Darwin on Endless Trial

Morten Høi Jensen weighs two takes on Darwin’s legacy.

Darwin on Endless Trial

Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker by A. N. Wilson. Harper. 448 pages.

The Theory That Changed Everything by Philip Lieberman. Columbia University Press. 232 pages.

“CHARLES DARWIN was wrong.” So reads the opening sentence of Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker, a new book by the award-winning English writer A. N. Wilson, intrepid biographer of Hitler, Jesus, Tolstoy, and Queen Victoria, to name a few. Billed as “a radical reappraisal” of a man who “was not an original scientific thinker but a ruthless and determined self-promoter who did not credit the many great sages whose ideas he advanced in his book,” Victorian Mythmaker is a thorough dressing-down, a prolonged hatchet job. Unfortunately, it is also a work of intellectual calumny: a muddle of false claims, willful deceit, and unbridled hostility. Darwin, in Wilson’s telling, was a fraud, a liar, a racist, and a closet eugenicist. Victorian Mythmaker wears a cloak of righteousness but is about as trustworthy as a priest in a Stendhal novel.

Where to begin? First, Wilson conjures a Neo-Darwinian conspiracy by the “mainstream of scientific opinion” (read: Richard Dawkins) to place Darwin’s theory of natural selection beyond intellectual scrutiny, even elevate it to a kind of religion. It’s a snug fit, Wilson explains, because it is a theory that, like religion, attempts to “explain everything at once.” Wilson measures the success of this conspiracy by the decision, in 2009, to move the statue of Darwin at the Natural History Museum in London back to its original location in the large hall, thus replacing the statue of the museum’s founder, the biologist (and erstwhile foe of Darwin) Richard Owen. Wilson likens this act to the re-erection of statues of Lenin in the squares of former Warsaw Pact countries, thereby establishing Darwin’s ethical proximity to the theorist of Bolshevik terror.

Wilson then proceeds, in the conventional biographical manner, to take us through Darwin’s childhood and youth, amiably enough, though ever on the prowl for some opportunity to scold and moralize. This habit rather destabilizes Wilson’s prose. When we read, for example, that Darwin’s “membership of the Athenaeum […] mattered to him,” or that, “though politically a Liberal, Darwin was profoundly small-conservative,” we can almost hear the creak of Wilson’s contempt. At other times he is less subtle. Too eager to deliver his blows, he often sounds childishly insistent. In an early chapter on Darwin’s family, for instance, Wilson tells us that “Charles Darwin played down any influence which his grandfather’s ideas might have had upon him.” Harmless enough. But then: “One reason was, he wanted to be considered the originator of the idea of evolution.” This is on page 24. Would it not have made sense — narratively, structurally — to withhold such grandiose statements until later, if only to build a stronger case and allow the reader to draw her own conclusions?

But Wilson is always getting ahead of himself in this manner. He never deigns to persuade the reader of his passionate conviction that Darwin was a ruthless self-promoter; he merely repeats it. A lot. Thus we are told, on page 29, that “the self-absorption of Darwin is by any standards remarkable”; on page 52, that playing down his influences was “an absolutely habitual trait of Darwin’s, who was a self-mythologizer, a man who wanted to represent himself, when the moment was ripe, as the pioneer evolutionist”; on page 71, that “Darwin always wanted to cut a dash; his eye for the main chance was unfaltering”; on page 84, that “Darwin had attended Sedgwick’s geology lectures at Cambridge — something which he would later deny having done, even though two of his contemporaries remembered seeing him there.” And so on. The book bristles with a pine forest’s worth of gripes and gotchas.

Wilson’s zeal, like that of most conspiracy theorists, only serves to undermine his case. From a psychological perspective, his portrait of Darwin just doesn’t add up. It’s hard to square Wilson’s portrayal of a brute, single-minded pursuit of scientific glory with the fact that Darwin spent almost two decades perfecting his theory, was nudged into publication by external circumstances, and spent the rest of his life far from the controversy his book unleashed, a mild-mannered and devoted husband and father.

Worldly ambition might be unattractive but it is hardly incriminating. In Darwin’s case, at least, it was never malevolent. In 1858, the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace sent him an essay making the case for evolution by natural selection — astonishingly, the two scientists had arrived at the same theory independently of one another. To his own surprise, Darwin was “ambushed by low emotions,” as the novelist Ian McEwan has put it. But rather than allow those emotions to cloud his sense of honor (how easy it would have been simply to destroy the essay, which had already spent several months in transit), he did as Wallace asked and forwarded it to the eminent Scottish geologist Charles Lyell. “So all my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed,” Darwin sighed. And yet: “I would far rather burn my whole book than that he or any man shd think that I had behaved in a paltry spirit.” In the end, Lyell sensibly commissioned a sketch of On the Origin of Species from Darwin and diplomatically arranged for the co-publication of his and Wallace’s ideas in the journal of the Linnean Society.

