A.N. Wilson: stale, unoriginal, banal, cliché-ridden hack


It was a good weekend for fools. Someone tried to claim that manspreading was an anatomical feature of the male skeleton; a biological anthropologist slapped that nonsense right down. The alt-right continues to express their indignation at the idea that the Roman empire was ethnically and racially diverse; no less an expert than Mary Beard splattered that one, with an amusing amount of politeness and incredulity. Against all that, the appearance of yet another loon declaring that Charles Darwin was a fraud and evolution is wrong is comparatively mundane and routine, but I guess I’ll take a poke at it.

It’s an article written by a guy named A.N. Wilson, published in the Evening Standard. Wilson also publishes in the Daily Mail, so you kind of know where he is coming from. He declares that he has spent the last 5 years working on a book about Darwin, which is less of a mark of distinction than you might think — he previously wrote a biography of Hitler that was panned scathingly.

Novelists (notably Mann) and literary scholars (such as J P Stern) have sometimes managed to use a novel angle of approach to say something new and provocative about Hitler, the Nazis and the German people. However, there is no evidence of that here, neither in the stale, unoriginal material, nor in the banal and cliché-ridden historical judgements, nor in the lame, tired narrative style; just evidence of the repellent arrogance of a man who thinks that because he’s a celebrated novelist, he can write a book about Hitler that people should read, even though he’s put very little work into writing it and even less thought.

I have no idea of his status as a novelist, but apparently he thinks he can write a book about Darwin that people should read, even though he’s put very little work into writing it and even less thought. We know this because his little op-ed is a steaming pile of ill-informed garbage. His research seems to have consisted of scouring the creationist literature.

Funnily enough, in the course of my researches, I found both pride and prejudice in bucketloads among the ardent Darwinians, who would like us to believe that if you do not worship Darwin, you are some kind of nutter. He has become an object of veneration comparable to the old heroes of the Soviet Union, such as Lenin and Stalin, whose statues came tumbling down all over Eastern Europe 20 and more years ago.

You know, evolutionary biologists will all tell you that Darwin was a smart man who had a remarkably powerful insight, but that he was born over two centuries ago, lacked the biological background we now take for granted, and made a few mistakes himself. We can appreciate the great contributions he made to science without granting him godhood. Yet it’s common in the creationist literature to claim that ‘Darwinists’ worship the man in the same way they worship Jesus.

It’s also a common creationist trope to tie the contemporaries Darwin and Marx together (they also usually include Freud) in a kind of sympathetic magic — they lived at the same time! Marx’s communism collapsed! Therefore, Darwin’s evolution will also collapse! Any day now. Just you wait.

That was his first paragraph, and he’s already got everything wrong and is basically lying about the science. How can it get worse? Someone, hold his beer.

Darwinism is not science as Mendelian genetics are. It is a theory whose truth is NOT universally acknowledged. But when genetics got going there was also a revival, especially in Britain, of what came to be known as neo-Darwinism, a synthesis of old Darwinian ideas with the new genetics. Why look to Darwin, who made so many mistakes, rather than to Mendel? There was a simple answer to that. Neo-Darwinism was part scientific and in part a religion, or anti-religion. Its most famous exponent alive, Richard Dawkins, said that Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually satisfied atheist. You could say that the apparently impersonal processes of genetics did the same. But the neo-Darwinians could hardly, without absurdity, make Mendel their hero since he was a Roman Catholic monk. So Darwin became the figurehead for a system of thought that (childishly) thought there was one catch-all explanation for How Things Are in nature.

Darwinism is exactly science as Mendelian genetics are. Darwinism: a rough pencil sketch of the process of biological change, written out with a few examples, that was subsequently greatly expanded with a century of more detailed work. Mendelian genetics: a rough pencil sketch of the process of inheritance, written out with a few examples, that was subsequently greatly expanded with a century of more detailed work. Contrary to Wilson’s implications, Mendelian genetics is a great oversimplification, important for getting us on the right track, but one of the early arguments against it was that it didn’t seem to apply to most of the patterns of inheritance we see. Mendel made mistakes, too: I can give you exceptions to all four of his “laws”. Mendel did not finish all of genetics. Trust me, every year I get a crop of students who think that because they understand the terms “dominant” and “recessive” and can draw a Punnett square, they fully understand genetics.

