A.N. Wilson’s biography Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker was released here in America on December 12, 2017. It first came out in Britain back in September and I put up my review on this blog in October. I have since posted an abridged version on Amazon.
What I find most puzzling about the book is that Wilson clearly wants to point out Darwin’s failures, yet he passes over Darwin’s two biggest faults: his racist ideas about Indigenous peoples and his commitment to genocide. I understand why idolizers of Darwin omit these things from their discussions, but why does Wilson let Darwin off the hook for his unscientific assessment of non-European people? I cannot think of any reason, unless it is that Darwin’s defects reflect the wider problems in his society and perhaps it is that society that Wilson wants to protect.
Wilson’s discussion of Darwin’s ideas occupies a smaller portion of the book. The larger portion is devoted to straightforward biography, and as a biography, there seems little to justify why Wilson wrote another one. Other than criticizing Darwin’s theory of natural selection, there is little purpose in again going over the well-known details of his career and life. But there is one biographical detail Wilson offers which still bothers me because it offers an incomplete picture of the issue. I did not bring it up in my review, so I will do so now.
Wilson mentions that Darwin had one daughter’s cat destroyed because it had mauled one of his pigeons. I suppose Wilson means to imply that Darwin had a cruel streak in him. But this raises the issue of Darwin’s attitude towards animals and here Wilson fails to deliver.
Generally, Darwin is remembered for his hatred of cruelty to animals. There are a number of anecdotes about this which I relate in my long book Darwin’s Racism: The Definitive Case (in my other book A Short but Full Book on Darwin’s Racism, I skip this issue). But the other side of Darwin is that he believed animals served human beings. He was opposed to any efforts to end experimentation on live animals, if these were necessary to advance medical research. Restrictions, yes. He believed experiments should be performed with anesthetics when possible. But if that were not possible without ruining the experiment, then he was fully in favor of going ahead with it, no matter the pain to the animal. Even when anesthetics were used, Darwin does not seem to have given any thought to how the animal would feel in recovery.
It is not the most important issue in Darwin’s life (which is why I did not bring it up in my review or in my short book), but to drop one detail about killing a cat, as Wilson does, without telling the fuller story is not really fair.
© 2017 Leon Zitzer