Steve Jones reviews Wilson’s book on Darwin in the Times

My old friend Steve Jones, an evolutionary geneticist at University College London,  writer of popular science books, and a collaborator on field work in Maryland and California, has written a review in the Times of A. N. Wilson’s new book on Darwin, Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker, With 46 customer reviews on Amazon UK, the book has now climbed to 1.5 stars out of five. (Note: one of the few five-star reviews calls the book “comedy gold.”)

As with all biologists and historians of science who have reviewed the book, Jones consigns it to literary perdition. He does bestow some praise on the biographical bits: “As a rattling, not to say raffish and sometimes raucous account of Darwin and his circle, this biography is extremely enjoyable (except for the repeated cod psychology), and I learnt quite a lot from it.”

Now I’m not sure what “cod psychology” is (is that a British term?), but Jones immediately launches into vituperative:

But [Wilson] is so keen to be different that his account is written with a pen dipped in vinegar. He is entitled to do that to his protagonist, but not to his science.

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge,” Darwin once said. “It is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.” That is true of most anti-evolutionists, but Wilson does not even have the defence of ignorance. Instead, he is simply perverse in his use of knowledge.

This book is the founding volume of the Fake News School of Science Writing. It has strict rules: if a fact is inconvenient, ignore it. If it fits, exaggerate, and when fact is lacking use your imagination. Ad hominem always works, so that we learn that Darwin was a habitual liar — damned in his own words, for as a child he told a friend that he could make different coloured flowers by watering them with dyes: this, he later admitted, was “a monstrous fable”.

. . . But what about his ideas? Here, Wilson seems to glory in using his talent to be wrong, wrong and wrong again on almost every scientific topic. In the classic mould of the contrarian, he despises anything said by mainstream biology in favour of marginal and sometimes preposterous theories.

Wilson again asserts that there are no transitional forms between major groups, which makes me think that he’s a creationist. He’s also wrong about that, as I show repeatedly in Why Evolution is True: we have such forms linking fish and amphibians, amphibians are reptiles, reptiles and birds, reptiles and mammals, and earlier primates with our own species. It’s unthinkable that anybody who is able to read could say that “there are  no intermediate forms in the fossil record.”

One could, I suppose, impute the absence of such forms simply to the rapidity of evolutionary transitions between groups, but I don’t think that’s what Wilson is saying. I think he’s floating some sort of “intermediates-didn’t-occur” argument—in other words, creationism. I think this because in the video of Wilson on the BBC that I posted the other day, he raised the argument that Darwinism couldn’t explain organs of extreme complexity like the eye. That’s not only an Intelligent-Design creationist argument, but a false one—one that Darwin addressed himself, and has been refuted by later work (see here and here, for instance).

Jones is baffled by Wilson’s take on genetics and neo-Darwinism, as am I:

Towards the end of the book, Wilson comes up with a simply baffling statement: “Whereas, until the 1980s, it was just about possible that evidence might some day come to light which would substantiate at least some of Darwin’s theory of evolution, the science of New Genetics delivered its death blow.”

Why then, I ask myself, do I work in a department of genetics, evolution and environment? Have we all made a terrible mistake?

I’m curious to see what this “death blow” constitutes.

The book won’t be out in the U.S. until December 7, but I’ll try to read it before then. With an Amazon UK position of nearly 74,000, the book is tanking across the pond, but it may do better in the creationism-friendly U.S., where 38% of the population are young-Earth creationists with respect to humans, and another 38% think God had a hand in human evolution. (Only 19% of Americans accept pure naturalistic evolution of our species.)

John van Whye, a historian of science and Darwin expert who already reviewed the book in New Scientist, added a smaller review to the U.S. Amazon site. No punches are pulled:

h/t: Pyers

[Edit: PCC(E) is obviously out with Hili, or asleep from too much cherry pie, so I have removed the stray apostrophe that was in the title – MC]

 

48 Comments

  1. bonetired
    Posted September 10, 2017 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    “Cod” is indeed a British term and means, roughly, fake or a parody of.

  2. Posted September 10, 2017 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    As a Brit: – the use of the word ‘cod’ in the phrase ‘cod psychology’ is as a disqualifying adjective – it is saying that the psychology is bogus.

    There is a howler in your title – what the heck is that apostrophe doing in a straightforward plural (should just be reviews, not review’s).

    • Posted September 10, 2017 at 11:27 am | Permalink

      In my title? I don’t see it.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted September 10, 2017 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

      Splitting hairs madly, that (‘reviews’) wouldn’t be a plural, it’s a singular verb.

      But you’re correct that it shouldn’t have an apostrophe.

