“DARWIN BASHING”, a review by Joanny Moulin.
Charles Darwin, Victorian Mythmaker
by Andrew Norman Wilson
London: John Murray, 2017
448 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1444794908
The main temptation to read A. N. Wilson’s Charles Darwin, Victorian Mythmaker is that it presents itself as a “damning biography”, written by a latter-day discipline of Lytton Stratchey, the great “debunker” and paragon of the New Biography: Wilson clearly sets out to tilt at the impavid statue of another eminent Victorian. Alas! His attempt soon proves Quixotic. Wilson’s tone and style are those of the polemicist, and he declares his intention in capital letters from the very start: ‘DARWIN WAS WRONG. That was the unlooked-for conclusion to which I was inexorably led while writing this book.’ This is a biographie à thèse, although the exact nature of Wilson’s thesis is rationalized only in the last chapters. To begin with, Wilson’s take is that Darwin’s theory was less a purely scientifically valid proposal that the produce of his historical time and social class: a vision of the world chiefly inspired by Malthus’s economics that operated as a justification of the bourgeoisie of which Charles Darwin was the unrepentant offspring. This pushing at open doors is the pretext to an unrelenting aggression, no doubt partly motivated by class resentment, as Wilson’s father was once an employee of Wedgwood’s, the family of Charles Darwin’s mother, Susannah, and of his wife, Emma, who was also his cousin. ‘It remains to be seen, as this class dies out, to be replaced by quite different social groupings, whether the Darwinian idea will survive, or whether, like other cranky Victorian fads’.
The syllogism on which this argument is based, as if to say: Darwinism is the doctrine of the survival of the fittest, and Darwin’s social class is being replaced by others at the top of the ladder, therefore Darwinism, especially social Darwinism is not scientifically valid, is disturbingly based on approximations, often so gross that they amount to falsehoods. For instance, Wilson purposefully forgets that ‘the survival of the fittest’ was not Darwin’s phrase in the first instance, and that Darwin himself said nothing at all of the social applications of his theory, which were developed later by some of his followers. That these remarks will eventually be made, very late in the book and as if grudgingly, does not exonerate the biographer from the fault of having ignored them in the first place. Paradoxically, Wilson practises a kind of implicit ‘Darwinism’, as if science was a matter of struggle between various theories, and scientific truth the result of the survival of the fittest of those at a given historical time.
To such approximations and blunt assertions made in blatant bad faith must be added a number of factual errors with which the book is literally ridden, but to point them out would not only be tedious, it would mean entering the lists of the time-worn polemic between defender and detractors of Darwin, which is precisely the sterile terrain on which Wilson hopes to thrive. By an inversion of the most arrant tricks of hagiography, Wilson insists on reading into the childhood of Charles Darwin the signs of his supposed intellectual dishonesty. The very title of the book, Charles Darwin, Victorian Mythographer, implies that Darwin was deliberately insincere from the start, as a man and therefore as a scientist. For instance, the biographer pounces on Darwin’s own confession, in his autobiography, of his propensity to tell fibs as a child, to jump to the conclusion that he was constitutionally dishonest: ‘“I may here also confess that as a little boy I was much given to inventing deliberate falsehoods, and this was always done for the sake of causing excitement.” The solipsism and the dishonesty would scarcely be worth mentioning in so small a child, were it not that both characteristics were carried on into grown-up life.’