The comparison of Darwin and Mendel is actually apt: two guys who had a profound insight that established a scientific framework for understanding an important biological process that led to an explosion of research that refined and expanded upon their early observations. Also, evolution is no more going away than is genetics.

As for the canard that we don’t like Mendel because he was Catholic…bullshit. I play up the importance of Mendel and specifically address the revolution in thinking about inheritance that he discovered to my classes, and I’m a goddamned atheist. Meanwhile, Darwin spent most of his life waffling on the god question, decided he was an agnostic, and simply avoided ever addressing it in public — and I tell my students that Darwin was not an atheist. Religion just isn’t a factor here, and is more of a personal complication than a key component of our interpretation of their work.

OK, Wilson, keep the nonsense flowing.

The great fact of evolution was an idea that had been current for at least 50 years before Darwin began his work. His own grandfather pioneered it in England, but on the continent, Goethe, Cuvier, Lamarck and many others realised that life forms evolve through myriad mutations. Darwin wanted to be the Man Who Invented Evolution, so he tried to airbrush all the predecessors out of the story. He even pretended that Erasmus Darwin, his grandfather, had had almost no influence on him. He then brought two new ideas to the evolutionary debate, both of which are false.

Evolution was an inevitable theory — both Wallace and Darwin came up with the idea, and it is true that there were predecessors who came close. But for someone who “wanted to be the Man Who Invented Evolution”, Darwin was awfully reluctant. Sitting on your marvelous idea (and he knew exactly how important it would be) for 30 years is not exactly a symptom of ambition. Also, being eager to be fair to Wallace and giving equal credit to him to the Royal Society doesn’t fit Wilson’s characterization.

But most of those predecessors did not actually identify the central principle of evolution: that it is a property of populations, not individuals. Most of those others saw evolution as the product of individual striving, rather than shifts in the frequency of kinds of individuals in a population. That’s the insight that had people smacking their foreheads and wondering why they didn’t think of it before, because it was so obvious once you accepted that frame.

But what, pray tell, are Darwin’s two false ideas?

One is that evolution only proceeds little by little, that nature never makes leaps. The two most distinguished American palaeontologists of modern times, Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge, both demonstrated 30 years ago that this is not true. Palaeontology has come up with almost no missing links of the kind Darwinians believe in. The absence of such transitional forms is, Gould once said, the “trade secret of palaeontology”. Instead, the study of fossils and bones shows a series of jumps and leaps.

Oh, please, this is another creationist trope: that punctuated equilibrium is anti-Darwinian, and that the “missing links” are missing. Gould and Eldredge were arguing that the pace of evolutionary change, and the infrequency of fossilization in small populations, would mean that most of the changes would be invisible to us. Every evolutionist groans at the words “missing links” because we don’t believe in them — every population is a gemisch of variation, speciation is complex and messy, and there is no single thread of change. The very idea is a betrayal of the key concept of evolution, of thinking in terms of populations.

When people talk of “missing links”, I just want to ask who, among the 7 billion people on Earth, do they think is the “missing link” to the population of Homo sapiens who will be living here in the year 2100? Do you think that if we dig around in 19th century graveyards we can find the skull of the missing link between Victorians and the Disco generation?

Hard-core Darwinians try to dispute this, and there are in fact some “missing links” — the Thrinaxodon, which is a mammal-like reptile, and the Panderichthys, a sort of fish-amphibian. But if the Darwinian theory of natural selection were true, fossils would by now have revealed hundreds of thousands of such examples. Species adapt themselves to their environment, but there are very few transmutations.

There are lots of transitional forms. Again, this is standard issue creationist bullshit, and blatantly so, of the type I was debating against in the 1980s.

