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Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker

Biography / Memoir

By: AN Wilson(Author)

454 pages, 16 plates with colour & b/w photos and colour & b/w illustrations

John Murray

Hardback | Sep 2017 | #234437 | ISBN-13: 9781444794885
Availability: In stock
NHBS Price: £24.99 $33/€29 approx

About this book

From the publisher:
"Charles Darwin: the man who discovered evolution? The man who killed off God? Or a flawed man of his age, part genius, part ruthless careerist who would not acknowledge his debts to other thinkers?

In this bold new life – the first single volume biography in 25 years – A. N. Wilson, the acclaimed author of The Victorians and God's Funeral, goes in search of the celebrated but contradictory figure Charles Darwin.

Darwin was described by his friend and champion, Thomas Huxley, as a 'symbol'. But what did he symbolise? In Wilson's portrait, both sympathetic and critical, Darwin was two men. On the one hand, he was a naturalist of genius, a patient and precise collector and curator who greatly expanded the possibilities of taxonomy and geology. On the other hand, Darwin, a seemingly diffident man who appeared gentle and even lazy, hid a burning ambition to be a universal genius. He longed to have a theory which explained everything.

But was Darwin's 1859 masterwork, On the Origin of Species, really what it seemed, a work about Natural History? Or was it, in fact, a consolation myth for the Victorian middle classes, reassuring them that the selfishness and indifference to the poor were part of Nature's grand plan?

Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker is a radical reappraisal of one of the great Victorians, a book which isn't afraid to challenge the Darwinian orthodoxy while bringing us closer to the man, his revolutionary idea, and the wider Victorian age."

NHBS caveat lector: This controversial new biography of Charles Darwin has received mixed reviews in the media.

"Wilson blames Darwin for totalitarianism and portrays him as a monster of ruthless self-interest. It’s a prolific biographer’s cheap attempt to ruffle feathers"
– Kathryn Hughes, Guardian

"A book to treasure. A. N Wilson throws down the gauntlet on the very first line, 'Darwin was wrong' he begins. What follows is a sharply observed and wonderfully compelling analysis which evokes the Victorian titan brilliantly and challenges received wisdom. A work of scholarship that is hard to put down"
– Deborah Cadbury

"[...] This book provides an appallingly inaccurate rendition of Darwin’s theory and its scientific context [...] Wilson’s book contains numerous and serious factual errors [...] Throughout, Wilson bashes Darwin for supposed arrogance, dishonesty and incompetence and trots out a long line of old anti-Darwin myths [...] The book claims to be a “radical reappraisal of one of the great Victorians, a book which isn’t afraid to challenge the Darwinian orthodoxy”. The result is one of the most unreliable, inaccurate and tendentious anti-Darwin books of recent times."
– John van Wyhe, New Scientst

"A lucid, elegantly written and thought-provoking social and intellectual history [...] When it comes to the author’s speculations on evolutionary theory, however, the book is fatally flawed, mischievous, and ultimately misleading. It leaves the reader as the unfortunate witness to the uncomfortable spectacle of a magnificent social biographer being consumed by the alluring quicksand of hubris and scientific ignorance. In so doing, Wilson opens himself up to some of the very same criticisms with which he taints the ghost of Darwin. [...] The inadequate evidence marshalled by Wilson to support his contentious assertions, purloined from the pages of popular science books, rehashing tired arguments as if they were a new revelation, is largely blind to the extensive and irrefutable scientific insights of molecular genetics. In stark contrast to the refined elegance of the exclusively biographical aspects of his writing, his bold attempt to transcend the role of biographer and social historian belies a deep lack of understanding. Wilson is wrong."
– Adrian Woolfson, Evening Standard

"“Darwin was wrong” is the first sentence in this biography, and with that Wilson establishes the tone for the rest of the book. He sets out to kick Darwin off his throne by trying to debunk two central arguments: first, that evolution is gradual and species evolve in small steps; second, that nature is in a state of perpetual warfare. I’m not convinced by Wilson’s arguments and I have heard enough, for example, about the discovery of “transitional fossils” to believe that there are plenty of “missing links”. But I’m not an evolutionary biologist or geneticist (nor is AN Wilson), so I will leave it to those scientists to pick this apart in detail. Of course Darwin got some stuff wrong, but isn’t that what happens – and should happen – in science? [...] As a historian, however, I feel uncomfortable with the link that Wilson makes between Darwin and Adolf Hitler. “Darwin was a direct and disastrous influence,” he writes, and: “Germany [enacted] the Reich Citizenship Law, the Blood Protection Law, the Marital Health Law and the Nuremberg Laws for racial segregation, all based on bogus Victorian science, much of which had started life in the gentle setting of Darwin’s study at Down House.” Seriously? In 2013, the historian Robert J Richards composed an erudite rebuke to those who have made similar claims. In his essay Was Hitler a Darwinian?, Richards explained that many of Hitler’s remarks could be traced back to Darwin, “or to Aristotle, or to Christ” – if we just played a game of “six degrees of Charles Darwin”. [...] Reading Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker is a bit like sitting next to a very argumentative person at a dinner party – polarising and sometimes annoying, but certainly thought-provoking."
– Andrea Wulf, New Statesman

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