A few paragraphs later, the veteran English biographer, whose past subjects have mostly been royals, religious figures and writers (but no scientists), establishes the tone and context for his revisionist interpretation of Darwin’s life and work.
This book is different from a biography of a painter or a politician, he writes. Even if our tastes have changed with time, we can still esteem an artist’s work or a politician’s achievements in their own time and place in history.
Not so for science, which Wilson sees as “a matter of verifiable fact” that has to stand the test of time.
From there, he goes on to portray Darwin as an egotistical, racist and ruthlessly self-interested man whose chief ambition was to be recognised as the sole mind behind the theory of evolution by natural selection.
In Wilson’s view, Darwin’s means to this end included plagiarising ideas, not acknowledging intellectual debts to those who had prepared the ground for a debate about the origin of species and the biological ancestry of humans, strategising to silence or appease rivals and passing off the work of others as his own.
Beyond that, Wilson sees Darwin as a feeble hypochondriac whose constant illnesses defined his relationships with others – his cousin and wife, Emma, and their children included – and provided an excuse for his withdrawal from social life.
He acknowledges Darwin as an expert on barnacles and earthworms, and allows On the Origin of Species as a contribution to science, but nevertheless claims that he was scientifically mistaken, or vague at best.
Instead, Wilson suggests, Darwin’s work served mostly as a myth-enforcing permission for the Victorian middle class (of which Darwin was a member) to feel superior to the working class.
All this is wrapped in stylish, convincing prose that draws on Wilson’s previous writing on the Victorian era.
Darwin’s life is peopled with characters, many of whom start out as friends and supporters (among them Robert FitzRoy, irascible captain of HMS Beagle), only to turn into enemies later.
On some level, it is an entertaining read. So much so that it can be difficult to identify the line between fair interpretation of the personal details of biographer’s subject and the deliberate omission of aspects of a life that don’t fit the intended image.
The trouble is that there are kernels of truth in Wilson’s portrayal – but many of these criticisms of Darwin aren’t new.
Darwin’s name has indeed become synonymous with the idea that evolution is driven by the process of natural selection. Although he did not coin the term “survival of the fittest”, he did think of evolution as a process that moves forward through gradual improvements.
It is also true that there were others, including Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus, who thought and wrote about how species might have originated if one let go of the idea of divine creation.
Darwin’s notebook descriptions of the “savages” of Latin America and later Tahiti make it clear he did not consider all people equal. His illness may well have been partially psychosomatic and Emma certainly seems to have drawn meaning from being his nurse and carer, even though his work threatened her faith. Also true is that Darwin felt forced to publish after he received a letter from Alfred Wallace laying out almost identical ideas on evolution and so identifying himself as a rival.
But Wilson makes claims that seem to contradict evidence. Darwin’s letters illustrate how often and how widely he sought counsel from others working in science at the time or before him.
Wilson’s book moves chronologically through well-known milestones of Darwin’s privileged life and he does trim back some myths. The finches of Galapagos, for example, did not trigger an epiphany for Darwin, as is often believed. In fact, he mislabelled them and sent them to an expert for identification. It was only later that he recognised them as an example of what’s now described as adaptive radiation, a process in which organisms diversify quickly to fill vacant ecological niches.
In the chapters that lead up to the publication of On the Origin of Species, there is a discrepancy between Wilson’s attempts to kick Darwin off his throne and the way his life unfolds. If Darwin really was desperately ambitious and wanted to be remembered as the originator of the theory of evolution, why would he wait two decades to publish, if not to substantiate his thinking and provide documentation and evidence.
Wilson makes some claims that are hard to defend, such as his assertion that there is a lack of transitional forms in the fossil record. He cites palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who indeed lamented the rarity (not lack) of such in-between forms for transitions between species, but he omits the fact that there are many transitional fossils representing changes between major taxonomic groups.
Throughout the book, Wilson is dogged by confusion between Lamarckism – the theory that an organism can pass on traits it has acquired during its life – and Darwin’s theory.
Wilson also fails to mention DNA evidence that now shows us that all living things are related in an ever-more finely branching web of life.
However, his real beef is not with Darwin’s book on evolution among animals and plants, but with his next big publication in 1871, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex.
Here, Wilson’s claims of Adolf Hitler being influenced, via eugenics, by Darwin become distinctly uncomfortable. Even though Darwin clearly thought that there was a hierarchy between “lesser” savages and more civilised societies, his letters show he opposed slavery. He may not have supported eugenics.
As appalling as Darwin’s racism (and sexism, on which Wilson, interestingly, doesn’t dwell) was, he was a man of his time, with the social prejudices of his particular era and place in history.
CHARLES DARWIN VICTORIAN MYTHMAKER, by AN Wilson (Hachette, $39.99)
This article was first published in the December 16, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.