Wilson’s book on Darwin came out in England in the first week of September. It won’t appear in America until December, but it is easily obtainable online from bookstores in the UK by going to www.abebooks.com.
My “reviews” of books are usually not complete reviews. What I often do is focus on one issue that is important to me and discuss how good a job the author did on that. In the case of the historical Jesus, I look at how accurate was the author in describing ancient Jewish culture (the answer most often is that the author presents a biased view of Jewish culture to support his or her preconceived ideas about Jesus in conflict with Judaism). In the case of the historical Charles Darwin, my main concern is how honest the author is about Darwin’s racism and his commitment to genocide. I will get to Wilson’s take on this below. But since the book is not available here yet, I thought I would first give a more general account of its contents. I should say that I am writing from the perspective of someone who has published two books on Darwin’s racism and I know how much evidence there is for this, which most authors, including Wilson, will not get into.
With the exception of one chapter (on natural selection), Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker is three-quarters biography and one-quarter analysis of certain key issues. If you are interested in Darwin’s life story, this book gives as good an account as any. But if you are interested in those issues, the discussions are somewhat faulty, perhaps due to lack of sufficient space. Either they don’t go deep enough or they fail to present enough evidence (for points that Wilson is absolutely right about) or they misrepresent some of the evidence or, in an effort to be even-handed, they are not quite fair (or too fair) to Darwin or to someone else.
I say this even though I agree with many of Wilson’s points. He has some wonderful insights along the way. He points out that Darwinists are the only scientists in the world who are obsessed with God. Physicists do not use God in their explanations of the universe, but they don’t go on and on about how they have banished God from the universe. Darwinists are constantly dragging God into the subject by bragging about how they have dragged God out of biology. They just cannot let go of theology. It is bizarre. But Wilson is wrong to blame Darwin for this, as I will explain. Wilson also rightly observes that Darwin was more a product of his culture’s Zeitgeist than he realized. His views were more the result of certain values than they were self-generated.
When Wilson departs from straightforward biography and gets into the issues, there are three that are his main concern: 1) religion (how irreligious was Darwin and how much harm did he do to religion?); 2) natural selection (is it true or false? did Darwin prove or fudge his case? this is where Wilson makes some of his best points); and 3) predecessors (was Darwin fair to the evolutionists who came before him or did his ego get in the way?).
On the last question, Wilson is right that Darwin took too much credit for himself, but he often fails to give the evidence to make the point convincing. He notes that Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin must have been a big influence on Charles, but he omits the specific things that Charles took from Erasmus. Wilson correctly points out what a big impact Robert Chambers’s Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) had on evolutionary thought, twelve years before On the Origin of Species made its appearance, but he is unfair to Chambers when he says, “Broadly … he scooped Darwin.” It was more than broadly. Chambers gave specific evidence for evolution (the development theory) just as Darwin would: the fossil record, embryos, rudimentary organs, the ancient age of the earth, artificial selection, and more. In each case, Chambers argued that the development hypothesis was a better explanation than independent creation (creationism). Wilson claims that Darwin more than Chambers “taught the world to see that nature is not in a fixed or still condition.” That is simply not true. Chambers probably deserves more credit than Darwin. So does Erasmus Darwin who argued that organisms were in a constant state of transition. But Wilson is generally right that Charles Darwin’s ego did not let him give adequate notice to others. Wilson unfortunately seems to follow suit at times.
Religion and natural selection are Wilson’s biggest issues with Darwin. On religion, Wilson is not fair to him. He represents Darwin as a secret atheist who promoted a worldview that undermined belief in God, but could never quite come out and say it that way. Wilson knows that Thomas Huxley is more to blame for this than Darwin, but still he wants to put Darwin in the same boat. He will quote from letters that Darwin did not believe in Christian doctrines (such as Christ is the son of God), but that does not make Darwin a disbeliever in God. Throughout his life, in letters and in publications, Darwin made it clear that ultimately he was too confused (in “thick mud,” as he said) to settle on whether or not there was a God who designed nature. If anything, he was inclined towards design, but in the end, he adopted agnosticism, never atheism (as he explained in one letter). At one point, Wilson admits that Darwin’s Origin is “not essentially atheistic in texture,” but for most of his book he tries to make the opposite case, and not successfully, I should add.
Wilson has a better case when he contends that natural selection is not a proven theory. He contends that 1) Darwin was wrong to link evolution to the struggle for survival, while ignoring how much cooperation there is in nature (though here too Wilson misses the best evidentiary case he could make; there is at least one letter where Darwin condemns any cooperation, especially among humans, because it is opposed to the principle of competition, and then there is the fact of how often he uses ‘competition’ in Origin, demonstrating how heavily he relied on it), and 2) Darwin was equally wrong to insist that change in nature always happens gradually because as modern genetics now shows, nature does sometimes make leaps, which Darwin denied. I do not know enough about the science of genes to comment on this last point. I can only say that I wish Wilson had given evidence that Darwin ignored cases of leaps that were known in his own time.
