Benjamin Wiker’s The Darwin Myth was first available on Amazon.com on June 2; my book on natural selection’s co-discoverer Alfred Russel Wallace, titled Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution, first appeared on Amazon on February 16. My aim in pointing this out is only to say that had Dr. Wiker been well ahead of me instead of a little behind, I might have saved perhaps one-third of the 114 references in my work. In other words, in order to give Wallace some historical context it was absolutely essential to at least give a general assessment of Charles Darwin, the man who utterly eclipsed the younger naturalist. How did Darwin develop his theory? What did it contribute? How are we to assess the man (Darwin) in relation to his theory (evolution)? How was Darwin’s theory unique and different from all others? How do answers to these questions impact the current evolutionary debate today? I tackled these same questions in my own work but found that they had to be answered from multiple sources (from several contemporary biographies and from primary resources available in Darwin’s published notebooks, his Autobiography [used with extreme caution!], and others). Search after search yielded no one-volume source that handled Darwin with the frank perspicacity that biology’s paterfamilias deserved. With Wiker’s new book it has finally arrived!
Now, of course, Wiker’s book is not primarily about Wallace; it is an analytical biography of Charles Darwin and in my opinion it is the absolute best yet. Wiker’s central thesis is that the Darwin myth that evolution must be godless to be scientific (p. xi) has thoroughly taken hold of modern society, whether within or without the hallowed halls of academic science. Not only that, but a certain picture of Darwin has emerged; it is a mythical image of a selfless but impassioned scientific investigator quietly and at times painfully following the evidence wherever it may lead. Consider this piece of unbridled hyperbole from the recent peer-reviewed scientific literature: Alberto R. Kornblihtt writes, “. . . the figure of Darwin remains at the top of modern biological sciences and his influence transcends the scientific world and the whole of humanity. His discoveries, which opened broad ways to understand not only evolution but the origin and properties of life, do not represent any threat to believers, but to fundamentalists. In fact, Darwin believed in God and his body is buried in Westminster Abbey in London. Even more interesting is the fact that during his long trip around the world on board The Beagle (1831-1836), the young Darwin was a creationist, as were most of the naturalists in his time. It was only after returning to England and based on his observations and materials collected in the Galapagos and other sites visited by the Beagle that he realized evolution works through natural selection. It was a consequence of scientific rigor and intellectual honesty.”1
Thus summarizes the official Whig account of the modern secular demigod of our age. But Wiker’s book dismantles this historical fiction with skill and engaging prose in 9 chapters of 171 pages. First of all, Darwin’s theory does represent a threat to believers. As Wiker points out, Darwin considered becoming an Anglican clergyman at the urging of his father who saw it as the last refuge of a dullard who had failed medicine and who showed only a propensity for shooting, riding, and “rat catching.” Perhaps a village parson’s life would at least rescue the family name. Thus, Darwin settled on the idea, a situation “that tells us as much about the state of the Anglican Church at the time as it does about Charles and Robert Darwin, for if there was one sure inheritance that had passed through three generations of Darwins, it was religious skepticism” (16). And it carried through to his theory, a theory that had been percolating long before he ever boarded The Beagle. While Darwin was a loving husband and doting father, his great character flaw was that “he was oddly possessive about his theory, so much so that he failed to acknowledge his predecessors, including his own grandfather, until his detractors pointed out the glaring omission. He wanted the theory of evolution to be his discovery, his creation, his baby. He was, to say the least, single-minded in the intensity of his devotion” (60).
