Culture & Ethics Icon Culture & Ethics

The Darwin Myth Removes the Façade and Reveals the Man

In nine highly readable chapters The Darwin Myth takes its reader from Darwin’s boyhood of wealth and privilege, to his brief stint in theology school, his quest for adventure, and the development of his “one long argument” that would form the remainder of his life’s work. This bold and uncompromising biography exposes Darwin “warts and all,” the flaws of Darwinian evolution, and the dark and disturbing consequences of a theory that easily lent itself to social Darwinism, the eugenics movement, and even Hitler’s völkisch racism.

The title is apt and revealing, for no figure in history has been the subject of more myth-mongering than Charles Darwin. That myth–at least a central one–is this: Darwin started as a creationist, but his assiduous sifting of nature’s clues during his five-year voyage on the HMS Beagle forced him to conclude that species evolved through the process of natural selection acting on random variation. For Darwin, evolution was blind and undirected. He came to this, he assured everyone, reluctantly, only when overwhelmed by the mass of incontrovertible evidence. It sounds good, but, as Wiker points out, “The facts speak otherwise. Charles Darwin was a third generation evolutionist. He carefully read his grandfather’s Zoönomia very early on, he studied under the radical evolutionist Robert Grant while in medical school, he worked through arguments of the French evolutionist Lamarck, and it would be hard to imagine him not discussing evolution with his father and brother around the table and in front of the fire–all this, before he had set foot on the Beagle” (137) (emphasis added).
This point is important. It means that Darwin already had a mental template with which to interpret his data; that template was philosophical materialism. In short, Darwin’s metaphysic preceded his science. Having determined that the natural world had no guiding hand (nor any need of one) he set about crafting a theory to fit that conviction. Thus, On the Origin of Species (1859) did not specifically argue against God. In fact, Darwin was silent on this issue, “but that silence,” as Wiker explains, “was transparent in its implications: Darwin had not said anything about God because he had rendered Him entirely superfluous” (88). Emboldened by his success, he published The Descent of Man (1871), applying his “survival of the fittest” notion to humans in “a brutal tautology” (143).
This book, unlike any other in the long history of Darwin biography, exposes the myth and the myth-makers, not least of which was Darwin himself, who provided an airbrushed self-portrait in his Autobiography. Initially written for family and friends, his son Francis readily appreciated its promotional value and secured its posthumous publication in 1887. From that point on, Darwin’s life and work was largely interpreted within a framework of his own making. With a naïve acceptance seldom accorded a historical figure, Darwin and Darwinism became synonymous with science itself. Yet doubts arose. Even Darwin sympathizers like William Irvine depicted a cagey neurotic who parlayed imagined illnesses to his own convenience in Apes, Angels and Victorians (1955), and Darwin Medalist Cyril Dean Darlington called the medal’s namesake a “slippery” character not to be trusted in his Darwin’s Place in History (1959). Even more critical were Gertrude Himmelfarb’s Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution (1959) and Howard E. Gruber’s Darwin on Man (1974), both skeptical of Darwin’s imputed objectivity. Harsher still was R. F. Baum’s Doctors of Modernity (1988), a little read but scathing indictment of Darwinism. Nevertheless, the hagiography and apologetics largely continued until Adrian Desmond and James Moore took a more honest look in Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist (1991). This work was soon buried under the sheer massiveness of Janet Browne’s two-volume Charles Darwin (1995, 2002), a biography that eschewed critical analysis in favor of a ponderous compilation of minutia. (Interestingly, Desmond and Moore, perhaps judging themselves a bit too honest, recently tried to rehabilitate Darwin into an abolitionist champion of “brotherhood science” in Darwin’s Sacred Cause, a claim Wiker convincingly refutes.)
The point is, with few exceptions, the vast historiography of Darwiniana accepted, ignored, or timorously erased around the edges of this paragon and his paradigm. Not so The Darwin Myth. At last the façade is removed–here is the unadulterated picture of the man and the -ism that bears his name. The picture isn’t pretty, but it is refreshingly honest.