The Times of London has gone down in my estimation with an appalling weekend essay on Darwin by the novelist and semi-intellectual A N Wilson, who after an atheist phase has returned to some kind of faith. Sadly his faith has not improved his intellectual discernment.
A wag visited Darwin’s statue in Shrewsbury!!
Wilson has a “radical” biography on Darwin due out in September 2017 and has given two tasters; one in the London Evening Standard, https://michaelroberts4004.wordpress.com/2017/08/07/charles-darwin-exposes-a-n-wilson-as-a-fraud/
and one in the Times https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/darwin-s-greatness-is-founded-on-a-myth-r0563g83q
As one , who for several decades has studied the letters and works of Darwin and also researched his Welsh geology of 1831 and 1837-41 through fieldwork https://michaelroberts4004.wordpress.com/2017/08/04/darwins-boulders/
Outcrop at Llanymynech
Darwin’s boulders at Cwm Idwal
I am familiar with much of his thought and development. (As a Christian – and vicar – I have also considered his religious views). Despite having been led to be negative towards him by American fundamentalists I slowly but surely developed a great respect for Darwin as a scientist and a caring man of integrity. I have transcribed many of his geological notes – pausing over words like “vomitory” or “mammified rocks”, reading innumerable letters , scientific papers and most of his books. Sadly, I don’t think Wilson has done any proper historical research and according to John Van Whye has used decades old studies, which have been superceded.
It is difficult not be angry over articles (and probably the biography ) of Wilson as they make so many unsubstantiated claims and seem only wishing to belittle a great scientist. His writing do not share the critical, yet sympathetic, approach of scholars like Janet Brown, Sandra Herbert, Rob Wesson , Jim Costa and many others. These do not go in for blind adulation but look at all the evidence carefully as I hope I do. Yes, Darwin made mistakes, as he did over Glen Roy in 1838 and many of his ideas are incomplete – often due to lack of knowledge as with genetics.
It does seem that Wilson is simply sceptical of Darwin’s science and I suspect he has been unduly influenced by the american Intelligent Design movement, whose loathing of Darwin is only exceeded by their inaccuracy, whether on Darwin’s alleged problem on the Cambrian Explosion or whether his ideas inspired Hitler.
Below is his Times essay interspersed with some comments.
Charles Darwin’s version of the evolutionary idea was presented to the world in 1859 with his book On the Origin of Species. It is often spoken of as a work of science. Some have even called it the greatest scientific work ever written. Whatever you make of it, it is a strange book. Most of its central contentions, such as the idea that everything in nature always evolves gradually, are now disbelieved by scientists, and the science of genetics has made much of it seem merely quaint.
It depends what is seen to be gradual. The history of our planet goes back 4.6 billion years and looked at from that time perspective is “gradual” though at times changes are more rapid, but still very gradual in human terms.
Yet it was so much more than a work of science. It was the great consolation myth for the Victorian middle classes. Darwin effectively told the Victorians: “Rather than trouble yourself by the gross selfishness of living with vast accumulated unearned wealth, carriage drives, servants and villas, tell yourself that the differences between rich and poor are just the way nature organised things.”
This explains its instant bestseller appeal. It also explains why there was a Darwinian revival in the 1980s, with the me-generation all trying to believe in “the selfish gene” as an explanation for why City slickers could earn hundreds of times more than the feckless “workers”, and why the market could make the first world so much richer than the third.
In Darwin’s scheme of things, the Victorian rich were the perfect expression of evolution. In perfecting itself, nature started with amoebas, and moved on through dinosaurs and flying lizards, fish, fowl and mammals until it came to the apes, so obviously like the poor savages of Tierra del Fuego or Papua New Guinea. Above the savages were the southern Europeans, above them the British and, at the top of the evolutionary pecking order, sat the great families of England, the Darwins, the Arnolds, the Huxleys and the Wedgwoods, who all intermarried and were obviously cleverer than anyone else.
some comments of remarkable silliness. Darwin also took concern on helping the poor
If the Origin of Species is only a scientific work, then it is unique in the history of science. Darwinism is the only scientific theory which was inspired, not by scientific experiment, not by observation in the field or the laboratory, but by reading a now-discredited work of economics — Thomas Malthus’s theory of population.
