Millions of words have been printed by and about Charles Darwin. There are hundreds of biographies, the dozens of books he wrote (including his own autobiography), as well as various pamphlets, essays, correspondence, diaries, manuscript notes, and other ephemera. Fascinating though the man and his work is, it must be hard to come up with anything new to say about him.
Perhaps this is why A.N. Wilson opens his new biography, Charles Darwin: Victorian mythmaker, with the bald statement that ‘Darwin was wrong’. It is a perplexing start. Darwin was ‘wrong’ about a great many things – the mechanism of inheritance, for instance. Scientific theories evolve, adapt, diversify, and separate over time. We don’t expect any of them, not even Charles Lyell’s, to remain set in stone. Wilson’s lack of familiarity with science is apparent from the opening pages through to his references (mostly books, rarely scientific articles). The early pages are filled with imprecise definitions, inapt vocabulary (like ‘fact’ and ‘truth’), culminating in this dramatic question on page five: ‘What exactly, did Darwin discover? Or is his theory just that – simply a theory?’ My forehead hits the table, under the impetus of gravity, which is also ‘simply a theory’, but leaves a bruise nonetheless.