      (If PCC should see this, I gather from the [Edit] note that MC has already removed it)

      cr

  3. Nell Whiteside
    Posted September 10, 2017 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    A tasty morsel:

    This book is the founding volume of the Fake News School of Science Writing. It has strict rules:

    I wonder if AN Wilson is aware that he is a ‘founder’

    • Derek Freyberg
      Posted September 10, 2017 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

      He ought to be aware by now that he has foundered with this book.

  4. Trevor H
    Posted September 10, 2017 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    I think there are a few suitable English phrases to describe the book (or are they Anglo-Saxon?)

    A waste of good trees…

  5. Stephen Barnard
    Posted September 10, 2017 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    Grocer’s apostrophe

  6. Posted September 10, 2017 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    By “New Genetics”, does Wilson mean that Extended Evolutionary Synthesis silliness?

    • Posted September 10, 2017 at 11:05 am | Permalink

      One of the things Wilson points to is horizontal gene transfer in bacteria, which he claims refutes Darwinism. But what it really does is add to and supplement Darwin’s theories.

    • Posted September 10, 2017 at 11:17 am | Permalink

      I don’t know, but in his piece in the Evening Standard, Wilson said

      “Darwinism is not science as Mendelian genetics are.”

      I’m not sure quite what he means by that.

      https://www.standard.co.uk/comment/comment/it-s-time-charles-darwin-was-exposed-for-the-fraud-he-was-a3604166.html

      • Posted September 10, 2017 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

        Then, in the early to mid 20th century, the science of genetics got going. Science rediscovered the findings of Gregor Mendel (Darwin’s contemporary) and the most stupendous changes in life sciences became possible. Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA, and thereafter the complexity and wonder of genetics, all demonstrable by scientific means, were laid bare.

        AN Wilson properly omitting mention of minor players of that period like Fisher, Haldane, Wright, or Dobzhansky.

      • Posted September 10, 2017 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

        Expected as much:

        Darwin … brought two new ideas to the evolutionary debate, both of which are false. One is that evolution only proceeds little by little, that nature never makes leaps. The two most distinguished American palaeontologists of modern times, Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge, both demonstrated 30 years ago that this is not true. Palaeontology has come up with almost no missing links of the kind Darwinians believe in. The absence of such transitional forms is, Gould once said, the “trade secret of palaeontology”. Instead, the study of fossils and bones shows a series of jumps and leaps.

        Egregious quote-mining of Gould out of context — in his very next sentence he clearly states transitional forms do exist! — and mischaracterizing punctuated equilibrium is common among creationists as well as a certain faction of the left who, while ostensibly accepting evolution, despise the straw man darwinism-as-genetic-determinism, and seek any means to dismiss natural selection.

        (Gould, though, is not blameless; his self-serving & inaccurate framing of punctuated equilibrium as antithetical to ‘pure’ darwinism caused much confusion and harm. In the US, he remains a darling of SJWs engaging in the Moralistic Fallacy.)

        • Posted September 10, 2017 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

          Thanks for the info on the Gould quote-mining. The strange way he employs Gould makes me wonder if the whole book is really a veiled attack on Dawkins (whom he thinks will devastated by seeing his substitute god blasphemed like this).

          • Posted September 11, 2017 at 7:13 am | Permalink

            Not literally the next sentence, but Gould follows the quoted line by concluding: … the operation of Darwinian processes should yield exactly what we see in the fossil record. It is gradualism we should reject, not Darwinism.

            It takes a rare form of blind zealotry to redact that quote to serve as a condemnation of Darwin. We expect that from creationists. Wilson’s is the radical zeal of the prodigal son, the former apostate eager to prove his worth once again.

  7. Posted September 10, 2017 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Steve’s only mistake is to have left in ‘extremely enjoyable’. The publishers will use that on the PB, and on Amazon. If you write a bad review, EVERY WORD of it must be bad or dull. – Matthew

    • Derek Freyberg
      Posted September 10, 2017 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

      As is evident from the way amazon.co.uk selectively quoted from Woolfson’s review.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted September 10, 2017 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

        Typical publisher’s blurb.

        From Dr Wyhe’s review above:

        “breathtaking … competent … scholarly”

        😉

        cr

  8. Posted September 10, 2017 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    I´m looking forward to reading your full review.

  9. Posted September 10, 2017 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    From this and Jerry’s earlier comments, I’m relieved to hear that there’s a book I don’t have to add to my bedside stack.

  10. rickflick
    Posted September 10, 2017 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    The book makes you wonder what set of life circumstances would lead anyone to undertake such a cockamamie project. Whatever set him off must have been serious because I’m sure he has lost any respect he may have had from serious readers. I can only guess he really needed money and in desperation decided to trash his reputation to get some.

    • Posted September 10, 2017 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

      There has to be something pathological in a person who builds a career out of getting every single thing completely wrong.

      • rickflick
        Posted September 10, 2017 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

        He’s getting something right. He got the damned thing published.