Malthus wrote at the juncture in history when Britain was threatened with starvation by the Napoleonic blockades. His theory was a simple one. There is a limited amount of food in the world. When it has all been eaten, any “surplus population” will inevitably starve. Wars, revolutions and all human calamities are ultimately caused by hunger or the fear of hunger.
This is simply contradicted by considering how Darwin’s thoughts on evolution developed. He read Malthus in September 1838 but crucially had finished his Notebook B in January 1838. Here he made an argument for evolution from his knowledge of the the fossil succession. He could see the change of species but could not explain the HOW. On this he was like his predecessors. But Malthus, Blyth and Matthew gave the germ of the idea of Natural Selection giving a How of evolution. Wilson got it wrong. Darwin was working from field observations both of living and fossil creatures.
Once the Napoleonic wars were over, the population of Europe soared. So did the food supply. Instances of starvation occurred most notoriously in Ireland in the 1840s, where the selfish landlords, many of them absentee, insisted on exporting huge quantities of grain while the peasant population, dependent on the potato, died of hunger. The Westminster government was scandalously late in reacting, partly because it believed that the potato famine was a Malthusian “solution” to the “problem” of a large, anti-English, Roman Catholic population. In other words, Ireland was not a demonstration of the truth of Malthusianism, it was a victim of it. We find similar, and much more alarming examples, later in history, when Darwin’s ideas were used to justify genocide and mass murder.
Darwin was a war baby, born in 1809 during Napoleon’s attempt to starve the country. In the previous 50 years, British stock breeders, taking a leaf out of the book of racehorse breeders, had begun to vary and increase the amount of eatable livestock. This was the era when the Aberdeen Angus and the Gloucester Old Spot first appeared. It was the Royal Navy in 1805, and the British and German armies in 1815, that defeated Napoleon, but the farmers and fishermen did their bit. Nevertheless, the memory of Britain’s Malthusian years lingered. Dickens’s Scrooge, with his snarling contempt for the “surplus population”, was conceived in the 1840s when Darwin was writing his first version of his famous theory, and showed how powerfully the central idea of Malthus survived.
Darwin had several reasons for wishing to conceal where his evolutionary ideas came from. He was acutely conscious that the most famous evolutionary scientist in British history was his own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin who, 70 years before the Origin of Species, had posited the idea that life had a single origin, from which all the different species evolved.
When Charles Darwin went as a medical student to Edinburgh University, he found a lively scientific scene and attended the lectures of those who were avid readers, not only of Erasmus Darwin, but also of the French evolutionists, such as Lamarck, Cuvier and Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. Darwin’s tutors, Robert Grant and Robert Jameson, made sure that he was up to date with the huge progress that had been made in evolutionary science in their day.
Why, when he grew to be famous as the author of the Origin of Species, did he play down the importance of what he had learnt at Edinburgh? Why did he imply, in his autobiography, that his grandfather’s work had no influence upon him? Why did he make so little reference to Grant, for example, who had set him thinking about the problems of evolutionary science, and to their solutions?
Erasmus Darwin wrote his ideas on evolution in verse and did not give much on a scientific basis of evolution. That is what was lacking in all his evolutionary predecessors.
One of the reasons is that Darwin, as well as being a supremely observant and talented naturalist and collector of specimens, was also boundlessly ambitious. His hero was Alexander von Humboldt, of whom Napoleon quipped (with some accuracy) that he was the most famous man in Europe. He was a universal genius who had travelled the world as a scientist-explorer-discoverer and returned to explain the mystery of life itself to Europeans agog for the answer.
