Review: The Darwin Myth
Work under Review
Using that “life and lies” formula in the subtitle of this anti-Darwin book was not a wise move by Discovery Institute Senior Fellow Benjamin Wiker. It invites unfavorable comparison to a similarly titled book about a similarly celebrated white-bearded English sage with an ugly nose. I mean, of course, The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore, by Rita Skeeter, a book within a book in the Harry Potter series.
For the uninitiated: Skeeter is an unscrupulous witch of an investigative reporter. She takes Dumbledore’s own remarks and other peoples’ recollections out of context and makes him seem guilty of everything from racial prejudice, elitism, claiming credit for the accomplishments of others, and manipulating friends, family, and the public, to valuing the greater good over individual rights, inspiring a militaristic and eugenical ideology, and fomenting world war.
In a spooky case of life imitating art, Wiker makes essentially the same accusations against Darwin, using Skeeter’s exact methods. Those methods do not require “facts” to be conjured out of thin air, although both authors are quite capable of doing it. The real trick is to select, isolate, and exaggerate the facts you like, while making the ones you don’t like vanish. Wiker’s favorite way to get rid of them is to wave his hands and pass them off as lies.
Having led one of the best-documented lives in the history of science, Darwin provides a good variety of facts and quotes for Wiker to select from. For example, on the subject of religion: Darwin once described himself as having been a Biblical literalist, once signed an oath of Anglican orthodoxy required of Cambridge students, studied to be a clergyman, sometimes called himself an agnostic, sometimes a materialist, and sometimes a theist (but never an atheist). He took pride in his friendship and collaboration with his Anglican minister as well in his family heritage of Unitarianism and freethought.
When serious biographers piece together Darwin’s life story out of such a confusing historical record, they look at the chronological progression and the changing circumstances, and they see a developing individual. Mythical figures and epic heroes do not need to develop, but humans do, and character development is what makes our current picture of Darwin realistic and interesting. Darwin grew, erred, learned, and only gradually became the venerable Sage of Downe. Along the way, he grappled with difficult questions about God and nature, and left the record of his changing answers in notebooks, letters, publications, and an autobiography.
In contrast, it is Wiker who gives us a mythical Darwin, one who appears constant in his rejection of religion, practically from birth. It makes no difference to Wiker that all of Darwin’s recorded doubts date from after his voyage on the Beagle, or that Darwin also made favorable, conciliatory, or just plain uncertain statements about religion. Wiker either ignores them or dismisses them as lies.
Wiker occasionally writes nice things about Darwin and pats himself on the back for not demonizing him, but he sure does make him out to be a horrible liar and a cheat. He has Darwin lying about his religious beliefs to get into Cambridge, lying about the motives behind his theorizing, lying about having been led to his theory by evidence, lying about its originality, stealing the credit for it, and plotting to convince people of it as well as of the need to take God out of nature and science. It gets so ridiculous that the poor guy can’t even tell us he enjoyed music without Wiker calling it deceptive.
In addition to the life-and-lies business, there is also a long chapter about the Origin of Species and the Descent of Man, with an emphasis on how those books supposedly undermined the Biblical foundations of morality (which, for Wiker, are the only foundations morality can have). Cherrypicked quotations make Darwin appear to have endorsed eugenics and the extermination of inferior races. And natural selection is described as destroying the unfit for the good of the species, sacrificing them, as it were, to a dark creator. Suddenly Darwinism is not atheism, but death worship.
Three short chapters address later historical developments and social ills, for which responsibility is pinned, predictably, on you-know-who. The ills include eugenics, Nazism, abortion, euthanasia, sex education and contraceptives for the poor, cyber-pornography, and cannibalism (by which Wiker means embryonic tissue culture and stem-cell research). Even though Darwin was a kindly gentleman who loved his family and wished none of these things upon us, Wiker argues (remembering to say something nice again, so as not to demonize), they are still his fault because of his general de-Christianizing influence.
Striving for balance between faith and reason, Wiker advises “reasonable Christians,” as he calls them, not to overdo the reason part, but to put revelation first. On the other hand, they should leave themselves some room — within strict but unspecified limits — for interpreting Scripture, and they do not have to reject evolution altogether. They just need a non-Darwinian version of it that puts God, morality, and purpose back into nature. This is touted as an astonishing finding.
Indeed the pitch for theistic evolution is astonishing, considering how little credence the book gives to any evidence for species transformation. Aside from that, the book’s claims are unsurprising, since they are mostly Discovery Institute talking points that date back to the mid-1990s and have been rebutted many times since then. The biographical interpretations may be original, though. They also verge on fantasy, so I recommend this book to Harry Potter fans, in case they want to see how a real-life Rita Skeeter operates.
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Sander Gliboff is Associate Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University, and the author of HG Bronn, Ernst Haeckel, and the Origins of German Darwinism: A Study in Translation and Transformation (Cambridge [MA]: MIT Press, 2008).