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Todd’s Blog Bungles Wiker’s New Book, The Darwin Myth

Michael Flannery

A confused and wholly erroneous review of Ben Wiker’s Darwin Myth by Todd Wood appeared recently on Todd’s Blog. Wood’s review suffers from three major errors (and likely many more if I took the necessary time to delineate them all), but in the interest of calling them out without wasting too much time on such an obviously muddled missive, permit me to note the following:

First, Wood claims that “Wiker’s Darwin is an evolutionist from the start, thanks to the influence of Lamarck, Grant, and Erasmus Darwin’s Zoonomia.” Actuall,y what Wiker says is that “the theory came before the facts. It was a philosophical and cultural inheritance before Charles Darwin himself went in search of evidence to support it” (p. 137). This is true and it is also amply demonstrated in the experiences that 17 year-old Charles had in the Plinian Society in addition to Robert Edmond Grant (whom he met at that Society), his grandfather (an irreverent transmutationist), and his father (a closet nonbeliever by just about every biographer’s account including Wiker). Every major metaphysical concept Darwin was later to embrace he was introduced to as a Plinian (e.g. mind as solely matter, humans and animals as one, radical materialism). This was, in Adrian Desmond and James Moore’s own words, Darwin’s introduction to “seditious science” (see chapter 3 of their Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist). Wood has Wiker asking the wrong question. Wiker didn’t ask, when did Darwin become an evolutionist?, he asked, when did Darwin develop his worldview or philosophy? That is a powerful and important question and one not asked enough by Darwin’s biographers past and present; too bad Wood missed this point so tellingly and clearly made by Wiker. Understood in Wiker’s context there is, in fact, ample evidence for showing that Darwin’s theory was well ahead of his facts and it can be clearly seen in many references to his private notebooks. Permit me one example (for others I suggest reading the introduction to my Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution and, of course, the subject of Wood’s mischaracterizations, Wiker’s own Darwin Myth). “Why is thought, being a secretion of the brain, more wonderful than gravity a property of matter?,” Darwin rhetorically asks, “It is our arrogance, it is our admiration of ourselves . . . ” (Darwin, Notebooks, p. 231). In other words, our intellects are simply products of our material brain (Darwin thought God was of our making, too) and our thinking otherwise is simply arrogant. Darwin wrote this at age 29, four years before his rough 35-page sketch on transmutation and six years before his 230-page draft of the general theory. Wiker is correct; the theory ran well ahead of the facts. Wood’s reference to mockingbirds in the Galapagos is utterly irrelevant is simply demonstrates his complete obliviousness to Wiker’s important and well-supported thesis.
Wood goes on claim that we know very little about what Darwin thought about species before he started his notebooks, suggesting that Charles was little more than a blank slate when it came to such matters. But this isn’t so, and, despite Wood’s demand for more primary sources from Wiker, we don’t need them on this account. Janet Browne, the reigning Dean of Darwin biographers, points out that Charles’ dismissal of Grant’s influence upon him as claimed in his Autobiography is not to be believed:

But Charles Darwin’s phlegmatic response was puzzling. Far too disingenuous in his Autobiography, he was in truth well prepared to understand the importance both of Lamarck and of his grandfather. At the time Grant spoke to him, Darwin had already read Lamarck’s technical guide to the classification of invertebrates, the Systemè des animaux sans vertèbres (1801), which included the text of a lecture in which Lamarck clearly proposed that species change through time. From this lecture he would quickly have grasped the essentials of Lamarck’s theory. And he had by then studied Erasmus Darwin’s evolutionary works, particularly the Zoonomia. A previously unknown list made by Darwin of the books he read during his second year at Edinburgh makes it plain that he studied his grandfather’s volumes closely–closely enough to continue the interest by reading Anna Seward’s biography of him (published in 1814) and following up crucial questions about the nature of life and organisation as raised in the Zoonomia and by contemporary debates in Edinburgh in other medical texts of the period. Young Darwin, it now turns out, was well aware of evolutionary views and perfectly capable of grasping the full implication of what Grant had to say (Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: Voyaging, p. 83).

