An attack on evolution, disguised as a Darwin biography

Jerry A. Coyne is professor emeritus in the department of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago. He is the author of “Speciation” (with H. Allen Orr), “Why Evolution Is True” and “Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible.”

I’ve been an evolutionary biologist for nearly half a century and have read hundreds of books about Charles Darwin and his science. If we exclude books written by creationists — a group that A.N. Wilson doesn’t identify with — “Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker” is by far the worst. Appalling in its sloppy arguments and unrelenting and unwarranted negativity, its most infuriating flaw is its abysmal failure to get the most basic facts right. It’s a grossly inaccurate and partisan attack on both Darwin and evolution.

Given that many of Wilson’s earlier biographies have been admired for their style and insight, and not criticized for pervasive errors, this new project is baffling. Where Darwin’s other biographers have seen a sensitive and kindly man, a scrupulous scientist who willingly credited his predecessors, Wilson finds a greedy “self-mythologizer” desperate to become famous, even if it required ignoring or plagiarizing his forerunners and fellow naturalists. Because the documentary record is so rich — we have some 15,000 bits of correspondence to and from Darwin, and he was a meticulous note-taker and letter-keeper — and because Darwin and his ideas occupy such a prominent place in the history of science, a vast amount of scholarly energy has been devoted to understanding his life and influences. We truly know a huge amount about him. How is it, then, that Wilson can come up with a completely new take on his subject?

[Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ tops list of most important academic books]

There are two possibilities: All preceding Darwin scholarship is wrong, or, alternatively, the mistakes lie with Wilson. Parsimony alone would suggest that Wilson is the anomaly here, unless of course he has discovered some important new information. But there’s nothing remotely new in this book beyond Wilson’s anti-Darwin bias. That Wilson is the confused outlier among Darwin biographers is easily confirmed by even a cursory inspection of the book, which is replete with factual errors. This is not the place to describe all of Wilson’s misrepresentations, many of which are frankly daft. A few examples must suffice.

Wilson says repeatedly that Darwin didn’t persuade his contemporaries of evolution’s truth, but in fact by Darwin’s death in 1882, virtually all scientists — and most educated people — accepted evolution (he was, after all, buried in Westminster Abbey). The rediscovery of Mendelian genetics in 1900 did not undercut evolution, as Wilson argues, but supported it, even correcting Darwin’s mistaken ideas about how inheritance worked.

Wilson also asserts that Darwin had low libido, which, in Wilson’s world, is apparently a character flaw. Yet he fathered 10 children. Wilson claims Darwin feigned illness to avoid commitments and visitors that would interrupt his work, yet Darwin complained incessantly that severe and lifelong gastric problems cost him weeks of productivity. We’re not sure what disease afflicted him: Cyclic vomiting syndrome or lactose intolerance are the latest hypotheses. But hypochondria is not credible.

In the most embarrassing error, Wilson claims that the first 50 pages of an important Darwin notebook have been lost forever, asserting that Darwin destroyed them to hide his intellectual cribbing from his contemporary Edward Blyth. In reality, Darwin simply placed those pages in a folder for later use, and they can easily be found online. Whatever Wilson was doing during the five years he spent researching and writing this book, it bears little relation to what we call “scholarship.”

Why the sustained animus against Darwin? I think Wilson’s issue is not really Darwin but his ideas. “Darwin was wrong,” is how he opens the book, referring to the theory of evolution. Wilson plainly dislikes evolutionary biology, but, lacking scientific credentials, is not in a position to provide a thorough scientific critique of the field. Instead, he seems to have written a biography — a task he is at least in principle qualified for, having written 20 books on history — as a platform to launch an assault on evolution. Darwin’s character is simply collateral damage.

So what does Wilson have against a body of science about which, it is clear, he knows next to nothing? Wilson has taken a somewhat tortuous (and public) spiritual path: Raised a Christian, he became an atheist and then returned to Christianity. Now writing as a believer, he seems reluctant to see humankind’s genesis and fate removed from divine hands. My evidence for this: Wilson’s reliance on discredited creationist cliches; his claims that human traits such as language, consciousness, altruism and even bipedality simply could not have evolved; and his avowal that his return to religion derived from writing about Wagner and Nazi Germany and seeing “how utterly incoherent were Hitler’s neo-Darwinian ravings ” in contrast to the views of anti-Nazi Christians.

In good creationist style, Wilson asserts that Darwin’s “gradualism” is wrong: that many changes in life’s history were neither slow nor adaptive. To support this, he argues that we find almost no transitional forms connecting major groups, suggesting that while evolution might occur within species (“microevolution,” such as the evolutionary acquisition of drug resistance in bacteria in response to antibiotics), it cannot create new forms (“macroevolution”). He’s wrong. Darwin’s gradualism was largely a pushback against claims that transitions happened instantaneously, such as the idea that a reptile could give birth to a mammal in a single generation.

And we now understand how sustained evolution over long periods of time results in the appearance of innovations (such as a fish fin becoming a tetrapod limb) that Wilson insists cannot evolve. The evidence against Wilson’s view is overwhelming. We have thousands of transitional fossils connecting major groups: fish to amphibians, amphibians to reptiles, reptiles to birds and mammals, small deer-like animals to whales, and of course ancient tree-dwelling apes to modern humans. Wilson’s claim is grossly misleading and, frankly, ridiculous.

Another familiar creationist claim lies at the core of Wilson’s problem with evolution: that Darwin promoted “social Darwinism,” the view that evolution tells us that “might makes right” in our own species, and that a struggle among races and classes picks out superior groups with the right to control others. In fact, Darwin was never a social Darwinist and certainly can’t be held responsible for others’ misuse (and abuse) of his ideas.

[Did Darwin’s theory of evolution encourage abolition of slavery?]

Wilson takes this to its logical extreme by proclaiming that Darwin’s views led to the Holocaust. He states that the Nazis’ race and eugenics laws were “all based on bogus Victorian science, much of which had started life in the gentle setting of Darwin’s study at Down House.” But as science historian Robert Richards showed decisively in his essay “Was Hitler a Darwinian?” (not cited by Wilson), Adolf Hitler and the Nazis explicitly rejected Darwinism and its materialistic underpinnings, basing their genocidal policies on anti-Semitism and ideas of racial superiority that existed long before Darwin. In fact, Darwin spurned the notion of interfering with the lives and reproduction of others, saying that “we must bear without complaining the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind.”

Wilson’s use of the familiar and discredited tropes of creationism — humans are too special to be products of evolution, complex organs such as eyes can’t evolve, we see microevolution but not macroevolution, evolution can’t create new information in DNA, evolution is itself a religion, Hitler’s genocide traces back to Darwinism and so on — forces us to conclude that, even if he isn’t a creationist, he surely walks and quacks like one.

In the end, Wilson’s book is harmful, because its ignorance and denial of scientific evidence, coming from an established author, will promote the mistaken view that evolutionary biology is seriously flawed. And by flouting the research on Darwin carried out by serious historians of science, it betrays those historians and history itself.
The Washington PostThe Washington Post

Comments are closed.