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

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“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.

Getty

Charles Dar­win, pho­tographed in 1878.

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