      • somer
        Posted September 10, 2017 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

        Where are GM and BJ asserting irrationality is a female thing

    • Hempenstein
      Posted September 10, 2017 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

      Probably angling for Templeton.

  11. Posted September 10, 2017 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    Disappointed Jones doesn’t mention the pagination.

    • Diane G.
      Posted September 12, 2017 at 1:53 am | Permalink

      😀

      It would be really funny if all subsequent reviewers made a point of including that in their reviews.

      (But surely this guy’s already had much more attention than he warrants!)

  12. Steve Pollard
    Posted September 10, 2017 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    I really hope that the US publication meets with reviews by suitably qualified people. A syndicated review by PCC(E) would do the trick. But I fear that, just as in the UK, many of the media will be unable to resist the temptation to invite a half-educated non-scientist to put the boot into Darwin.

  13. Hempenstein
    Posted September 10, 2017 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    The book won’t be out in the U.S. until December 7, …

    Why the time lag? It’s not like they have to wait for the next boat leaving for NY to haul them over.

    • Stephen Barnard
      Posted September 10, 2017 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

      I will avoid buying this book at all cost, even if were free.

  14. loren russell
    Posted September 10, 2017 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    ‘Watering with dyes’ Darwin may not have performed the experiment, but florists do thistoday, and the results are truly hideous cut flowers and incandescent purple phaleanopsis orchids.

    • Diane G.
      Posted September 12, 2017 at 1:54 am | Permalink

      And that used to be one of the first science experiments kids were exposed to early elementary school…

  15. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted September 10, 2017 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

    In A N Wilson’s defence, he is giving us endless amusement with his absurdity. And it can be relatively untrammelled because, unlike the Trumpf, he is not in a position to cause serious damage.

    cr

    • Posted September 11, 2017 at 3:37 am | Permalink

      I know what you mean about Wilson not being in a position to cause serious damage, but anything which aids and adds to the ant-science movement is unwelcome. Don’t assume that science and rationalism will prevail!

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted September 11, 2017 at 6:33 am | Permalink

        In my own defence, I would point out that most of the amusement to which I referred consists of hurling brickbats at the hapless Wilson. It patently was not an endorsement of his views. 😉

        cr

    • Posted September 11, 2017 at 7:18 am | Permalink

      We sadly now live in a largely fact-free society. Wilson’s dreck is both a by-product and a reagant thereof.

    • Diane G.
      Posted September 12, 2017 at 1:56 am | Permalink

      “…he is not in a position to cause serious damage.”

      That’s what we said about Trump, pre-election.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted September 12, 2017 at 2:08 am | Permalink

        What, is Wilson likely to stand for election to anything in the near future?

        cr

  16. Tim Harris
    Posted September 11, 2017 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    ‘He is entitled to do that to his protagonist, but not to his science.’ (Steve Jones)

    But, no, one is not entitled to do that to the person you are writing about, unless there is evidence that one’s charges are true. Truth is not some special value that belongs solely to science. Professor Jones should know better. John van Wyhe’s excellent take-down is clearly the more responsible criticism in this respect.

    But, yes, the reductive and vicious ‘cod psychology’ which is used to damn people who are infinitely greater than Wilson – it was there, certainly, in the Milton biography, too. I wonder why Wilson does this? Envy perhaps? Or am I now indulging in cod psychology? Whatever the case, Wilson strikes me as a deeply unpleasant man and writer.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted September 11, 2017 at 6:47 am | Permalink

      “I wonder why Wilson does this?”

      Because it makes him seem more important and significant than he would otherwise be.

      A tactic famously lampooned by Spike Milligan in his autobiography titles,
      “Hitler: My Part in his Downfall”,
      and
      “Monty: His Part in My Victory”

      cr

    • Diane G.
      Posted September 12, 2017 at 2:04 am | Permalink

      When I read, “As a rattling, not to say raffish and sometimes raucous account of Darwin and his circle, this biography is extremely enjoyable (except for the repeated cod psychology), and I learnt quite a lot from it…,” the first thought I had was why would anyone who recognizes how fallacious the science is give any more credence to the personality profiles?

      (And are “rattling, raffish, and raucous” the first adjectives that spring to anyone’s mind when considering Darwin?)

  17. Posted September 11, 2017 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Unbelievable about the eye. After all, if you were writing about Darwin and evolution, surely you’d read the Origin, and so …

  18. Dave137
    Posted September 11, 2017 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Regarding the passing criticism of Loren Eiseley, Eiseley didn’t seem to be entirely anti-Darwin: at least that hasn’t been my impression when reading his other work. (Of course, I haven’t read *all* of Eiseley’s writings.)

    Can anyone point to other examples besides the one listed in Whye’s article? I really enjoy some of Eiseley’s insights and capacity for clarity, so this is slightly disappointing.


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