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Charles Darwin by A.N. Wilson

Charles Darwin by A.N. Wilson
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In this “deliberately provocative” biography, A.N. Wilson sets out to debunk the image of Charles Darwin as a “pre-eminent Victorian”, said Daisy Goodwin in The Times. Wilson claims that the naturalist, far from being a towering genius, was a ruthless egomaniac driven by the desire to be seen as a “great man of science”. To this end, he stole other people’s discoveries and tailored his ideas to suit the “ethos” of his class: Darwinism was less an objective theory than a “belief system” designed to convince “the Victorian well-to-do” that their success in life was fully deserved. Not surprisingly, the book has “stirred up a storm of criticism”, with some claiming that Wilson lacks the expertise to challenge Darwin’s theories. Yet however “disputable” his scientific judgements, Wilson is a first-rate biographer, and he does an admirable job of placing Darwin “in the context of his time”.

Many of Wilson’s claims are not “remotely new”, said Kathryn Hughes in The Guardian. It is well known that Darwin drew on the efforts of others, just as it has been acknowledged for decades that his version of nature “bears a striking resemblance to mid-Victorian Britain”. Where Wilson goes further is in suggesting that Darwin was also a “proto-eugenicist” who may have been “secretly sympathetic to slavery”. Yet there is simply “no evidence” for this “egregious slur”, beyond the fact that Darwin was “an Englishman with the usual prejudices of his time”. Wilson’s book is subtitled Victorian Mythmaker, but he “might have more accurately called it J’Accuse”.

This “hugely enjoyable” biography is written with a “novelist’s imaginative touch”, said Robert Douglas-Fairhurst in The Spectator. Wilson is particularly good on his subject’s eccentricities – the fact that he called his wife “Mammy”, for example, or that his study “included a curtained-off chamber pot for gastric emergencies”. However, his book will be “read in certain scientific circles to the background noise of teeth being ground and knives being sharpened”. And rightly so, said Adrian Woolfson in the London Evening Standard, because Wilson’s handling of evolutionary theory is “mischievous and ultimately misleading”. With a few modifications, Darwin’s theories have stood the test of time, so to claim that “Darwinism has been supplanted by scientific evidence” is simply “incorrect”. Wilson may be a “magnificent social biographer”, but here, unfortunately, he has been “consumed by the alluring quicksand of hubris and scientific ignorance”.

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