AN Wilson makes an unconvincing attempt to kick Darwin off his throne

Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker portrays the naturalist as an unscrupulous self-promoter who directly influenced Nazi eugenics.

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Towards the end of his biography of Charles Darwin, AN Wilson quotes the philosopher Karl Popper: “If our civilisation is to survive, we must break with the habit of deference to great men” – a sentiment that he has wholeheartedly embraced. Wilson is not in the slightest danger of being accused of writing a hagiography. Over 400 or so pages, he rips apart Darwin and the validity of On the Origin of Species. The result is a book that will be make quite a few people angry and others happy.

Wilson races through the early years (which is a relief) and settles into the story with Darwin’s time at Edinburgh and Cambridge universities, before the Beagle voyage – a period in which Darwin’s father wrote a scathing, accusatory letter to his son: “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.”

Poor Robert Darwin just couldn’t understand why his son had first abandoned his medical degree and then didn’t concentrate on his studies to become a country clergyman. Instead, Charles preferred to examine marine invertebrates and collect beetles. He learned about botany and geology, and his professor of natural history, the “old, brown, dry stick” Robert Jameson, introduced him to the latest theories from France on fossils, extinctions and the “trans­mutation of species”.

One of the most remarkable stories from this time concerns Darwin’s recollections in his autobiography of being asked about his grandfather Erasmus Darwin’s Zoonomia (1794), a book that included the first full-length treatise on the transmutation of species. The man who gave the world the theory of evolution claimed that he had read it without it “producing any effect on me”, a remark that has long puzzled scholars.

Wilson uses this and many other examples to depict Darwin as a man who presented himself as if he had not been influenced by anyone and as an aggressive promoter of the “Darwin brand”. This seems a little unfair, given that Darwin included a list of 30 men who had written about evolutionary ideas before him in the third edition of On the Origin of Species (increasing it to 38 in the next edition).

It was at Cambridge that Darwin read Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative – a book that was partly a travel account and partly a scientific treatise of the German explorer’s expedition through South America. It was this publication, Darwin said, that “determined me to travel in distant countries, and led me to volunteer as naturalist in Her Majesty’s ship Beagle”. So off he went on the voyage that would shape his thinking and our science.

In between bouts of seasickness, Darwin read and absorbed Principles of Geology, in which Charles Lyell explained that the Earth had been shaped by a series of very slow movements of elevation and subsidence over an unimaginably long period of time, punctuated by volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. As Darwin examined the rocks and cliffs of distant islands and shores, he saw Lyell’s theory brought to life. Principles of Geology, as Wilson explains, also introduced members of the public to “one of the fundamental truths that would enable them to understand Darwin’s theory of evolution: that the world was older, much, much older, than had ever been conceived”. 

The story of the Beagle voyage has been told many times, because it made Darwin both as a scientist and as the author of On the Origin of Species. He returned to England in October 1836 with more than 1,500 specimens preserved in spirits and almost 4,000 skins, bones and other items. Then the real work began: sorting, classifying, writing and thinking. He published The Voyage of the Beagle (and sent it in trepidation to his hero Humboldt, who admired it) and began to make notes on his “species theory”.

He worked and worked and became “a man possessed”, but also a sick one, suffering from headaches, abdominal pain and vomiting, in effect becoming a semi-invalid nursed by his wife, Emma, whom he called “Mammy” as if she was his mother. Wilson describes Darwin’s illnesses and home life with the eye of a novelist.

After reading Richard Chambers’s anonymously published Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation in 1844 (a book that was not propped up by scientific evidence as On the Origin of Species would be, but that expounded similar ideas on evolution and the transmutation of species), Darwin “with many a groan… would rush to the privy which had been rigged up behind a curtain in his study at Down”. The descriptions of Darwin’s grunts inside the bathing hut and his letters elaborating every detail of the treatments he underwent leave the reader half laughing and half sorry for him.

Wilson’s unsentimental, often breezy storytelling brings the characters in this book alive. He gives pithy pen portraits of Darwin’s contemporaries and the outgoing generation of scientists and thinkers, including David Hume, Thomas Huxley (Darwin’s “bulldog”) and William Buckland, who went fossil hunting in his academic gown and had eaten his way through the animal kingdom, from bluebottle flies to panthers (as well as, apparently, the heart of Louis XIV). And there is also the children’s nanny who had previously worked for the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray and who believed that if Darwin, like Thackeray, had “something to do”, he would feel infinitely better and healthier.

But Darwin was doing something: working on his theory of evolution. Hesitating, collecting more evidence, worrying and thinking until Alfred Russel Wallace’s letter arrived on 27 September 1857 – a letter in which Wallace explained a theory that came very close to Darwin’s. Darwin, Wilson writes, “was like an actor being pushed on to the stage before he had fully mastered his role”. He finally put his theory to paper and when On the Origin of Species was published in November 1859, the initial print run of 1,250 copies sold out on the first day.

