff was beyond him, which is why he gobbled up other people’s theories about evolution, including those of his grandfather Dr Erasmus Darwin, and then passed them off as his own. Indeed, Darwin-as-plagiarist is one of the chief poison darts in Wilson’s argument. What actually happened, of course, was that Darwin absorbed the hints and hypotheses of an earlier generation of science writers, including those of his grandfather, and embarked on a painstaking programme of data-gathering that allowed him to substantiate what had previously been merely a widely held hunch. That there remained gaps, dead ends and errors in his narrative account of how life unfolded on earth over multi-millennia was something Darwin was always quick to acknowledge. It was in response to the questions and corrections that flooded into Down House from around the world that he continued to modify his arguments. This, one might think, is what scientists do, especially ones who are committed to the concept of evolution, the slow adjustments of shape and form over time. For Wilson, however, Darwin’s constant need to revise his published work is evidence of nothing more than the narcissist’s terror of being caught in the wrong.

Although Wilson will just about allow On the Origin of Species a credible place in the history of science, The Descent of Man, published 12 years later in 1871, is his holy terror. . .

. . . Instead of subtitling this book “Victorian Mythmaker”, Wilson might have more accurately called it “J’Accuse”. For despite a few pious throat-clearings on the dust jacket to the contrary, he has no interest in balance, no desire to be nice about the man whom he blames for pretty much everything that went wrong in the 20th century, from totalitarianism to the decline of organised religion.

You get the idea.

It’s a risky business these days to trash not only evolution, but Darwin himself. He wasn’t perfect, but the facts of his life are sufficiently well known that to accuse him of being a miscreant simply won’t stand. And, of course, we know about the intellectual history of the idea of evolution, and Darwin’s contributions, which were to disgorge in one stupendous book an argument so compelling that not rational person has seriously questioned it in the past 158 years. That he gets the lion’s share of the credit for the theory of evolution is a proper encomium.

34 Comments

  1. Posted August 30, 2017 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    🐜

  2. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted August 30, 2017 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    Does Wilson AT ALL mention Darwin’s trip to the Galapagos or “The Voyage of the Beagle”?

  3. RPGNo1
    Posted August 30, 2017 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    I have read the blogposts here at WEIT and some reviews of A.N. Wilson, too. And I wonder.

    What are Wilson’s motives to write such a sorry effort, when scientists and interested laymen can identify many factual errors, inconsistencies and outright lies without much research effort? It appears more like a personal vendetta against Darwin and evolution. Both have taken something from Wilson (maybe his unswerving faith in god?) und he wants to get his revenge.

    • Posted August 31, 2017 at 2:04 am | Permalink

      Money

      • RPGNo1
        Posted August 31, 2017 at 9:17 am | Permalink

        thx for the Beatles. 🙂

        And yes, money makes the world go round.

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted August 31, 2017 at 4:29 am | Permalink

      Just exploiting an publishing niche – for money, status amongst his peers, and the motivated reasoning of a reconvert to religion.

  4. Posted August 30, 2017 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    This is mere speculation – but I wonder if Wilson’s principle motivation was to rile Richard Dawkins and other new atheists, whom he regards as ideological enemies?

  5. Randy schenck
    Posted August 30, 2017 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    Is the cause of Wilson’s ignorance Theology or does he have some mental defect. It’s like if I suddenly came up with a third defining truth besides death and taxes. That would be there’s something dead on Donald Trumps head. Sorry, but I had to get that in here somewhere.

    • Martin Knowles
      Posted August 30, 2017 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

      The consensus is that it goes like this: Death, Taxes…and Getting Screwed by Lawyers.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted August 30, 2017 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

        Hey, a forth truth. Death, Taxes, screwed by lawyers and that dead thing on Trumps head.

  6. BobTerrace
    Posted August 30, 2017 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Who cares what Wilson’s motives were for writing his book about Darwin. He did a spectacularly horrendous mess of it and he gets eviscerated for it, as deserved.

  7. Craw
    Posted August 30, 2017 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    I read a couple things by Wilson decades ago, a novel and a biography (I forget which ones). They were well written books. I wonder what happened to him.

    • Posted August 30, 2017 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

      He got religious.

      • Posted August 30, 2017 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

        It poisons everything.

      • Steve Pollard
        Posted August 30, 2017 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

        He has got religion back, after years of claiming to be an atheist, or an agnostic, or whatever. He is getting on a bit: perhaps he has decided to start “cramming for his finals”, as it used to be said.

        Among his (far too) many publications are books about Jesus and Paul. I think they were written during his agnostic phase. I still have them somewhere about, but can’t lay hands on them at the moment; I recall them (perhaps unjustly) as being long on rhetoric and short on research.