And what is Darwin’s second grievous error?

Darwin’s second big idea was that Nature is always ruthless: that the strong push out the weak, that compassion and compromise are for cissies whom Nature throws to the wall. Darwin borrowed the phrase “survival of the fittest” from the now forgotten and much discredited philosopher Herbert Spencer. He invented a consolation myth for the selfish class to which he belonged, to persuade them that their neglect of the poor, and the colossal gulf between them and the poor, was the way Nature intended things. He thought his class would outbreed the “savages” (ie the brown peoples of the globe) and the feckless, drunken Irish. Stubbornly, the unfittest survived. Brown, Jewish and Irish people had more babies than the Darwin class. The Darwinians then had to devise the hateful pseudo-science of eugenics, which was a scheme to prevent the poor from breeding.

We all know where that led, and the uses to which the National Socialists put Darwin’s dangerous ideas.

OH GOD. THIS MAN IS WRITING A BIOGRAPHY OF DARWIN? Darwin did not propose that Nature was always ruthless. Darwin is the guy who also came up with the idea of sexual selection, and as Wilson has already pointed out, favored a more gentle, gradual pattern of incremental change (we even call it “gradualism” now). He was a man of his times, which were far more brutally racist than those ideas of Darwin’s — he was prejudiced, but he was relatively less so than many of his contemporaries. We can not excuse his biases, but when you call out the abolitionist and blame him for Nazism, while ignoring the whole damn edifice of Victorian-era colonialism and exploitation, I think you’re missing the mark.

Evolutionary theory did not lead to National Socialism — the Nazis despised Darwin, banned his books, and instead praised the church as a unifying moral force in the country. Look to Houston Stewart Chamberlain for a philosophical foundation of Hitler’s ideas — he hated Darwin. He loved Goethe.

Meanwhile, the Nazis admired the American policy of extermination of the Indians, which, unless you think Europeans waited until 1859 to begin the slaughter, was pre-Darwinian. Eugenics was only named by a Darwinian, but it had been practiced for millennia by farmers. This is just another creationist cliche that is anachronistic and wrong.

For a more balanced perspective, read Robert Richards’ Was Hitler a Darwinian (pdf), which is an excellent critique of this whole line of nonsensical thinking.

In order to sustain the thesis that Hitler was a Darwinian one would have to ignore all the explicit statements of Hitler rejecting any theory like Darwin’s and draw fanciful implications from vague words, errant phrases, and ambiguous sentences, neglecting altogether more straight-forward, contextual interpretations of such utterances. Only the ideologically blinded would still try to sustain the thesis in the face of the contrary, manifest evidence. Yet, as I suggested at the beginning of this essay, there is an obvious sense in which my own claims must be moot. Even if Hitler could recite the Origin of Species by heart and referred to Darwin as his scientific hero, that would not have the slightest bearing on the validity of Darwinian theory or the moral standing of its author. The only reasonable answer to the question that gives this essay its title is a very loud and unequivocal No!

Wilson apparently has not read any of the credible historical or scientific literature on Darwin, but that doesn’t stop him from scribbling up his biases into a whole book that someone is seeing fit to publish. This opinion piece is apparently an attempt to publicize that book (it’s coming out next month!), but it is bad PR for what is obviously going to be drivel. The good news is that Richard Evans will be able to change a few proper names and recycle his previous review of a Wilson book, which will make it easy: while some people could say something new and provocative about Darwin, “there is no evidence of that here, neither in the stale, unoriginal material, nor in the banal and cliché-ridden historical judgements, nor in the lame, tired narrative style”.

Don’t buy it, obviously.

Comments

  1. komarov says

    I think you may have missed a set of quote tags for the paragraph after, “And what is Darwin’s second grievous error?”

  2. blf says

    Poopyhead, Is the text starting “Darwin’s second big idea was that Nature is always ruthless…” and ending “…We all know where that led, and the uses to which the National Socialists put Darwin’s dangerous ideas” supposed to be eejit quoted?

