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Science historian: AN Wilson’s Darwin biography contains a baseless charge, factual errors


We’d heard that. But of course, the Twitterverse could nuke tweet such a claim to depress sales. We waited till science historian Michael Flannery read it. He says yes and worse at Evolution News & Views:

But my uneasy sense of déjà vu turned to dismay when I read Wilson’s claim that Darwin did more than merely suppress his predecessors, he actually stole ideas from Edward Byth’s proto-theory of natural selection, published in two essays appearing in the Magazine of Nature History in 1835 and 1837. Wilson claims some mysteriously missing pages in Darwin’s notebooks prove it. The problem is, these have long been recovered and are readily available in Charles Darwin’s Notebooks, 1836-1844 (1987). Historians have since examined these discovered pages and have concluded that there is no substantiation to the charge of intellectual thievery on the part of Darwin, an accusation first issued by Loren Eiseley in 1959 before the lost pages were found. It is puzzling that Wilson resurrected such a baseless charge, especially when the countervailing evidence sat right under his nose with the published Notebooks he cites in his biography.

Although I began Wilson’s biography expecting something special, that anticipation soon faded amidst a plethora of problems: familiar ideas served up without reference (“Physician, heal thyself”?), misattributed quotes, numerous factual errors, and analyses that vacillated between the sad resurrection of an old falsehood to the bland assessment that Darwin’s distinctive contribution was to make nature impersonal. Did he really mean that or did he mean purposeless? The two are not synonymous. My closing impression is that Wilson padded his bibliography and didn’t really look at most of what he cites. How else could he make that embarrassing Blyth blunder? And as for deliberate suppression, how could Wilson reference two books by Himmelfarb on the Victorians and miss her noteworthy (some say notorious) Darwin study? Odd, very odd. Those who wish to know more can read my complete assessment here. In any case, this biography is not recommended. More.

Note: Prof Flannery offers a fuller version of his critique:

 More could be said about this unfortunate effort, but enough is enough. Sadly, I must concur with John van Wyhe (though perhaps for different reasons): this new biography is unreliable and inaccurate. True, some of the factual errors mentioned here have been minor, but not all of them; and in any case they have a cumulative effect. Added to this are so many analytical and methodological blunders that the book can hardly even be referred to with any confidence much less cited. The book will be now shelved with the rest of my Darwiniana where it will remain gathering dust as an attractive nuisance.

Not a Santa option. May next year bring better insights.

See also: A. N. Wilson on Darwin in the London Times

High dudgeon over A. N. Wilson’s new book on Darwin Like we said, plenty of time for Darwinians to beat their iron rice bowls into hatchets.


A.N. Wilson on Darwinism and Christianity


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