As Wiker ably marshals his facts and analysis a very different Darwin emerges. It is a Darwin absolutely committed to writing God out of creation, a commitment that well preceded his “fact” gathering. Darwin’s Origin (1859) was purposefully silent about God and the relation of his theory to man, “but that silence was transparent in its implications: Darwin had not said anything about God because he had rendered Him entirely superfluous” (87). This is an important point. Often those who would seek to rehabilitate Darwinism as theistically friendly point out that Darwin himself was always inconclusive on the subject and generally avoided the theistic implications leaving it to men like Asa Gray, the American naturalist, to apply a heavenly brush to evolutionary theory that Darwin himself supported. True enough. When Gray wrote Natural Selection not inconsistent with Natural Theology (1861), Darwin quickly saw the public relations value and paid to have it reprinted and distributed. But as Wiker sagaciously notes, “Darwin himself had designed the theory to eliminate any connection to God whatsoever. He disagreed with Gray’s theological spin entirely, and was perhaps peeved by some of Gray’s implicit criticisms of his atheism, and the materialistic foundation of his argument. That was not what he meant the theory to do, and in private letters he politely made his objections known to Gray. Yet–and this was typical of Darwin–he had no qualms about using Gray’s argument if it would smooth the way for acceptance of his theory. Once the theory was accepted, the theistic patina would be ground away by the hard, anti-theistic core of the argument” (108-109). This is one of the most cogent and revealing statements ever made about Charles Darwin. It shows that he was, at heart, an atheistic minimalist who was willing to adopt any and all strategies to achieve the desired end, namely, an evolutionary theory that was essentially a materialistic metaphysic supported by biological speculations drawn by a weak but insistent methodological naturalism. Eventually Darwin did fully explicate the implications of his theory for Homo sapiens in his Descent of Man. Twelve years has passed, Origin was now in its fifth edition, it was safe to show his entire hand.
By carefully and cautiously rolling out his theory, Darwin was able to recast “science” in his own image, an image most assuredly not painstakingly drawn from observing nature but from his grandfather’s Zoonomia and Robert Edmond Grant’s radical materialistic atheism. Wiker points out that, with the help of his bulldog defender Thomas Henry Huxley and his X Club ideologues, Darwin was able to not only establish his evolutionary paradigm but in so doing refashion science into narrowly materialistic terms. In so doing he was able to make evolution synonymous with Darwinism and establish a false dichotomy between evolutionary “science” (defined in wholly materialistic terms) on the one hand and Biblically literal Creationism on the other. In other words, the choice was either yield to science or lapse into superstition. This historically erroneous view, most clearly portrayed by Hollywood in Inherit the Wind, has sadly become the default position in our mass media-driven world. As Wiker explains, seldom are Darwin’s original critics brought up. It is rarely mentioned, for example, that Darwin’s most ardent doubters were his closest friends. On the release of his Origin Darwin’s long-time mentor, Adam Sedgwick was appalled and charged Darwin with too grand a theory supported by too little fact; Charles Lyell never did fully commit to Darwin’s theory, and when Alfred Russel Wallace (co-discoverer of Darwin’s beloved natural selection theory) concluded that human intellect, sentience in animals, and the origin of life simply couldn’t be explained by Darwinian mechanisms, Darwin fumed at Wallace’s treason by seeking solace with Lyell, comfort that was not forthcoming from his old friend. The point is, many–indeed those closest to Darwin–didn’t have a problem with the idea of common descent per se (they understood the earth was well over 6,000 years old and they didn’t feel the need to view every aspect of nature within a strict Biblically literal framework or, as in Wallace’s case, even Biblical at all), in short, “evolution was not the problem; Darwinism [emphasis added] was the problem” (129).
But perhaps Darwin’s greatest error was the reductionist morality dictated by his own materialistic theory. Under Darwin’s formulations, “The science of ethics can only be genealogical research that follows out the separate branches; no branch is privileged,” Wiker observes. “And since ‘natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, the slightest variation; rejecting those that are bad, preserving and adding up all that are good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life,’ the branching will continue. . . . As with any evolved trait,” he adds, “we cannot judge the different evolved moralities by any other criterion than survival: that’s all ‘good’ can mean.” By equating morality with those attributes that accord with survival (indeed requisite to Darwin’s all-power model of natural selection), ethics and morality are reduced to the same forces of chance and necessity that allegedly dictate any other features of the biological world. Indeed, “by Darwin’s own principles,” Wiker concludes, “Darwin’s own ‘morality’ is no more moral than the shape of his nose or the color of his skin” ( 146). This, for Wiker, was Darwin’s worst lie of all. Darwin thought he could establish an evolutionary morality but it ultimately fell under the horrific weight of his own coldly indifferent natural selection.