Wilson’s claim that Darwin wanted “sole possession” of his theory (what Wilson snarkily calls the “Darwinian brand”) is thus misleading, to say the least. Darwin repeatedly credited the many other scientists on whose work he drew — Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Robert Grant, and Edward Blyth, among others — and in a letter to Baden Powell in January 1860 said, “No educated person, not even the most ignorant, could suppose that I meant to arrogate to myself the origination of the doctrine that species had not been independently created.”


In addition to slandering Darwin’s character, Victorian Mythmaker makes three very broad claims about the Darwinian idea. The first is that the theory of descent with modification is too childishly simple to be true (and has in any case been more or less debunked by modern science). Second, that his theory of the struggle for existence was an idea borrowed from the economist Thomas Malthus, cruelly appropriated by Darwin as a consolation myth for the Victorian upper classes. Third, and following from the second claim, that Darwinism is partly responsible for Nazism. “It remains fair,” Wilson writes in his book’s conclusion, “to say that Darwin was a direct and disastrous influence, not only on Hitler, but on the whole mid-twentieth century political mindset.”

It’s a task for more scientifically literate commentators to point out the many errors Wilson commits in the course of his book, though in all fairness he does confess, in a moment of incontrovertible honesty, “I am not a scientist.” Still, if you’re going to claim that Darwin’s theories are wrong, you had better know what you’re talking about. Wilson doesn’t. He repeatedly “fudges” — to borrow a word he is very fond of — the science of the story he’s telling. It isn’t true, for example, that “New Genetics delivered [a] death blow” to Darwin’s theory of gradual and random mutations (almost the opposite is true), or that the PAX6 gene is a smoking gun at the Darwinian crime scene. Wilson repeatedly confuses species for individual organisms, and falsely claims there is no transitional fossil evidence (there is).

But worst of all, perhaps, is his repeated claim that Darwin’s theory of descent with modification was a “catch-all explanation.” Again and again, Wilson refers to Darwin’s “theory of everything.” Yet Darwin never thought his theory was sufficient for explaining anything other than how living organisms came to be what they are. Part of the reason it took him so many years to finally set about writing Origin is that he agonized over the many obvious flaws in his theory (a large number of which have since been refined). The paucity of the fossil record was something he openly admitted to. “We meet with no such evidence [of transitional fossils],” he writes in Origin, “and this is the most obvious and forcible of the many objections which may be urged against my theory.”

Wilson sometimes weirdly enlists Stephen Jay Gould in his anti-Darwinian crusade, yet Gould has written precisely of Darwin’s “eminently sensible pluralism,” his knowledge that natural selection, however important, was not the only mechanism of evolution. “I fully admit,” Darwin wrote to the American botanist Asa Gray in 1859, “that there are very many difficulties not satisfactorily explained by my theory of descent with modification, but I cannot possibly believe that a false theory would explain so many classes of facts, as I think it certainly does explain.” Similarly, he wrote in the introduction to Origin: “I am convinced that natural selection has been the main but not the exclusive means of modification” (my italics). Alas, as Darwin himself put it, in a revised edition of the same book: “Great is the power of steady misrepresentation.”

When Wilson turns to Darwin’s idea of “the struggle for existence,” however, he moves confidently from steady misrepresentation to simple caricature:

Darwin offered to the emergent Victorian middle class a consolation myth. He told them that all their getting and spending, all their neglect of their own poor huddled masses, all their greed and selfishness was in fact natural. It was the way things were. The whole of nature, arising from primeval slime and evolving through its various animal forms from amoebas to the higher primates, was on a journey of improvement, moving onwards and upwards, from barnacles to shrimps, from fish to fowl, from orang-outangs to silk-hatted Members of Parliament and leaders of British Industry.