In like manner, Wilson denies Darwin’s endorsement of Darwin-Wedgwood family’s involvement in the anti-slavery movement, going as far as to imply that his personal response to the question on the well-known Wedgwood medallion, “Am I not a man and brother?” was most certainly negative. On the contrary, in his narrative of the voyage of the Beagle, the biographer omits the episode of Darwin’s row with Fitzroy on the question of slavery, and his explicit disgust when he witnessed the behaviour of slaveholding planters in Brazil, but emphasizes every word in Darwin’s writing that do unfortunately reflect Victorian racial prejudices, which by twenty-first-century standards are bound to be deemed politically incorrect, to impart that in fact Darwin was a racist, and that he implicitly condoned in advance the social Darwinism and eugenics of some Darwinians, going as far as to imply that Darwin paved the way for Nazism. ‘Of these myths,’ write Wilson in the last chapter, ‘one of the most potent is the Darwinian belief that “all of nature is a constant struggle between power and weakness, a constant struggle of the strong over the weak”.’ […] ‘(The sentence I quoted at the end of the last paragraph was, of course, spoken not by Darwin or Huxley but by Adolf Hitler in a speech entitled “World Jewry and World Markets, the Guilty Men of the World War”.)’
This is guerrilla tactics: the biographer is dogging his subject at the heels, constantly on the lurk for the next opportunity to bite. From beginning to end, we are served with a drab, factually dubious narrative, interlarded with scathingly judgemental interventions by the biographer. Two drives, shooting at cross purposes, pull the narrative forward: chronology and criticism. Wilson is unravelling the yarn of Darwin’s life, leaving no stone unturned to find what his critical verve could pounce upon, declaring that he ‘would be cautious about judging men and women of the nineteenth century by the standards of the twenty-first’, yet constantly doing so in the same breath. On the whole, Wilson keeps looking down on Darwin, in a typical illustration of what C. S. Lewis called ‘”chronological snobbery”: the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited’ (Surprised by Joy).
What makes this a bad biography has nothing to do with the biographer’s opinions about his subject, or with his polemical style as such, but everything with his lack of subtlety and deontological responsibility as a writer. In other words, Wilson has jettisoned any idea of the indispensable self-discipline of a biographer to avoid a posture of omniscience that is purely a benefit of hindsight, and makes no effort whatsoever to try and understand the personages in their own time, but on the contrary, he manifests a willingness, and insistence on not doing so. If reading his book is an aesthetic experience of sorts, it is a negative one, very similar to that of reading one of those pulp fiction novels where awkward scenes of sex and violence are interspersed by lengthy passages that seem to be dull on purpose to create cheap suspense. Thus, the life narrative stretches are the run-of-the-mill episodes of Darwin’s well-known life, written out without any innovation or dramatization, watered down by unessential detailed portrayals of secondary characters, that serve as the background against which the next bilious onslaught of the biographer’s discourse will soon flare up.
Towards the middle of the book, one realizes that the writing oscillates between two modes: narration, or the life story, and argumentation, or the unfolding of the biographer’s discourse in reflexive commentaries. Some chapters, one feels, are predominantly narrative with a discursive minor, others the other way around, in irregular alternation. This goes on roughly for two thirds of the book, until the year 1859. Then, with the publication of the On the Origin of Species, Wilson shifts over to summarizing the main argument of Darwin’s work, and criticizing it from the point of view of 20th and 21st century science, convoking a plethora of modern scientists, among whom Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, Michael Denton, Dan-Eric Nilsson and Susanne Pelger, etc. Meanwhile, the biographer addresses the readers to comment on the versions of the Origin they have probably read, staging himself at his writing desk, describing the physical aspect of the sources, again relentlessly casting doubt on Darwin’s honesty, comparing him to a conjuror, as if he had been a mere self-server, propounding a theory that he knew to be false in his self-serving thirst for fame.
Putting aside matters of opinion and literary good manners, the major problem is that Wilson is transgressing the codes of the genre, stepping out of the biography into the essay, or more exactly the pamphlet. It is not a case of hybridization of the genres, but of code-shifting. Wilson is constantly jumping over the fence and back, leaving the stage as a biographer to reappear immediately in a pamphleteer’s costume, and then vice versa. The problem is not that a so-called ‘reading pact’ be breached, but that by doing so Wilson loses his credibility both as biographer and as pamphleteer. The result is farcical, Wilson’s antics producing an effect of involuntary humour, very much like a struggling stand-up artist, or a ventriloquist whose puppet interrupts him in an obstreperous voice and register. In other words, Wilson’s chronological snobbery goes into overdrive, and becomes caricatural.
