Tearing down historical statues, all the rage at the moment, is egregious vandalism and, I think, will be regretted down the road when it’s too late to restore irreplaceable monuments. But if you insist on knocking over tributes to figures of the past with painful legacies, why not Darwin?
The great man’s latest biographer, A.N. Wilson, wants to seriously upset how we think of his subject, and he demonstrates it again in an essay published by The Times of London, “Darwin’s greatness is founded on a myth.” Wilson’s book, Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker, of which the article looks to be a précis, will be out in Britain next week. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait for it here until December. Other than commending him for his liberal politics and for being a “supremely observant and talented naturalist and collector of specimens,” Wilson finds little to praise in Darwin.
The article, presumably like the book, is not anti-evolution per se, and certainly not an expression of creationism (“indeed at variance with scientific truth”). Instead he castigates Darwin as ambitious, cagey if not dishonest in refusing to acknowledge the sources of his idea, unscientific, lending support to the racial and other prejudices of his time, and encouraging of much darker and more dangerous ideas. This is familiar material, but extremely well said.
He begins by observing of On the Origin of Species, “It is often spoken of as a work of science.” “Often spoken of,” but not really that?
Whatever you make of it, it is a strange book. Most of its central contentions, such as the idea that everything in nature always evolves gradually, are now disbelieved by scientists, and the science of genetics has made much of it seem merely quaint.
Of Darwin’s other famous book:
In his Descent of Man, he finally admitted how he thought humanity had evolved. It is an absurd, indeed embarrassing, book. I wonder sometimes how many Darwinians have actually read it to the end. It tells us that savages such as he met in Tierra del Fuego spoke largely in grunts and had almost no vocabulary. Yet missionaries visited the place not long after Darwin and compiled a dictionary of their language, finding they possessed a vocabulary of over 30,000 words.
On Darwin as a scientist, and the precious Galápagos finches:
A generation later, and the Darwinian faith had evolved the story of the master’s Damascene conversion to the theory of natural selection while he was a young man on HMS Beagle, sailing to the Galapagos Islands. We all know the story. Darwin noticed the different finches, from island to island, and how they had different-shaped beaks. It was here that he saw the phenomenon of descent by gradual modification happening before his very eyes.
What actually happened was this. Darwin sent back a vast number of specimens collected during the voyage of the Beagle. The notion is propounded that a revolution was taking place in his views on the immutability of species. As a matter of fact, Darwin failed to identify most of the finch specimens that he collected on the Galapagos as finches at all. Some he labelled blackbirds, others “gross beaks” and one a wren. He gave them to the Ornithological Society of London, who gave them to John Gould, an ornithological illustrator, to be identified. It was Gould, not Darwin, who recognised that they were all distinct species of finch.
It was Captain FitzRoy, not Darwin, who made collections of finches and labelled them correctly, and, as Harvard University’s Frank Sulloway demonstrated in 1982, it was FitzRoy’s identification of the differences between the finches which enabled Gould to make his remarkable observations.
Darwin never mentioned the differences between the finches in the Origin of Species, even though, during the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of publication, Gould’s drawings of the Galapagos finches were reproduced again and again as if they were Darwin’s “discovery”. Moreover, Peter and Rosemary Grant, evolutionary biologists from Princeton University, spent over 25 summers studying these birds, mainly on the island of Daphne Major. They revealed that the beak changes were reversible. This is hardly “evolution”.
On Darwin’s eugenic legacy and the problem, as he saw it, of brutes racing past civilized men like himself in populating the world:
Darwin made it clear that he thought something would have to be done to correct this troubling state of affairs. His cousin Francis Galton took up the suggestion and pioneered the “science” of eugenics, in which he openly advocated making it illegal for savages and the working classes to breed. We all know where that led in the time of the national socialists, but we sometimes blind ourselves to the source of Hitler’s ideas.
Historians may object that Wilson’s critiques are not original to him, but seem to be assembled from other sources. However, Wilson isn’t an academic historian or a specialized scholar and doesn’t claim to be. The subjects of his past historical books have ranged across centuries and continents, from ancient Palestine to Victorian and 20th-century England. He is a literary critic, novelist, and popular biographer. Assuming that he acknowledges his sources in the book, and that his facts are otherwise correct, I don’t see this as a devastating criticism at all.
Instead, this biography appears to be part of a larger rethink of evolution that is bubbling away in a variety of areas. The Royal Society meeting last November is part of it. (See our post from earlier this week, “Evolutionary Theorist Concedes: Evolution ‘Largely Avoids’ Biggest Questions of Biological Origins.”) Stephen Meyer in his books has documented the scientific problems with unguided evolution that, until recently, have been kept hidden in the professional literature. Jonathan Wells, Douglas Axe, David Berlinski, Tom Bethell, and others have contributed to unmasking the failure of Darwinian theory to account for biological novelties – what we think of as “evolution.”
A prominent atheist philosopher, Thomas Nagel, coming out as a Darwin skeptic is part of this phenomenon. Tom Wolfe’s Darwin-doubting book on the evolution of human communication, The Kingdom of Speech, is part of it. Yes, the steadily accumulating case for intelligent design, and demands for academic freedom in teaching about evolution in localities across the United States, are relevant too.
Whether Wilson, a master storyteller with a keen wit, is the man to finally topple Darwin’s idol is not really the point. I can’t say more without getting a chance to read the book, but the fact of its being written and published at all, and by Darwin’s own publisher (!), gives further evidence of a growing trend in the culture, both scientific and literary, against Darwinist absolutism. And that’s good news.
Photo: Elderly couple ignore Darwin statue, Natural History Museum, London, by ddouk via Pixabay.