        • nicky
          Posted August 31, 2017 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

          I cannot fathom how, once an atheist one can go back to believing. It beats me.
          Although I became an atheist well before I got some more serious knowledge of evolutionary theory (which cements it solidly). Still, kind of incomprehensible.

  8. Eddie Janssen
    Posted August 30, 2017 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    But the story of the cat, if true, is
    somewhat disturbing.

  9. Posted August 30, 2017 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    Although Wilson must have started this work many years ago it really seems to be a biography inspired by the Age of Trump

  10. BJ
    Posted August 30, 2017 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    “According to Wilson’s long charge sheet, Darwin routinely stole ideas, couldn’t be bothered to go to family funerals and wasn’t keen on sex, despite having 10 children (some of whom were “notably plain”). Despite dying seven years before Hitler was born, he apparently paved the way for the Nazis’ love affair with eugenics. To cap it all, his unsavoury insistence of having a “privy” in the corner of his study meant that he probably smelled of his own poo.”

    So…it’s basically a biography by a petulant six grader with daddy issues, if his daddy was Charles Darwin.

  11. David Coxill
    Posted August 30, 2017 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    Hi ,doc ,someone on the comments section mentioned you ,called you a Neo Darwinist .
    He also ranted something about your reaction to the book on Freud and how you are upset when someone has a go at Darwin.

  12. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted August 30, 2017 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    The link to the Woolfson review doesn’t work for me (I get “This webpage is not available”)

    But the Grauniad one works just fine. ‘cheap attempt to ruffle feathers’ – ouch!

    cr

  13. Rob Munguia
    Posted August 30, 2017 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the post PCC(e), nice book reviews of this misguided book about Darwin. It would be really great to have a chance to read your critical review of Wilson’s book published in some magazine. I include the essay you wrote about the creationist book “Of pandas and people” as reading material when I teach evolution to undergraduates in Mexico.

  14. Diane G.
    Posted August 30, 2017 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    sub

  15. dabertini
    Posted August 30, 2017 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

    That charles darwin is loved by richard dawkins, PCC(E) et al. is good enough for me. It should be good enough for anyone.

  16. BJ
    Posted August 30, 2017 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    WHERE IS TONIGHT’S HONEY UPDATE?!?

    You’re keeping me in suspense! It’s such a will-they-or-won’t-they situation. That’s why you’re getting such good ratings lately (over 50,000 subscriptions) 🙂

  17. James Walker
    Posted August 30, 2017 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

    “A. N. Wilson, prolific but seemingly sloppy biographer, at least of Darwin,”

    Apparently similar criticisms were levelled at his biography of Hitler: http://www.newstatesman.com/books/2012/03/hitler-wilson-german-british

    He seems like a decent writer and novelist who doesn’t know how to do proper scholarship.

    • Posted August 31, 2017 at 4:27 am | Permalink

      Only the lyrics of a Cannibal Corpse song can adequately capture the brutality of this review.

    • TJR
      Posted August 31, 2017 at 4:52 am | Permalink

      If that review isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.

      (Nice for us reading it, not Wilson of course)

    • Posted August 31, 2017 at 4:54 am | Permalink

      Goodness me. That’s an impressive list of factual errors. And, like with his Darwin book, a review that condemns not so much Wilson as the publisher for publishing it.

      • Posted August 31, 2017 at 11:22 am | Permalink

        I’m even more stunned. Not only does this guy do a biography of Hitler, but not know (or care to be honest) the bit about Slavs. Amazing. How does this guy get publishers?

    • Posted August 31, 2017 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

      From that review:

      He condemns speculation about what might have happened had the British and French tried to stop Hitler before it was too late, only to speculate at length, a few pages later, on “what would have happened if Chamberlain and Daladier had moved to help the Czechs” in 1938.

      Minimal research would’ve informed Wilson that an elaborate & broad conspiracy was in place among the Wehrmacht high command to countermand any order to invade Czechoslovakia, with alternate orders to stand down and instead occupy key government locations, already distributed and sitting in safes. Hitler was to be arrested and placed on trial (though the younger conspirators resolved to immediately shoot him.)

      How that would’ve played out merits speculation. But not willfully ignorant daydreaming.

  18. Stephen Mynett
    Posted August 31, 2017 at 5:40 am | Permalink

    Just another example of how woolly and sad religionist thought can be. They seem to think that disproving Darwin will prove creationism, which it wont and they cannot do.

    It will always be easier to mindlessly attack Darwin and educated people than it will be to bother to try to understand evolution. There is also the nasty fact that if they look at evolution in a proper academic way they will stumble upon some very frightening truths, notably their religion is a bucket of festering tripe.


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