Wilson is also right to point out that Darwin frequently relied on speculation to make his case for natural selection. In my work, I have noted how often Darwin used such phrases as ‘we may imagine’, ‘we can understand’, ‘I can see no great difficulty’, ‘we may believe’ and the like, in Origin. At most, he could prove in this way that something is conceivable or possible, but this certainly does not prove probability. He used ‘I can see no difficulty’ when he speculated that whales might have developed from a race of aquatic bears. Scientists mocking this claim forced him to remove it from later editions, but he was not happy about doing it. What was so unscientific about this claim is that Darwin made no attempt to compare the anatomy of a whale and a bear. He just simply imagined their relationship.
Even if Wilson is right that Darwin failed to prove or even make a credible case for natural selection, that does not mean that all the arguments Wilson brings to bear are correct. Sometimes Wilson can go overboard and hurt his own case. He argues that artificial selection does not help to prove natural selection because natural selection will have to produce changes that are long-lasting, if not permanent, in order to account for the fairly steady species we see today, whereas artificial selection does not produce lasting traits, making it “a poor model for natural selection.” Adaptations have to last in order to create a new species. What Wilson fails to see is that of course artificial selection produces impermanent results. It relies on the whim of the breeder. If another breeder takes over, or if nature takes over when a domesticated animal or plant is returned to the wild, the first human breeder’s choice of traits is not going to continue. Human breeders generally do not select for survival, which presumably is what nature does. Humans select for some aesthetic choice or for what is useful on their farms (such as short-legged sheep which will not be able to jump over a fence). For nature, this is just pure whimsy and will not last when that breeder is taken out of the picture. But if nature has steady goals for an organism, then nature’s selections will be around for a while.
Wilson is so eager to prove that natural selection failed early on to convince scientists that he misquotes from a letter of Joseph Hooker, Darwin’s friend and supporter, to Darwin. He has Hooker say that he was going to devote part of a speech to “the fact that Darwin’s theory had failed.” That is not what Hooker said (and Wilson gives the wrong reference for the letter, making it hard to find, but find it I did). What Hooker actually said was that he wanted Darwin’s help to gather information on how Origin was doing abroad, so that he could “disprove the statement, that the Theory is ‘fast passing away’ [as was claimed in one review of another book of Darwin’s].”
PART 2 (the shorter part)
The main thing that disappointed me in Wilson’s book is how little attention he gives to Darwin’s attachment to racism, colonialism, and the genocides carried out by western imperialism (including that conducted in America). He gives a little attention to the first and virtually none to the last two. An author can choose to focus on whatever he wishes, but in this case, if you are out to bring down the false hero worship of Darwin, as Wilson evidently is, why would you leave out Darwin’s biggest scientific sins? It is puzzling that Wilson would completely miss that Darwin presents genocide as if it were a matter of natural selection, when the truth is that genocide is a case of humans artificially rearranging the world. Wilson has nothing to say about this. That is astounding.
As for racism, though Wilson comments a little on Darwin’s belief in the inferiority of darker-skinned races and savages, his general remarks on this are a little all over the place. Very early in the book, he notes Darwin’s racism (it is “beyond question”) and immediately excuses it by saying that “I would be cautious about judging men and women of the nineteenth century by the standards of the twenty-first.” Over 300 pages later, he throws such caution to the wind and proclaims, “It seems fair, however, to say that Darwin was a direct and disastrous influence, not only on Hitler, but on the whole mid-twentieth-century political mindset.” (Thirty pages earlier he also blames eugenics on Darwin.) Then he flips back the other way just twenty pages after this: “It would be unfair to saddle Darwin with all the blame for the sorry history of eugenics, and for the habit of mind which produced not only the eugenic movement but the tyrannies of the twentieth century.” So not all the blame, but a considerable portion of it, which is going back on Wilson’s earlier statement of not judging someone by later standards.
I would not deny that Darwin’s outlook has a lot common with later horrors, but if this is so, it is because he was influenced by colonialism and this same colonialism also had an impact on twentieth century tyrannies. European colonialism, with all its horrors, is the connecting link. The science of Darwin’s time was in the middle. It was not leading the way. European imperial politics was creating a terrible inhumanity and Darwin’s science was carried out in service of that politics. He was giving imperialism support, but he was a follower more than a leader. The blame should rightly belong to colonialism for influencing both Darwin and later dictatorships.
Wilson overlooks another point, which is the substance of my two books on Darwin. We do not have to judge Darwin by later standards. There were plenty of people in his time, albeit a minority, who objected to racism and its inhumane consequences. Some of them were evolutionists but quite unlike Darwin’s brand. We forget in fact that evolutionary theory was headed in a kinder and antiracist direction before Charles Darwin came along. This is not a matter of judging Darwin in hindsight. Contemporary standards were enunciated that differed sharply from the predominant, but not exclusive, racism of the era. That no one listened to them, and least of all Darwin who was very aware of a more humane approach to science but shoved it aside, was not their fault, and it is no reason why we should not listen now.
© 2017 Leon Zitzer