It should be stated that much of Wiker’s story has appeared before. Wiker does not break new historiographical ground. Many of the critiques leveled against Darwin in his own day–by eminent thinkers such as Samuel Wilberforce, St. George Mivart, Charles Hodge, Alfred Russel Wallace, and many others– have been noted and repeated by contemporary historians. We have known ever since Gertrude Himmelfarb’s critical study of Darwin, for example, that his purported pursuit of the Baconian method was more fantasy than fact; we learned from Maurice Mandelbaum that Darwin’s own religious views, despite a lot of feigned confusion, did wind up as undogmatic atheism; and more than a few nodded in agreement when R. F. Baum observed, “The notion that natural selection should so conveniently adjust itself to Darwinian theory bears the marks of argument ad hoc.“2
The force and value of Wiker’s book resides not in its historiographical novelty but in its weaving the various strands of Darwinian dissent into a coherent whole. In so doing Wiker has created the single best analytical biography of Darwin in print. True, Desmond and Moore and Janet Browne produced good descriptive biographies but both fell short in providing the kind of frank analyses required of the subject. Desmond and Moore’s Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist (1991) comprehensively covers Darwin’s life and provides an especially good examination of Darwin’s Edinburgh years. Janet Browne managed an exhaustive account that took two volumes to tell. Today, perhaps more than any other historian, Browne is the reigning Dean of Darwin biographers. But, in the end, Browne fails to ask the right questions and winds up producing a rather ponderous narrative that fails to shed much light on the imputed Down House hero precisely where light is needed most. Despite general accolades from the review community, not everyone agreed. Antonella La Vergata, for example, noted Browne’s tendency to “downplay the importance of the debate on materialism, both within and outside Darwin’s mind.”3 Lois Magner wondered too if there was enough new in Janet Browne’s first volume to warrant adding to one’s library.4 The point is until Wiker’s present effort no modern biography has offered a more complete portrait of the man and his theory warts and all.
I don’t think Wiker’s book is flawless. While Wiker traces Darwin’s radical skepticism to his ancestors (especially his grandfather Erasmus), I would have preferred some coverage of the Plinian Society, a radical group of freethinkers who unquestionably influenced a youthful Darwin sent to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh. Young, 16 year-old Darwin was elected to this body of iconoclasts on November 28, 1826; he attended all but one of the nineteen lectures held through April of 1827. Here he was introduced to Robert Edmond Grant and other uncompromising materialists like William Browne and William Greg. While I agree with Wiker that his grandfather’s Zoonomia provided a familial precedence for his Englightenment skepticism toward religion, I think the Plinian Society was a more immediate template through which materialism and methodological naturalism–the envisioning of a world of uniform causes in a closed system–became the default worldview for Darwin. (Those wanting more on this aspect should obtain Alfred Russel Wallace). This occurred long before he stepped foot on the HMS Beagle. I also think that Wiker could have additionally beefed up his assertion–an assertion with which I wholly concur–that with regard to Darwin’s scientific method, “the theory came before the facts” (137) by more carefully analyzing the philosophical sources underpinning his evolutionary theory. Darwin’s notebooks are full of laudatory and revealing references to the atheist Auguste Comte and the skeptic David Hume.
I also take exception to Wiker’s “great man” characterization of Darwin. I understand, despite all the errors of his theory and all the mistakes and impostures which emanated from a man with such an unhealthy sense of ownership over his evolutionary theory, that Wiker is loath to demonize him. But in the end what are we left with? A man obsessed with making himself synonymous with a materialistic version of evolution, a cooked up theory served with the more palatable and disguising sauce of science; a man who wanted to be revolutionary and yet demanded respectability, a contradiction that consigned him to a life of nausea, retching, flatulence, skin rashes, and general debilitation; a man so interested in making his mark that he was willing to brush both evidential and philosophical problems aside; a man, gentle of spirit and kind of heart, who fathered a theory leaving room for neither. In the end, Darwin comes off more savvy than scientific, more self-absorbed than selfless. Darwin was neither fool nor demon; he possessed a genius to be pitied.
These relatively minor criticisms aside, Wiker has produced a masterful piece of analytic biography. This truly is a must read for anyone interested the man who has arguably had more influence over modern society than any other. Wiker is to be commended for his contribution.
1. Alberto R. Kornblihtt, “On Intelligent Design, Cognitive Relativism, Vitalism, and the Mystery of the Real World,” Life 59.4/5 (April-May 2007): 235-237.