Evolution may or may not be a religion, as its critics aver, but it certainly has a holy saint who must not be criticized: Charles Darwin.
It’s been hilarious to observe the outrage, the fury, the uncontrollable rage pouring out from committed evolutionists who are horrified by the perceived blasphemies in the latest book by British novelist and biographer A. N. Wilson, Charles Darwin, Victorian Mythmaker. Not just because Wilson doesn’t think much of Darwin’s theory of natural selection (he doesn’t), but because Wilson doesn’t think much of Darwin, period. That rankles. You must not say anything unkind about the selfless scientist who labored for decades at his study in rural Kent to develop his theories for the benefit of the rest of us. And if you do, there will be hell (or at least an extinction event) to pay.
The Washington Post assigned its review of Wilson’s book to Jerry Coyne, a recently retired longtime professor of evolution and ecology at the University of Chicago. Coyne is also America’s best-known proselytizer for Darwinism (in such media outlets as the New York Times and the New Republic), as well as a tireless foe of creationists, “intelligent design” advocates, and, indeed anyone who believes that God played the teeniest role in guiding a multi-million-year process, one of whose end products was us. Coyne’s blog, Why Evolution Is True, is replete with such assertions as “Prayer is ineffectual,” and surprise that a devout Catholic among his scientist colleagues actually believes the “frankly, ridiculous” notion that Jesus rose from the dead.
Coyne is appalled that Wilson finds Darwin—a notorious eccentric and hypochondriac who installed a privy in a corner of his study so as to monitor his digestion, and had his little daughter’s pet cat destroyed after the feline mauled one of the pigeons whose natural-selection habits her father was studying—to have been less than morally perfect. One of Wilson’s arguments is that Darwin stole his theory of evolution from his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, and passed it off as his own. Writes the enraged Coyne: “Where Darwin’s other biographers have seen a sensitive and kindly man, a scrupulous scientist who willingly credited his predecessors, Wilson finds a greedy ‘self-mythologizer’ desperate to become famous, even if it required ignoring or plagiarizing his forerunners and fellow naturalists.”
In a review for New Scientist, John van Wyhe, a historian of science at the National University of Singapore (and founder of the website Darwin Online), writes: “Wilson bashes Darwin for supposed arrogance, dishonesty and incompetence and trots out a long line of old anti-Darwin myths”: “Unreliable and inaccurate” is van Wyhe’s ultimate assessment. Writing for the U.K. Evening Standard, Adrian Woolfson, formerly a Charles and Katharine Darwin research fellow at Darwin College, Cambridge, declares: “Wilson proceeds to transform the charming, self-effacing, beetle-crazy and endearing gentleman naturalist into a ruthless egomaniac whose evolutionary theory was retrofitted to defend an unwholesome ideology and furnish a mandate for the excesses of Victorian materialism.”
I have no idea myself whether Charles Darwin was a “self-effacing” and “endearing” beetlemaniac—a Mahatma Gandhi of biology, so to speak—as his fans claim, or a cat-killing, digestive tract-obsessed egotist and plagiarist, as Wilson seems to think. But one thing is clear: Wilson has gotten under the skin of people who make at least part of their living promoting Darwin.
There is a reason for that. Wilson, a devoted Christian as a young man (he had successively been an Anglican, a Roman Catholic, and an Anglican again), lost his religious faith during the late 1980s. He published a militant secularist tract, Against Religion, in 1990, and in subsequent years biographies of Jesus and Paul of Tarsus, presenting the former as a kindly Jewish rabbi whose memory was traduced by his fanatical followers and the latter as an out-and-out nutcase. Wilson hobnobbed with celebrity atheists who would have been on Jerry Coyne’s A-list: Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens. But then, as Wilson wrote in an eloquent 2009 article for The New Statesman, his long-repudiated Christian faith crashed back against him like the tide against a jetty. In a harbinger of his Darwin book he wrote:
Do materialists really think that language just “evolved”, like finches’ beaks, or have they simply never thought about the matter rationally? Where’s the evidence? How could it come about that human beings all agreed that particular grunts carried particular connotations? How could it have come about that groups of anthropoid apes developed the amazing morphological complexity of a single sentence, let alone the whole grammatical mystery which has engaged Chomsky and others in our lifetime and linguists for time out of mind? No, the existence of language is one of the many phenomena—of which love and music are the two strongest—which suggest that human beings are very much more than collections of meat. They convince me that we are spiritual beings, and that the religion of the incarnation, asserting that God made humanity in His image, and continually restores humanity in His image, is simply true.
And this is the threat to the proselytizers of Darwinism that Wilson and his book present. It’s why only about a third of all Americans believe that pure natural selection—without any divine guidance or intervention—accounts for today’s array of living beings, including ourselves.
It’s not surprising that Wilson, in his Darwin biography, finds the master’s theories wanting. Evolution, particularly evolutionary psychology, can be a useful heuristic in reminding us how similar we are to other animals, our kin, but when you go hunting through the fossil record for hard evolutionary evidence, you always come up . . . a little short. Yes, there seem to have been dinosaurs with feathers (presumably bird ancestors), but paleontologists continue to classify the extinct creatures as reptiles. There’s a “transitional” fish from the Devonian period, which artists like to draw with little legs like on the atheist bumper sticker—but the actual fossils, recovered in Nunavut, Canada, in 2004, are only of the fish’s head, whose bone structure seemed adapted to taking in air on shallow mud flats.
A. N. Wilson may have written a bad, unfair, inaccurate, and error-ridden biography of Charles Darwin. But he has homed in on something real and obviously troubling to Darwin’s disciples: the vulnerability of Darwin’s personality and his theories.
Charlotte Allen is a writer living in Washington, D.C.