Notice the ease with which the language degenerates into emotion (“greed and selfishness”) and ridicule (“silk-hatted Members of Parliament and leaders of British Industry”). Wilson wants to persuade us that Darwin’s worldview was a cruel one, blackened with the soot of Victorian iniquity, yet he does so by painting a picture of that worldview that is plainly a caricature. “The Malthus-Darwin picture of killer apes fighting their way to the top is simply untrue,” he writes. Well, of course it’s untrue: it doesn’t exist. No such picture is to be found anywhere in Darwin’s work. (Note, again, the cartoonish guffaw: “killer apes”!) Wilson repeatedly conflates Darwin’s ideas with Malthus’s, as though they were interchangeable. He does so because it suits his argument; it’s what allows him to make his broader, more sweeping accusations: “Eugenics was the natural consequence of Darwin’s Malthusianism.” Or this astonishing passage from a chapter on The Descent of Man (1871):

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

Here is the thrumming of pathological strings. The Descent of Man, in Wilson’s reading, is an exposition of Darwin’s belief in the superiority not only of his own person but of his class and race. Applying a breezy, tendentious reading of his work, Wilson bullies Darwin into expressing opinions and ideas from which he more than likely would have recoiled had he known about them. When that isn’t enough, Wilson knowingly omits material to further incriminate his victim. He quotes, for instance, a well-known and controversial passage from The Descent:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

Wilson quotes no further. Yet the original passage continues (with my italics):

The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil.

In the first edition of the book, Darwin had written “with a great and present evil.” The intensification to “overwhelming present evil,” in the second edition, indicates a firm belief on the part of the author that neglecting the weak and helpless would amount to a moral crime. In other words, A. N. Wilson makes Darwin mean the opposite of what he is saying.

But if not a eugenicist, was Darwin at least a racist? Wilson “undoubtedly” believes he was. Certainly Darwin shared in the many prejudices of the time in which lived. This is disappointing but hardly surprising. Yet here, too, Wilson makes his argument by omitting what doesn’t suit him. He makes almost no mention, for instance, of Darwin’s early sympathy for the abolitionist cause, his lifelong hatred of slavery. When Robert FitzRoy, the captain of the H. M. S. Beagle, told Darwin that he had visited a slave-owner in Brazil whose slaves all answered in the negative when asked if they wished to be freed, Darwin asked FitzRoy whether he thought that the “answers of slaves in the presence of their master was worth anything.” He spoke also of the “heart-sickening atrocities” he witnessed on the voyage, and in a 1833 letter to his father expressed his pride in the possibility of England becoming the first European nation to abolish slavery — “the greatest curse on Earth,” as he later called it. In his Voyage of the Beagle he put it more forcefully:

Those who look tenderly at the slave owner, and with a cold heart at the slave, never seem to put themselves into the position of the latter; – what a cheerless prospect, with not even a hope of change! picture to yourself the chance, ever hanging over you, of your wife and your little children – those objects which nature urges even the slave to call his own – being torn from you and sold like beasts to the first bidder!


Wilson attacks Darwin’s perceived worldview and in the process attempts, unsuccessfully, to undermine his scientific legacy. Philip Lieberman, a professor emeritus of Cognitive, Linguistic, and Psychological Sciences at Brown University, does almost the exact opposite: his new book, The Theory That Changed Everything: “On the Origin of Species” as a Work in Progress, is written with an infectious delight in the way that Darwin’s thinking continues to guide scientific inquiry across disciplines. What Wilson characterizes as a “childishly simple” theory becomes, significantly, a “brilliantly simple” one in Lieberman’s telling: “Any heritable variation that fosters the survival of an individual and its offspring will be retained,” he explains.

What is retained depends on the ecosystem, which for humans brings in culture […] The effects of natural selection are evident on the shelves of your supermarket, in the resistance to or susceptibility to disease, and in such seemingly disparate endeavors as being able to climb Mount Everest or enjoy ice cream.

Lieberman’s book is a bracing counterweight to the distortions of Wilson. “Probably no phrase in the history of science has been so misinterpreted,” Lieberman notes, as “the struggle for existence.” Drawing on the third chapter of Origin, he explains that Darwin used the term broadly (“in a large and metaphorical sense,” as Darwin himself put it) to encompass not only the violent competition for resources but also the complex web of interactions between species and their dependency on one another.

But even so, reading The Theory That Changed Everything, one realizes that Charles Darwin is one of those historical figures, like Orwell, too often fought over in a kind of intellectual tug-of-war. In his final chapter, Lieberman performs a useless parlor game of trying to guess what Darwin would think about climate change, GMOs, God, the evolution of language, et cetera. (The chapter is titled “What Would Darwin Think About…”) It’s like political commentators arguing over whether or not Orwell would have supported the invasion of Iraq.