The scientific world was in uproar. Taken to its full conclusion, Darwin’s theory suggests that humans are part of the same tree of life as all other organisms. During the Oxford debate of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, seven months after the publication of On the Origin of Species, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce provocatively asked Huxley if he traced his descent from an ape though his grandmother’s or grandfather’s side. “The Lord hath delivered him into my hands,” murmured Huxley, who then answered that if he had to choose between an ape or a man who wastes his intelligence by “introducing ridicule” into a serious debate, he would “unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape” to be his grandfather. Wilson’s account of the meeting is colourful, including Lady Brewster fainting, Admiral FitzRoy (who had been the captain of the Beagle) clutching the Bible and the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, Darwin’s friend, telling the audience that the new theory was “the best weapon for future research”.

The idea that it was the Church that criticised Darwin most, Wilson explains, is based on how many of the established scientists were working at the older universities, where the fellows were clergymen. They were attacking Darwin as scientists, not as Christians, Wilson writes, so this was not so much about theology but an issue of “an academic orthodoxy under threat”.

I would go further and suggest that in today’s battles over Darwin and evolution, there is a sharper division between religion and science than there was in the 19th century. The crazy creationist crowd, especially in the US, is proof of that. Take the Discovery Institute and its promotion of “intelligent design”, or court cases and legislative hearings such as the “Kansas evolution hearings”, in which the state’s board of education tried to introduce intelligent design into the school curriculum. But whatever the reasons of Darwin’s contemporaries, the gloves were off – as they are for Wilson.

Throughout his book, Wilson points out that Darwin was reluctant to acknowledge others. Edward Blyth, for example, Wilson states, had already published an article about natural selection in 1835 (two years before Darwin started thinking seriously about the transmutation of species). But as Stephen Jay Gould has pointed out, natural selection as explained by Blyth and other scientists at the time was simply a way of explaining how unfit species disappeared, while Darwin interpreted it as a “creative force”. Darwin was certainly possessive about what he called “my theory”, but he acknowledged Blyth in On the Origin of Species when he wrote: “Mr Blyth, whose opinion, from his large and varied stores of knowledge, I should value more than that of almost anyone…”

“Darwin was wrong” is the first sentence in this biography, and with that Wilson establishes the tone for the rest of the book. He sets out to kick Darwin off his throne by trying to debunk two central arguments: first, that evolution is gradual and species evolve in small steps; second, that nature is in a state of perpetual warfare. I’m not convinced by Wilson’s arguments and I have heard enough, for example, about the discovery of “transitional fossils” to believe that there are plenty of “missing links”. But I’m not an evolutionary biologist or geneticist (nor is AN Wilson), so I will leave it to those scientists to pick this apart in detail. Of course Darwin got some stuff wrong, but isn’t that what happens – and should happen – in science?

As a historian, however, I feel uncomfortable with the link that Wilson makes between Darwin and Adolf Hitler. “Darwin was a direct and disastrous influence,” he writes, and: “Germany [enacted] the Reich Citizenship Law, the Blood Protection Law, the Marital Health Law and the Nuremberg Laws for racial segregation, all based on bogus Victorian science, much of which had started life in the gentle setting of Darwin’s study at Down House.” Seriously?

In 2013, the historian Robert J Richards composed an erudite rebuke to those who have made similar claims. In his essay “Was Hitler a Darwinian?”, Richards explained that many of Hitler’s remarks could be traced back to Darwin, “or to Aristotle, or to Christ” – if we just played a game of “six degrees of Charles Darwin”.

Richards also illustrated that Hitler rejected the concept of the transmutation of species and that his ideas of the struggle between races were derived from “non-Darwinian sources”. One of the Hitler quotations that Wilson uses to illustrate this connection – “One may be repelled by this law of nature which demands that all living things should mutually devour one another. The fly is snapped up by a dragonfly, which is itself swallowed by a bird, which itself falls victim to a larger bird” – closely resembles a passage in the work of the 18th-century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus. Even if Hitler had cited On the Origin of Species as his inspiration, it wouldn’t make Darwin’s theory less valid, and nor does it reflect on his morals.

Wilson is at his strongest when he places Darwin and his work in the context of Victorian Britain. The march from primates to so-called civilised humans, for example, which Darwin described in The Descent of Man (1871), is for Wilson a “mirror of the social climbing which had enabled such ascents as his own grandfather’s family from the dreaded depths of trade”. Darwin gave the ambitious and striving Victorians what Wilson calls a “consolation myth”, because his theory of evolution explained their greed and selfishness to be natural. As the author of the bestselling The Victorians (and several other books on the subject), Wilson commands a sweeping knowledge of 19th-century Britain.

He describes Darwin as, in essence, two men: the genius naturalist who returned from the Beagle voyage with thousands of specimens and spent a decade researching barnacles, and the theorist who wrote On the Origin of Species. His preference lies clearly with the naturalist and my guess is that, like me, quite a few readers will not agree with Wilson’s assessment. Reading Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker is a bit like sitting next to a very argumentative person at a dinner party – polarising and sometimes annoying, but certainly thought-provoking.

Andrea Wulf is the author of “The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science” (John Murray)

Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker
AN Wilson
John Murray, 438pp, £25

This article first appeared in the 31 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The decline of the American empire