A review of A.N. Wilson’s “Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker”

When I learned that A.N. Wilson had written a book on Charles Darwin (Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker) I ordered it without a moment’s hesitation.  Wilson has a gift for getting to the heart of whatever matter has captured his interest, and he knows his way around Victorian England better than anyone on the planet.  (His God’s Funeral is brilliant.)

I had shared a Facebook post on the persistence of the sort of racist scholarship where white folks (and Asians) are considered slightly more intelligent than the balance of humanity.  Joel Gregory mentioned Wilson’s new book on Darwin and said it traced the problem back to its root.  (Gregory, incidentally, followed W.A. Criswell as pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas–with tragic consequences–and now teaches preaching at Truett Seminary in Waco, Texas.  Black pastors reached out to Gregory when the white church had largely written him off, and that is just one of the reasons he cares about the sin of racism).

Some readers will be offended by this post.  It is commonly assumed that modern biology is founded on Darwin’s theory and A.N. Wilson believed that too . . . until he read what actual biologists have been writing over the past 20 years.  But it is the conservative-liberal divide that creates the real offense here.  Liberals are supposed to accept “evolution” as established fact while conservatives (especially those of the Christian variety) are supposed to see Darwin as the cursed soul who destroyed the Bible.

A.N. Wilson doesn’t address the long-running feud between fundamentalists and the scientific community.  It’s a very American phenomenon, for one thing, and he doesn’t find it interesting.  Wilson tackled Darwin because he is intrigued by all things Victorian and he thought it would be interesting.  He didn’t set out with the intention of writing a hit-piece; although the resulting portrait is less than flattering.

Wilson’s book has sparked rabid outrage among Darwin devotees, in general, and followers of Richard Dawkins, in particular.  They assume that since Wilson evolved from an atheist into a relatively orthodox Anglican in recent years he can’t be trusted to write objectively about science.  John van Wyhe, Director of Darwin Online, trashed Wilson’s Darwin book as “one of the most unreliable, inaccurate and tendentious anti-Darwin books of recent times”.

I enjoyed this interview with A.N. Wilson in The Spectator because it addresses the outrage Wilson’s book has generated and gives the author an opportunity to respond to critics like John van Whye.

 ‘He was really foaming at the mouth,’ says Wilson, laughing again, ‘He said I hadn’t understood the principle [of Darwinism]. Well, a child of two could understand the principle because it’s such a simple one. And that’s why it’s so attractive. They want to believe – and I can see the attraction of it; I believed it until I started on this book. I don’t get it why the scientific establishment minds so much, when they’ve discarded every bit of the theory. But they still use Darwin as their figurehead.

Perhaps the most inflammatory aspect of Wilson’s book is the link he draws between survival of the fittest dogma and the modern eugenics movement.  Hitler’s final solution, Wilson suggests, took Darwin’s ideas to their natural conclusion.

But German scholars loved Darwin in the second half of the 19th century.  “The Germans, rightly, saw Darwinism less as a purely scientific hypothesis and more as a world-outlook, a way of being modern, a way of reordering society in the wake of rapid industrialization, urban growth, family size and structure, and sexuality.  Racial hygiene was a key ingredient in this from early days.”

Darwin’s theorizing has always been more popular with public intellectuals eager to dispense with Christianity than it has been with the scientific community.  Wilson distinguishes between Darwin the brilliant naturalist who left behind notebooks bursting with careful observations about the anatomy and habits of mollusks, pigeons and every other bit of flora and fauna he encountered; and Darwin the mythmaker in search of a theory of everything.

Darwin the naturalist made a valuable contribution to the scientific community, Wilson acknowledges, but Darwin the myth-maker created the disastrous “notion that aggressive competition is the guiding principle behind the universe.”

The Darwinian myth, whether expressed by Darwin or Alfred Russel Wallace (who came up about the same theory at about the same time), was inspired by the economic speculations Thomas Malthus bequeathed to the world in his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798).  Malthus, like most British intellectuals of the early 19th century, was a clergyman but, says Wilson, “Darwin in his notebooks seized upon the essential godlessness of the idea.”

Wilson sees men like Darwin and Malthus as members of an emerging “rentier class” which was, during Darwin’s lifetime, gradually gaining control of the means of production and the flow of investment capital.  Men and women profiting from the dog-eat-dog competition of the Victorian period “had to persuade themselves that there was something inexorable, natural, about their superiority to the working class on whom their wealth in point of fact depended.”

Thomas Malthus postulated that, in a world too over-populated to feed, house and clothe everyone in proper fashion, clever and adaptable people would naturally rise to the top of the social heap while the dregs would sink into a slough of despond created by their ignorance and sloth.  Christian compassion, a product of the utopian tropes of the Hebrew prophets and the Sermon on the Mount, was a luxury society could no longer afford.  The appeal of men like Malthus and Darwin to the rentier class had little to do with scientific accuracy and everything to do with self-justification.

Mid-nineteenth-century Europeans wanted to create a hierarchical taxonomy, with civilized, ‘domesticated’ human beings at the top, wearing silk hats and stiff collars, stays and crinolines, whereas the subject ‘races’ of humanity, squat, naked and brown, were plainly closer to our common ancestors the orang-outangs.

Darwin’s contempt for the dregs of humanity is particularly on display in The Descent of Man (1871).

Here in all its fullness is an exposition of his belief in the survival of the fittest, by which he meant the white races of the globe in preference to the brown-skinned races; and, among the white-skinned races, the supremacy of the British; among the British, the class to which Darwin happened to belong; and among that class, the Darwin family, and himself, in particular.