Now Wiker makes a similar point, but what can Wood say to Browne? Is she wrong too?! Besides, the point here is two-fold: 1) Wiker’s thesis that Darwin’s theory preceded the facts is borne out by Darwin’s own reading on the subject, reading commenced long before the Beagle set sail; and 2) Darwin’s asseveration to the contrary as found in his Autobiography simply supports Wiker’s contention that Charles was less than forthright in characterizing his own intellectual development. Why? Because to suggest otherwise might have impugned the “scientific rigor” of his method in developing his evolutionary theory. And this isn’t an isolated case. Others could be shown where Darwin’s claims in his Autobiography simply don’t match with his private notebooks. No wonder that Howard Gruber admitted that “Darwin presented himself in ways that are not supported by the evidence of the notebooks,” and his “actual way of working . . . would never have passed muster in a methodological court of inquiry among Darwin’s scientific contemporaries” (Darwin on Man, p. 122).
The third point in Wood’s bewildering account of The Darwin Myth is that Wiker is somehow wrong in insisting that Darwin’s was “an entirely godless account of evolution.” Wood’s counterpoint to this is a famous letter to Asa Gray, written just six months after the publication of his Origen, claiming to be atheistically “bewildered” and having had “no intention to write atheistically.” Well, a few points need to be made here. First, from the account above (not from Wiker but from Browne) we know that Darwin could be disingenuous in presenting his own life story; the reality doesn’t fit the presentation. Why should we now believe Darwin’s letter to Gray at face value? The answer is we shouldn’t. Darwin was eager for Gray (a thoroughgoing theist) to support his new book and, in fact, paid to have Gray’s favorable reviews of Origin published and distributed in pamphlet form. Wood mistakes cagey self-promotion for alleged bewilderment (a typical Darwin strategy). While Darwin was no doubt miffed at Gray’s theistic spin to Origin, “That is not what he meant the theory to do,” Wiker points out, “and in private letters he politely made his objections known to Gray. Yet–and this was typical of Darwin–he had no qualms about using Gray’s argument if it would smooth the way for acceptance of his theory” (pp. 108-109). How do we know this? We know this by examining the details of his theory with his actions and matching (or mismatching as the case may be) his statements to his actions. Second, if Darwin truly had “no intention” to write atheistically, why did he exclaim so emphatically, “But I groan over man. . . . Eheu!, Eheu!, Eheu!–Your miserable friend, C. Darwin” when Alfred Russel Wallace suggested that only an “Overruling Intelligence” could account for the human intellect? (See letter to Wallace Jan. 26, 1870 in Marchant, Alfred Russel Wallace: Letters and Reminiscences, p. 206.) If Darwin had no intention to write atheistically and if he genuinely believed “all these laws may have been expressly designed by an omniscient Creator” as he claimed to Gray, why such a wail at Wallace’s suggestion?
In the end, Wood claims “this book just asks us to take Wiker’s word for it.” Well, let’s add Janet Browne and Howard Gruber to the list. For that matter, even noted evolutionist C. D. Darlington admitted that Darwin adopted “a flexible strategy which is not to be reconciled with even average intellectual integrity: by contrast with Wallace, Lyell, Hooker, Chambers or even Spencer, Darwin was slippery (Darwin’s Place in History, p. 60), and Stanley Jaki’s Savior of Science could also be added to the list of those who have questioned Darwin’s veracity. While all these prior investigators recognized Darwin’s duplicity, none of them took the bold, logical, and perfectly warranted step that Wiker did because (again) they generally failed to ask the right question. So Wood’s complaint falls wide of the mark. The error here is not that Wiker’s evidence is weak (it is not), but rather that it seems clear Wood is totally unfamiliar with (or suffering from selective amnesia of) Darwin’s historiography.
Wiker’s account remains a must read, despite this bungled attempt at a review.

Michael Flannery

Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Michael A. Flannery is professor emeritus of UAB Libraries, University of Alabama at Birmingham. He holds degrees in library science from the University of Kentucky and history from California State University, Dominguez Hills. He has written and taught extensively on the history of medicine and science. His most recent research interest has been on the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913). He has edited Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution: How Wallace’s World of Life Challenged Darwinism (Erasmus Press, 2008) and authored Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life (Discovery Institute Press, 2011). His research and work on Wallace continues.