I’ve been an evolutionary biologist for nearly half a century and have read hundreds of books about Charles Darwin and his science. If we exclude books written by creationists — a group that A.N. Wilson doesn’t identify with — Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker is by far the worst. Appalling in its sloppy arguments and unrelenting and unwarranted negativity, its most infuriating flaw is its abysmal failure to get the most basic facts right … That Wilson is the confused outlier among Darwin biographers is easily confirmed by even a cursory inspection of the book, which is replete with factual errors … In the end, Wilson’s book is harmful.
Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker is less a biography than an indictment of a man he finds wanting in so many respects that the reader wonders how Mr. Wilson could stand spending so much time writing about him … In Mr. Wilson’s hands, Darwin is the veritable snake in the garden of cultural history, a corrupter of minds who deserves to be seen clearly for what he always was: a footnote in the history of science … At first I found reading Mr. Wilson’s laundry list of offenses strangely addictive, like studying the ‘Wanted’ posters that hang in the Post Office. As I carried on, however, pleasure slowly gave way to annoyance. Mr. Wilson’s scientific misunderstandings, of which there are many, seem to come straight out of the creationist playbook.
Victorian Mythmaker is a thorough dressing-down, a prolonged hatchet job. Unfortunately, it is also a work of intellectual calumny: a muddle of false claims, willful deceit, and unbridled hostility. Darwin, in Wilson’s telling, was a fraud, a liar, a racist, and a closet eugenicist. Victorian Mythmaker wears a cloak of righteousness but is about as trustworthy as a priest in a Stendhal novel … Wilson’s zeal, like that of most conspiracy theorists, only serves to undermine his case. From a psychological perspective, his portrait of Darwin just doesn’t add up … Wilson wants to persuade us that Darwin’s worldview was a cruel one, blackened with the soot of Victorian iniquity, yet he does so by painting a picture of that worldview that is plainly a caricature.
Darwin, Wilson contends, was not the nervy but benign magus of Down House, labouring patiently for decades in rural Kent to unlock the origins of human life for the benefit of all mankind. He was actually an egotist with an unfailing eye for ‘the main chance,’ determined to go down in history as the greatest scientist of all time … Instead of subtitling this book Victorian Mythmaker, Wilson might have more accurately called it ‘J’Accuse.’ For despite a few pious throat-clearings on the dust jacket to the contrary, he has no interest in balance, no desire to be nice about the man whom he blames for pretty much everything that went wrong in the 20th century, from totalitarianism to the decline of organised religion.
These are vividly peopled pages...Such are the book’s pleasures; but it contains, so to speak, no small number of missing links … One begins to feel that Wilson is motivated by personal dislike, as if he was once cut by Darwin at a party and has since nursed l’esprit d’escalier ever since. That Darwin endured chronic gastric distress is depicted as a failure of mind, not of body; his grief at the early death of his mother is portrayed as ‘compulsive time-wasting’ and ‘mindless brooding’ … This book, with its elisions, inaccuracies, vivid set pieces and palpable dislike for its subject, has I suspect achieved its end: the air is thick with ruffled feathers.
Wilson makes two important claims as he opens this iconoclastic biography: ‘Darwin was wrong’ and ‘I am not a scientist.’ Though Wilson works hard to prove Darwin wrong, his lack of science background and factual errors derail his main thesis … The book’s many errors make it hard to take seriously.
The prolific novelist and biographer probes the character and controversies of Charles Darwin’s life and the controversial theory that turned the world on its head … Integrating a wealth of biographical details with in-depth discussions of the criticisms and arguments around Darwinism, Wilson helps readers understand how Darwin was an almost inevitable product of his times … An illuminating new biography of a legendary figure in the scientific world whose legacy continues to draw reappraisals.