Adolf Hitler was galvanized by the thought that “all of nature is a constant struggle between power and weakness, a constant struggle of the strong over the weak.”

Wilson freely admits that the world is every bit as ancient as scientific consensus would have as believe.  Moreover, the fossil record demonstrates that biological evolution is the way of the world.  Christians and Jews grasped the mythic quality of Genesis 1-3, Wilson believes, until the 17th century when the emergence of modern historiography encouraged the notion that the Bible was true in the scientific sense of the word.

But, religious considerations aside, there are big problems with Darwinian evolution.

Survival in the natural world depends as much on cooperation as on red-in-tooth-and-claw competition.  “Survival of the fittest” assumptions led inexorably to the theory and practice of eugenics, Wilson says, but it was “precisely because the ‘unfit’ were outbreeding the ‘fit'” that it was “thought necessary to help ‘natural’ selection a little by artificially eliminating the ‘unfit’.”

Wilson freely admits that evolution is an observable fact.  You can trace the emergence of the modern horse from a tiny fox-like ancestor in the fossil record.  But the fossil evidence for one species gradually becoming another species just isn’t there, Wilson says, and most contemporary biologists are aware of the problem.  Darwin is popularly associated with the idea that humankind evolved from the great apes, a notion Wilson doesn’t buy.

Moreover, Darwin’s basic insight is incompatible with genetics (a branch of study of which he was entirely ignorant).  Even neo-Darwinians like Richard Dawkins admit this, Wilson says.  In The Selfish Gene (1976) Dawkins flatly acknowledged that “Much of what Darwin said is, in detail, wrong.  Darwin if he read [The Selfish Gene] would scarcely recognize his own original theory in it.”

A.N. Wilson is the furthest things from an anti-science fundamentalist.  He knows the world is every bit as ancient as the current scientific consensus would suggest and that species have been evolving on earth for billions of years.

But even the burgeoning field of genetics raises more questions than it solves.  The fossil record suggests that species often emerge suddenly with no fossil record of antecedents.  Species can go millions of years with no apparent change and then undergo a remarkable transformation in the course of a relatively brief span of time.  If Darwin was right, the evolutionary process should be gradual and more or less inexorable.

The fact is, we still don’t know very much about the origin of species.  “You could not write a Richard Dawkins-style best-seller,” Wilson quips, “by telling the public that the current state of scientific knowledge is actually quite ambiguous, quite confused.”

In fact,

The synthesis propounded by neo-Darwinians, of genetic facts with the reductionist fantasy that genes or memes can somehow explain everything, and that these explanations are compatible with Darwin’s 1859 micro-mutational theories, is only attractive to a certain type of temperament–the same sort of temperament which, in religion, became a neo-Thomist or a Marxist in the 1930s–someone whose mind craves a grand narrative

And a grand narrative is precisely what the myth-making side of Darwin’s work was intended to provide.  Charles Darwin didn’t advertise his agnosticism our of respect for his pious wife, but he clearly had a religious axe to grind (partly, Wilson suspects, a visceral response the death of his beloved daughter Annie).  But Darwin’s champions, men like Thomas Huxley and Herbert Spencer, saw orthodox Christianity as the enemy.

In fact, Wilson asserts, the unconvincing arguments of conservative Christians acted as a smokescreen covering the scientific inadequacies of Darwin’s big idea.  “Fascinatingly,” Wilson writes, “when neo-Darwinism revived, from the mid-twentieth century onwards, it awoke with all its mid-Victorian anti-religious trappings.  It is hard to think of any other branch of modern science–quantum theory, for example, or discoveries in electromagnetism, neuroscience or astronomy–whose proponents spend as much time talking a bout the errors of theology as of the truth of their own area of expertise.”

Freud and Marx, the two other theory-of-everything myth-makers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, have lost much of their glory in the latter half of the twentieth century and A.N. Wilson thinks the time has come to show the myth-making side of Charles Darwin the door as well.

Wilson doesn’t address the curious amalgam of Malthusian economics and fundamentalist religion currently on display in America.  But we might ask why young earth creationists are so drawn to a moral vision rooted in the survival of the fittest?  Instead of kicking over Christian orthodoxy in favor of a worldview grounded in a might-makes-right competition of each against all, our latter day evangelicals have transformed Christianity into its dreary mirror image.

Where Jesus spoke of forgiveness and reconciliation, Malthusian evangelicals speak of a winner-take-all twilight struggle between good (us) and evil (everybody else).

Where Jesus spoke of love and hospitality toward the least of these, leading evangelicals want to close the borders and restrict medical insurance and social assistance to the “deserving”.

Where Jesus calls us to serve a hurting world in a spirit of boundless humility, the greatest fear of evangelical opinion leaders is that the long reign of white Christians might be coming to an end.

Having long demonized Charles Darwin as the enemy of the Bible, American white evangelicals have embraced the most unsavory aspects of his legacy with unholy ardor.

One thought on “A review of A.N. Wilson’s “Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker”

  1. Charles Darwin is not the only man with a traditional Christian wife whom he values and influences his behavior in science or commerce. One Baptist I know criticizes Darwin for being less aggressive in presenting his research and theories, characterizing him as cowardly.

    While my perception may be inaccurate, there seems to be lament in your review of Wilson’s book that we are not all working as Christian social workers. Obviously that is an exaggeration. With over 7 billion people on earth needing food, clothing and shelter, however, someone, must plant, harvest, spin and build. Adam Smith was not all wrong.

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