Skip to main content

Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker

Review

Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker

Nearly two decades before embarking on the five years of intensive research that would result in his compelling new biography, CHARLES DARWIN: VICTORIAN MYTHMAKER, A. N. (Andrew Norman) Wilson recalls visiting the iconic British naturalist’s beloved home and refuge of Down House in Kent. Something about the apparently casual 1990s visit, he muses near the end of more than 400 pages, deeply planted a little seed that sparked a big project’s “long gestation.”

By the time I’d reached that point in an intensely satisfying reading experience --- especially for a non-scientist --- I could trust Wilson’s informed and even prescient choice behind every noun, verb and descriptor, including the rather clinical-sounding “gestation.” Nothing more aptly describes the meticulous care and sensibility (another great Victorian term!) this prolific and wide-ranging British author of some four-dozen titles has poured into the first substantial single-volume Darwin biography published in more than a generation.

Unlike the vast majority of biographies about people so famous it would seem all has been said and written about them previously, Wilson departs from focusing exclusively on Charles Darwin, the individual behind ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES (1859). Instead, he draws into Darwin’s personal and professional orbits the fascinating history of the evolutionary idea itself, probing deeply into its convoluted social, religious, political and scientific context for Victorians and their descendants.

"[A]s Darwin himself did so well, A. N. Wilson succeeds by presenting the fascinating and continuing history of evolution in symphonic prose that tangibly sings with his deep passion for the matter at hand."

This is not only a much harder literary and scholarly feat to pull off convincingly --- it is also a far more courageous approach, one that opens with the ringing first-page proclamation, “Darwin was wrong.” As expected, those three assertive little words have drawn much fire from 21st-century Neo-Darwinists over the few weeks since the book’s launch in December 2017.

But there’s a powerful point to be made here, and Wilson makes it incomparably well throughout 17 absorbing chapters that cast an astonishingly wide net. The rest of CHARLES DARWIN: VICTORIAN MYTHMAKER painstakingly, yet often poetically, dissects some of the vast body of decades-long interactions, connections and correspondence that on numerous occasions caused even Darwin himself to feel that parts of his never-quite-gelled evolutionary theory were, in fact, wrong.

In revealing the eclectic journey of the evolutionary idea, which Darwin pointedly did not invent on his own, Wilson’s account follows multiple threads of scientific inquiry that the reclusive, unpredictable and inconsistent genius maintained with scores of other great “gentlemen scientists” of his era. More often than not, he answered colleagues’ criticisms and suggested corrections by revising his own work in light of rapidly developing Victorian scientific knowledge and new evidence. As a prime example, Wilson reminds us at several key points that no fewer than six revised editions of ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES had appeared during the 23 years before Darwin’s death in 1882 and that the changes incorporated into each succeeding one are all important to the history of evolution --- an idea that in itself just kept on evolving with every new technological advance and unprecedented fossil discovery.

Throughout CHARLES DARWIN: VICTORIAN MYTHMAKER, Wilson deftly illustrates that as Darwin’s influence spread through multiple layers of Victorian society, it drew public attention to science and scientists as never before. ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES (not even his most popular work at the time) attracted avid readership from nobility to the working classes. Darwin, himself no overnight success as a scientist, nevertheless came along at a time when British society was experiencing a huge collective hunger for accessible knowledge about where life comes from, how it survives and adapts, where humans --- scientifically, not supernaturally --- fit into the great scheme of things, whether nature even needed God. In attempting to come to grips with such persistent and unsettling issues, Darwin and his colleagues virtually invented the proactive popularization of science. (Where would today’s television hosts be without them?)

So rather than hailing Darwin as the stand-alone originator of an evolutionary theory that proposed to answer all the big questions of how and why sentient life populates planet Earth, Wilson situates the great and still-revered botanist-naturalist in a more meaningful and challenging role as a supremely accomplished catalyst, one whose work exposed scientific and philosophical problems that once had been the exclusive domain of elite men’s clubs and academia. Whether intentionally or not, Darwin, so human in his failings yet so extraordinary in intellect, did indeed capture, proclaim and share the great Victorian myth, not as a substitute for scientific fact but as a place from which new truths continue to emerge.

And as Darwin himself did so well, A. N. Wilson succeeds by presenting the fascinating and continuing history of evolution in symphonic prose that tangibly sings with his deep passion for the matter at hand. If you’re looking for a different, mindful and powerfully provocative reassessment of Charles Darwin, you could do no better than spend your Christmas money on CHARLES DARWIN: VICTORIAN MYTHMAKER.

Reviewed by Pauline Finch on January 5, 2018

Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker
by A. N. Wilson

  • Publication Date: December 12, 2017
  • Genres: Biography, History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Harper
  • ISBN-10: 0062433490
  • ISBN-13: 9780062433497