Darwin was not content just to be a Victorian beetle-collector on a pennyfarthing bicycle. He had set his sights much higher and he ruthlessly refused to acknowledge his sources. When the Origin of Species was first published, Darwin received many letters of complaint from fellow scientists such as Baden Powell, father of the founder of the Scout movement, pointing out that he had not acknowledged their work.
BP’s letter no longer exists and from remarks about it was not a letter of complaint. There may have been a few letters, but not the “many” of Wilson. This is shoddy scholarship.
Darwin was a weird mixture of being intensely shy and stridently in need of cutting a dashDarwin was also scared of upsetting the apple cart. Erasmus Darwin had been accused, together with Darwin’s other grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood, the great potter-entrepreneur-industrialist, of sympathy with the French revolution. They were watched by the secret service. One of the chief reasons, after the Napoleonic wars, why British scientists fought shy of French evolutionary ideas was that they associated them with revolutionary ideas. The two things went hand in hand, and, of course, simple-minded creationism — the idea that God had simply plonked species down on earth in an immutable form — was indeed at variance with scientific truth.
Darwin was a weird mixture of being intensely shy and stridently in need of cutting a dash. He wanted to be famous, but he did not want the limelight. He was a liberal in politics, but in every aspect of life he was a small-c conservative. It horrified him that anyone would associate him with the revolutionary ideas that had animated Erasmus and Josiah. Before he died, he wrote a short autobiography for his children and in it any reference to 19th-century evolutionary biology before Charles had lived is blithely airbrushed from the story.
Why put so negatively/ It was not mentioned rather than air-brushed. It was a private autobiography more than anything else
A generation later, and the Darwinian faith had evolved the story of the master’s Damascene conversion to the theory of natural selection while he was a young man on HMS Beagle, sailing to the Galapagos Islands. We all know the story. Darwin noticed the different finches, from island to island, and how they had different-shaped beaks. It was here that he saw the phenomenon of descent by gradual modification happening before his very eyes.
What actually happened was this. Darwin sent back a vast number of specimens collected during the voyage of the Beagle. The notion is propounded that a revolution was taking place in his views on the immutability of species. As a matter of fact, Darwin failed to identify most of the finch specimens that he collected on the Galapagos as finches at all. Some he labelled blackbirds, others “gross beaks” and one a wren. He gave them to the Ornithological Society of London, who gave them to John Gould, an ornithological illustrator, to be identified. It was Gould, not Darwin, who recognised that they were all distinct species of finch.
So what, Darwin was more interested in the geology of the Galpagos
It was Captain FitzRoy, not Darwin, who made collections of finches and labelled them correctly, and, as Harvard University’s Frank Sulloway demonstrated in 1982, it was FitzRoy’s identification of the differences between the finches which enabled Gould to make his remarkable observations.
Darwin’s Descent of Man is an absurd, embarrassing book. I wonder sometimes how many Darwinians have actually read it to the endDarwin never mentioned the differences between the finches in the Origin of Species, even though, during the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of publication, Gould’s drawings of the Galapagos finches were reproduced again and again as if they were Darwin’s “discovery”. Moreover, Peter and Rosemary Grant, evolutionary biologists from Princeton University, spent over 25 summers studying these birds, mainly on the island of Daphne Major. They revealed that the beak changes were reversible. This is hardly “evolution”.
Beaks adapted from season to season depending upon whether droughts left large, tough seeds, or heavy rainfall resulted in smaller, softer seeds. Even had Darwin noticed the supposed evolution of finches’ beaks on the Galapagos Islands and thereby become an instantaneous convert to his famous theory, the epiphany would have been wrong.
We see here a classic evolution of mythology. And this is not surprising. Because Darwinism, as opposed to some of his groundbreaking work of natural history, such as in his studies of barnacles and earthworms, and his wonderful book on the expression of emotions in animals, was a religion from the start.
The Gloucester Old Spot and the Aberdeen Angus were not the only new hybrids which evolved through stockbreeding in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. An entirely new class came into being then, the class to which Darwin himself belonged. The rentier or upper-middle class provided Victorian England with almost all its intellectuals. They were in effect a new aristocracy and they fashioned the Victorian way of looking at the world.