Wilson’s role model is clearly Lytton Stratchey: he inherits his bias against yet another ‘eminent Victorian’, but without Strachey’s wit and humour, and from a standpoint rendered inefficient by the overextended time gap, as the satirical debunking of the Victorian simply cannot have the same relevance today as one century ago. In this respect, Wilson’s imitation Stracheyan style is as outdated as a ventriloquist’s show: it is hopelessly Kitsch. Furthermore, Wilson commits a variant of Stachey’s redhibitory fault of style in Elizabeth and Essex, where the ‘New Biographer’ mixed fiction with non-fiction. Writing an essay to demonstrate, or a pamphlet to castigate, the supposed ineptitude of Darwin’s theory is one thing. Writing Darwin’s biography is another, because the arguments against the enduring validity of Darwin’s theory are not to be found in Darwin’s life, but in the afterlife of his work. Wilson would have had a point if he could have demonstrated that Darwin was a ‘mythographer’ in the sense that he deliberately set out, in his own time, to produce a myth, that is to say a fake theory, motivated only by his yearning for fame and riches. But that is not what Wilson is doing; although he repeatedly insinuates as much, his work as a biographer strictly speaking relentlessly demonstrates the contrary against his better knowledge. The shifting over from a narration of Darwin’s life to a discussion of the reception of Darwin’s theory would have been critically profitable as long as it remained historically consistent. The anachronism of assessing Darwin’s theory from the vantage point of ulterior knowledge — see for instance Wilson’s use of modern genetics: ‘Darwin wrote in complete ignorance of the modern science of genetics, and what he knew of embryology was, by the standards of our times, primitive in the extreme’—is damaging to the biographer’s work, not to his subject’s, because on the epistemological level it is a gross fault of method, while on the level of aesthetics it is a grotesque fault of taste, and on the deontological ground it is dreadfully inelegant.
For all its failings, Wilson’s book deserves some degree of critical redemption when he eventually explains his point, showing that he was perhaps not motivated so much by a hatred of Darwin, as by sheer disbelief, considering that Darwin’s theory does not hold water as an overall explanation of the world, and that it deserves to be deconstructed, just as ‘Freud and Marx have been toppled from their thrones in our own day’, as the ‘great narrative’ or ‘ideology’ that Wilson says it is, without having necessarily got to be replaced by an alternative theory. Here, Wilson the belated Romantic evokes John Keats, vindicating ‘negative capability’, that is, ‘when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’, the latter being, in Wilson’s eyes, ‘the foundation of the modern obsession with science.’
It seems most likely that A. N. Wilson started off to write yet another biography of Darwin, and that in the course of his work his ideas about Darwinism matured to the point of entailing a mutation of his project into a pamphlet on evolution theory. The other option may be that he deliberately set out to use the popular genre of biography as a potentially powerful vector for his ideas about the theory of evolution today. One way or another, he opted for a losing strategy, because by mixing the two genres, or rather by superimposing to different projects onto one another, he has exposed himself to unavoidably negative criticism on both sides. It is a well-known anecdote that the publisher John Murray III said that he considered the Origin of Species ‘as absurd as contemplating a fruitful union between a poker and a rabbit’, but decided to publish it all the same because he thought the book would be much discussed. Although it falls very short of equalling Darwin in scandalous fame, Wilson’s Darwin, also published by John Murray, sets out to puncture the myth of the great man, and is deservedly skewered in critical discussions.
Aix Marseille Univ, LERMA, Aix-en-Provence, France.
Joanny Moulin is Professor of English literature at the DEMA, Department of English Studies, Aix Marseille Univ, Aix-en-Provence, France. He is also a senior member of the Institut Universitaire de France (IUF) and the president of the Biography Society.