Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker
by AN Wilson, John Murray, £25
Charles Darwin remains one of the most discussed thinkers of the Victorian age, a towering figure whose ideas straddled and connected the worlds of science, culture and religion. The burgeoning research literature on Darwin makes huge demands on any biographer hoping to break new ground in our understanding of this pivotal figure and his legacy. Having engaged Darwin in his well-received The Victorians, AN Wilson has risen to this challenge in Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker.
I wish he hadn’t. The book reads like a sprawling first-year undergraduate essay, which provides perfunctory reference to a small selection of the research literature in pursuit of its own ambitious and independent agendas. Wilson is not a scientist, and his bold thesis – that “Darwin was wrong” (the first sentence of the book) – ultimately seems to rest on a failure to appreciate how science works. Darwin was not the first to propose that evolution took place, or the first to suggest how it worked. His contribution was the proposal of a new mechanism – “natural selection” – which he believed gave the best explanation of what was observed in the natural realm, and his defence of its superiority over rival explanations of the time.
Darwin did not have access to a viable theory of genetics when writing The Origin of Species (1859), which would have placed his ideas on a much stronger footing. Yet his proposal proved capable of subsequently being integrated into the larger theory of neo-Darwinism.
Every great scientist of the past – such as Newton or Kepler – is limited by their historical location. They have to do their best with the observational evidence at their disposal. Darwin was “wrong” in the limited sense that any scientist can at best offer a corrigible and provisional account of things, based on the observations at his disposal.
Darwin regularly conceded that there were gaps and errors in his account of how life developed on earth, even though he believed his theory possessed a greater explanatory capacity than those of his rivals, and that this was a reliable indicator of its truth.
Readers of the Catholic Herald will be particularly interested to learn whether Wilson’s work casts any new light on Darwin’s attitudes towards religion – the subject of intense research in recent years.
Perhaps surprisingly, Wilson has rather little to say on this matter, tending to focus on the Catholic writer St George Jackson Mivart’s response to Darwin. Yet although Wilson references John Hedley Brooke’s Science and Religion – a scholarly work which is widely regarded as forcing revision of many traditional views about the relation of science and religion in the Victorian age – its conclusions, along with those of more recent writers, do not seem to be echoed in Wilson’s analysis.
Although Darwin himself veered away from orthodox Christianity in later life, he remained adamant that religious believers had nothing to fear from his scientific ideas. While the recent (but fading) “New Atheism” tried to portray him as an atheist apologist, Darwin himself took no such view.
So what picture of Darwin emerges from this biography? Wilson presents him as a plagiarist, an unscrupulous writer who passed off other people’s ideas as if they were his own. Yet overall Darwin presents himself as someone who, to use Newton’s image, stood on the shoulders of giants, acknowledging the work of earlier generations of naturalists, including those of his grandfather Erasmus Darwin, and showing how their observations and ideas could be accommodated within his own approach. Darwin constantly modified the text of his Origin of Species, identifying and responding to his critics, not out of personal vanity but because he took such criticism seriously.
Wilson rightly notes Darwin’s privileged cultural location, and offers some highly critical reflections about Darwin’s resulting social views. Here, perhaps, Wilson is on safer ground. Like many, I find myself unsettled by some of Darwin’s statements in The Descent of Man which reflect cultural judgments about the superiority of “civilised” races over their more primitive counterparts, along with some unhelpful phrases that were easily exploited by later “progressive” thinkers – both in England and Germany – who adopted Darwin’s ideas for their racial and social agendas.
Yet Darwin, like every other historical figure, cannot be extricated from his cultural context. Darwin was a Victorian gentleman, complete with the prejudices of his class and time, some of which found their way into The Descent of Man. In any case, it is simply unfair to blame Darwin for what later generations did with his ideas.
It is impossible to recommend this as a reliable account of Darwin’s significance as a scientist, or as a guide to the complex question of the relation of science and faith. The book is littered with trivial factual errors – such as “Ornithological Society of London” for “Zoological Society of London” – that are forgivable individually yet which cumulatively erode confidence in Wilson’s judgments. Wilson has written some excellent books; sadly, this is not one of them.
Alister McGrath is the Andreos Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford
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