It is not true that Victorian England was a pious place, nor that the majority of thinking women and men were simple Bible Christians who lost their faith when they read Darwin. Most 19th-century intellectuals were agnostics or atheists and Christians such as Gladstone or Newman were the exceptions. Most of these people longed for what a neo-Darwinian of the 20th century, Richard Dawkins, said was something that “made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist”.
This is a naive and historically poor summary of Victorian thought and like his awful book on the Victorians. Here he airbrushes out Christians who did so much in science; Faraday, Joule, Kelvin, Sedgwick . He seems to be revivig the descredited warfare of science and religion
They believed they had found it in the extreme simplicity of Darwin’s theory that an impersonal force of nature, discarding the weak and promoting the strong, inexorably explains absolutely everything.
This is very simplisitic on the likes of Huxley and Hooker
In the Origin of Species, he had not mentioned the human race at all. In his Descent of Man, he finally admitted how he thought humanity had evolved. It is an absurd, indeed embarrassing, book. I wonder sometimes how many Darwinians have actually read it to the end. It tells us that savages such as he met in Tierra del Fuego spoke largely in grunts and had almost no vocabulary. Yet missionaries visited the place not long after Darwin and compiled a dictionary of their language, finding they possessed a vocabulary of over 30,000 words.
If Darwin had been right, the fittest, that is white, middle-class people, would predominate over the Irish and savages. The opposite appeared to be happeningBoth sinisterly, and ludicrously, the Descent of Man suggests that the survival of the fittest was not, in fact, occurring in Victorian Britain. If Darwin had been right, the fittest, that is white, middle-class people, would predominate over the Irish and savages. The opposite appeared to be happening. Darwin made it clear that he thought something would have to be done to correct this troubling state of affairs. His cousin Francis Galton took up the suggestion and pioneered the “science” of eugenics, in which he openly advocated making it illegal for savages and the working classes to breed. We all know where that led in the time of the national socialists, but we sometimes blind ourselves to the source of Hitler’s ideas.
Here we go – Darwin leads to social Darwinism (not) and that led to Hitler’s genocide. A spurious argument
It was not long before Darwin’s Descent had awoken Britain to a fear of “race suicide”. Sidney Webb, one of the leading left-wing social engineers of his generation and who helped draft the constitution of the Labour Party, feared Britain was “gradually falling to the Irish and the Jews” owing to their high rate of reproduction.
Webb, in common with HG Wells, George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill, shared the view that middle-class women would be “shirking in their duty” if they did not have families to outnumber those of the feckless poor. Less than 30 years would elapse between boring little Sidney Webb expressing the fear that his country would fall to the Irish and the Jews, and another European country, Germany, enacting the Reich Citizenship Law, the Marital Health Law and the Nuremberg Laws for racial segregation.
All were based on bogus Victorian science, much of which had started life in the gentle setting of Darwin’s study at Down House, near Bromley in Kent.
This is simply risible as anyone who has even dipped into Darwin’s incredible scientific output. He began as a geologist writing 3 works on the geology of the Beagle voyage recently described so well by Rob Wesson , an American seismologist who is an expert on South america https://www.amazon.co.uk/Darwins-First-Theory-Exploring-Quest/dp/1681773163/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1503746212&sr=1-1&keywords=rob+wesson and of course the geology he did in the UK https://michaelroberts4004.wordpress.com/2017/08/04/darwins-boulders/
or a recent work by Jim Costa, an american biologist on all Darwin’s scientific work carried out while living at Downe House, from earthworms, climbing plants, orchids etc https://www.amazon.co.uk/Darwins-Backyard-Small-Experiments-Theory/dp/0393239896/ref=sr_1_5?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1503689158&sr=1-5&keywords=costa+james
Now if these are bogus science then so is the work of Einstein and Hawking. This is a remarkably silly comment, but sums up the quality and perception of Wilson’s study of Darwin