Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker

by AN Wilson, John Murray, £25

Charles Darwin remains one of the most discussed thinkers of the Victorian age, a towering figure whose ideas straddled and connected the worlds of science, culture and religion. The burgeoning research literature on Darwin makes huge demands on any biographer hoping to break new ground in our understanding of this pivotal figure and his legacy. Having engaged Darwin in his well-received The Victorians, AN Wilson has risen to this challenge in Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker.

I wish he hadn’t. The book reads like a sprawling first-year undergraduate essay, which provides perfunctory reference to a small selection of the research literature in pursuit of its own ambitious and independent agendas. Wilson is not a scientist, and his bold thesis – that “Darwin was wrong” (the first sentence of the book) – ultimately seems to rest on a failure to appreciate how science works. Darwin was not the first to propose that evolution took place, or the first to suggest how it worked. His contribution was the proposal of a new mechanism – “natural selection” – which he believed gave the best explanation of what was observed in the natural realm, and his defence of its superiority over rival explanations of the time.

Darwin did not have access to a viable theory of genetics when writing The Origin of Species (1859), which would have placed his ideas on a much stronger footing. Yet his proposal proved capable of subsequently being integrated into the larger theory of neo-Darwinism.

Every great scientist of the past – such as Newton or Kepler – is limited by their historical location. They have to do their best with the observational evidence at their disposal. Darwin was “wrong” in the limited sense that any scientist can at best offer a corrigible and provisional account of things, based on the observations at his disposal.

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