Sarah Perry on AN Wilson’s less than flattering biography of Charles Darwin
This new biography seems determined to cast Darwin in a bad light, writes Sarah Perry
“Darwin was wrong,” begins AN Wilson in this entertaining and maddening book. Thus having tossed a dead pigeon upon the picnic rug, he gleefully sets about ruining everybody’s lunch. The originator of “the single greatest idea anybody ever had” was, we are told, an intellectual thief, a morose hypochondriac, objectionably flatulent, obnoxiously ambitious and – worst of all – mistaken.
The author follows Darwin from boyhood bereavement to the deck of the Beagle, thence to Down House and the publication of On the Origin of Species , evoking the epistemological hurly-burly of the mid-Victorian age in stylish prose. These are vividly peopled pages: here is the pious depressive Robert FitzRoy, captain of the Beagle, fretfully clutching his bible; here is Emma Darwin, who preferred her husband sickly to well. Episodes are narrated with Dickensian energy: the tubercular death of Annie Darwin is highly affecting; there’s comical verve in the scene of the Oxford debate at which “Soapy Sam” Wilberforce inquired of Thomas Henry Huxley if he was descended from an ape on the paternal or maternal line, and much enjoyment to be had in watching Darwin scrutinise the sexual organs of barnacles, puzzling over their relevance to his nascent theory.
Such are the book’s pleasures; but it contains, so to speak, no small number of missing links. The author deplores Darwin’s lifelong failure “to acknowledge intellectual debts and influences” – yet in just one paragraph of On the Origin of Species the reader will find a debt to William Buckland and his “long ago” remarks; to “our great palaeontologist”, Richard Owen; and to Joachim Barrande, than whom “a higher authority could not be named”. There are accounts of contemporaries very nearly pipping Darwin to the post – Alfred Wallace, who presented a paper with Darwin to the Linnean Society; Edward Blyth, whose work on the transmutation of the species faltered with the failure of his druggist’s shop – but this is evidence less of Darwin’s overweening ambition than of his operating within the zeitgeist of the age.
Elsewhere, Wilson ponders the influence on Darwin of Malthusian economics, and the theory that since food supply can never match population growth, humanity must be forever locked in a struggle in which only the ruthlessly self-interested can survive. Parallels with the proposition that adaptations within species enable survival are obvious; less obvious is Wilson’s suggestion that Darwin favoured Malthusian thought because it bolstered his sense of “superiority to the working class”, and his entitlement to personal wealth.
One begins to feel that Wilson is motivated by personal dislike, as if he was once cut by Darwin at a party and has since nursed l’esprit
d’escalier . That Darwin endured chronic gastric distress is depicted as a failure of mind, not of body; his grief at the early death of his mother is portrayed as “mindless brooding”. Pondering Darwin’s confession that notwithstanding reservations over church doctrine he “liked the thought of being a country clergyman”, Wilson wonders if money was the sole allure, adding waspishly: “Dons love money. They can smell it ” – as if the rest of us simply can’t abide the stuff.
Wilson evokes the epistemological hurly-burly of the mid-Victorian age in stylish prose
It is no mean task for a reviewer untutored beyond a general grasp of evolutionary theory to assess to what extent Wilson’s critique of Darwin is inaccurate. But even the lay reader – certainly one who has seen, for example, the fossil Archaeopteryx lithographica in the Natural History Museum – will frown at the book’s thesis that an absence of “transitional forms” in the fossil record fatally undermines Darwin. Wilson cites the palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who “quipped that the absence of transitional forms was ‘the trade secret of palaeontology’”– but Gould himself, exasperated at having offered grist to the creationist mill, said: “It is infuriating to be quoted… as admitting that the fossil record includes no transitional forms.”
Wilson states quite baldly that Darwin would respond in the negative to the question posed by an enslaved man on his grandfather Josiah Wedgwood’s abolition medallion, “Am I not a man and brother?”, and surmises that Darwinism informs Nazi ideology. Certainly Darwin betrayed the parochial bigotry of the 19thcentury Englishman: he referred to the “immense mongrel population of Negroes and Portuguese”, and viewed Tahitian women with open distaste. (As an aside, this failure on Darwin’s part to enter priapic rapture at the sight of naked women causes Wilson to glance confidingly at the reader and raise the “unanswerable question of Darwin’s sexuality”).
No special pleading that these are views typical of the 19th century can mitigate the disfavour with which they should be met; but the argument does not evolve from here that Darwin supported the slave trade. His opposition to it was adamant and sustained. In 1861 he wrote to the American botanist Asa Gray deploring slavery as “the greatest curse on Earth”. This was no off-hand remark: in 1863 he wrote again, expressing the hope that Lincoln’s “fiat against slavery” would succeed; in 1866 he celebrated the “grand, magnificent fact that slavery is at an end”. Indeed, it might be argued that a belief in the fundamental equality of man is logically essential to Darwin’s assertion that humans descended equally from a common ancestor – an assertion running counter to the scientific racism in circulation in the 19th century, when Arthur de Gobineau’s repellent essay On the Inequality of the Human Races had popular appeal.
This book, with its elisions, inaccuracies, vivid set pieces and palpable dislike for its subject, has I suspect achieved its end: the air is thick with ruffled feathers. Perhaps it will be looked on most fondly by those who find proponents of the new atheism intractable and priggish: they may well take enormous pleasure in watching a scholarly gentleman in a butcher’s apron approaching a sacred cow.
Charles Darwin, photographed in 1878.