Lieberman cannot help dolling up his image of Darwin. The idea, for instance, that Darwin’s encounters with the native tribes of Tierra del Fuego made it clear to him “that all people, of whatever color, are brothers and sisters,” is eye-rollingly mawkish. Yes, Darwin’s thinking led him to understand, as he put it in The Descent of Man, that all living organisms share a common descent. He understood that, in evolutionary terms, human beings in far-flung corners of the earth were not much different from one another. But that didn’t prevent him from viewing these natives as savages, or believing in the superiority of European civilization.

I share Lieberman’s frustration with the abuse of the idea of “the struggle for existence,” yet his “web of life” counter-image has its own limits. As Randal Keynes has shown, the underlying view of On the Origin of Species is quite a tragic one; the death of Darwin’s beloved young daughter Annie hardened Darwin’s secular conviction that divine intervention was a myth. Indeed, there is something sadly elegiac about the rather blandly consoling tone of the last two sentences of Origin’s chapter on “The Struggle for Existence”:

All that we can do, is to keep steadily in mind that each organic being is striving to increase at a geometrical ratio; that each at some period of its life, during some season of the year, during each generation or at intervals, has to struggle for life, and to suffer great destruction. When we reflect on this struggle, we may console ourselves with the full belief, that the war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt, that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.

In a private letter, Darwin was less consoling: “What a book a Devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low & horridly cruel works of nature!”

Lieberman rather diplomatically sidesteps the existential and religious implications raised by evolution, which lends his book an odd buoyancy. A. N. Wilson, on the other hand, simply cannot accept them. He wants there to be something “special” about human beings, wants there to be “compassion” and “cooperation” in the processes of nature. Darwin doggedly offers him none of this. “Instead of a Creator God, there was an inexorable process of blind nature,” Wilson dejectedly writes. “Rather than it being Love which ruled the sun and other stars, evolution could take place only as a result of a struggle, of warfare.”

It’s a telling moment. Wilson loves these false alternatives: either we accept Darwinism and man becomes wolf to man, or we cling to some other notion (religion, say) that commands us to love one another. In this respect, his thinking ironically resembles that of his favorite bête noire, Richard Dawkins: both writers are insistently uncharitable to opposing views, preferring to hector their readers with crude binaries. Darwin killed God! Darwinism is just ersatz religion! One is left with the impression that the terms of the debate finally say less about Darwin than they say about us.

When Alfred Russel Wallace read The Descent of Man in 1871, he wrote to Darwin: “Your chapters on ‘Man’ are of intense interest, but as touching my special heresy not as yet altogether convincing.” That special heresy was the idea that human beings are different from other animals; that our mental and spiritual activity, in the philosopher Philip Kitcher’s words, signal something new in the history of life, possibly even some “special creation.” Darwin was resolutely opposed to such an idea. “It is absurd to talk of one animal being higher than another,” he committed to his notebook. “Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy of the interposition of a deity, more humble & I believe true to consider him created from animals.”

The important task is to show that life matters despite its origins and evolution, that no special purpose or provenance is necessary for our lives to have meaning. We can see many recent attempts being made, across academic disciplines, to wrestle with aspects of this question, from the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s natural teleology to Jesper Hoffmeyer’s biosemiotics. A more attractive and practical resolution is offered by the aforementioned Kitcher, in his excellent book The Ethical Project, a convincing and eminently pragmatic argument for how ethical values have evolved over the course of centuries of human interaction. Yet the discrepancy between what we are and what we feel that we are will always exist. In the Norwegian novelist Arne Garborg’s great novel Weary Men (1891), the narrator, a writer and newspaper critic, sits on a hillside looking down on the fjord below:

I can sit up here on the hillside for hours on end, looking and looking and forgetting to think; and the world rushes off into nothingness and turns into the beautiful empty appearance that I believe it really is. Slowly, like an insect, a boat glides along the fjord in the glowing sunshine, and in the boat sits a human animal with its head full of tiny worries that it takes seriously.

Silence. Silence. Buzzing bumblebees, purling brooks. Light flashing and glittering. The rhythm of slow strokes of the oars. The tranquility of thousands of years. Isn’t it curious that this is, ultimately, nothing but hydrogen and oxygen, carbon and nitrogen, HO2 and HO3?

Yes, curious indeed. Thankfully.


Morten Høi Jensen is the author of A Difficult Death: The Life and Work of Jens Peter Jacobsen (2017).

LARB Contributor

Morten Høi Jensen is a writer and critic from Copenhagen, Denmark. He is the author of A Difficult Death: The Life and Work of Jens Peter Jacobsen (Yale University Press, 2017). Photo by Niels Hougaard / Kristeligt Dagblad.


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