  3. blf says

    Re me@2: Now I see komarov@1 also thinks there a typesetting mistake. Apologies for the essentially duplicate posting.

  4. says

    At least twice this dunderhead brings poor Jane Austen into this (I’m not going to read the full article to find more). What did she ever do to him?

  5. Owlmirror says

    It’s time A. N. Wilson be exposed as the fraud he is.

    Charles Darwin, whose bearded face looks out at us from the £10 note, is about to be replaced by Jane Austen. I’ve spent the past five years of my life writing his biography and mastering his ideas.

    Haha nope.

  6. blf says

    What did she [Jane Austen] ever do to him [Mr Wilson]?

    (1) Be a better writer.
    (2) Not have a penis.
    (3) Be considerably more famous now…
    (4) …and in the future (probably).
    (5) Has her face on the new £10 banknote.
    Etc, etc, etc

  7. says

    I take your point about this guy’s idiotic book about Hitler, but I also feel that the reviewer to whom you linked might have been very slightly off base in these two passages:

    “Wilson remarks that Hitler belonged to “the oral future, the future which contained Walt Disney, television and cinema” but in reality he belonged to the oral past, to the world where mass rallies and speeches brought popular adulation to politicians”

    “His concluding warning, that a new Hitler might be lurking in the wings, ready to come out when the moment is right, shows that he understands nothing of the historical circumstances that brought Hitler to power.”

    At the present, neither of Wilson’s above positions sounds that lunatic.

  8. Owlmirror says

    Robert Richards’ essay has the quotes from Mein Kampf that emphasize the point that Hitler believed in the fixity of species; very much a creationist idea. One would think that Wilson — a supposed scholar of Hitler’s life — would be aware of these statements and sentiments from the primary source by Hitler’s own hand.

    Unless Wilson was a fraud, of course.

    I find myself wondering if one could find evidence of plagiarism in Wilson’s writings. Someone who is obviously lazy and dishonest could well be even lazier and more dishonest. That staleness and lack of originality could well arise from copy-and-pasting-with-modifications from other writers.

  9. says

    “manspreading … an anatomical feature”

    Maybe not, but it does keep yer balls nice and cool—especially in a kilt*
     
     
     
    _______
    * from personal experience.

  10. blf says

    I presume the guy wearing the kilt consented to yer being inside it as well? </snark>

  11. Aaron Baker says

    #9: It was a cliche for years among scholars of the Third Reich that Hitler was a “social Darwinist.” sometimes he’s just called a “Darwinist” (e.g. by John Lukacs). To confess one of my own errors: I mistakenly believed Hitler was a social Darwinist on the basis of those (as it turns out) lazy formulations. Then I read Robert Richards, who proves (as near to conclusively as it gets in historical research) that when Hitler used the phrase “struggle for existence,” he was almost certainly cribbing the idea from NON-Darwinian anti-semites like Chamberlain. Since a simple online search (such as, say, “Was Hitler a Darwinian?”) would have revealed Richards’ article, I conclude that Wilson’s approach to scholarship must be lazy indeed.

  12. Timberwoof says

    I’d like to see Lou Schuler defend his nonsense about mansitting to any ice hockey goalie … or even any player. Hockey players, even amateurs, are athletic, flexible, and capable of sitting politely. (That’s important in a locker room.) Knees apart is bad stance for skating no matter what your sex or build. Race doesn’t even enter into it. Schuler is a hoser.

  13. blf says

    Mendel was not a monk. He was a friar. There is a difference.

    Monks, typically secluded and cloistered, are better fried.
    Friars, typically free-range, can be prepared in many ways, such as marinated then grilled.

  14. chrism says

    1. The Evans review in turn is gorgeous and very effective writing. BTW Evans began his career as a social historian of the incipient German Feminist movement and his scholarship still holds up. I can also highly recommend his “Altered Pasts”.

    2. Someone should really write a book called “‘SocialDarwinism’ before Darwin”.

    3. The confusion wether Mendel was a monk or friar arises because German seldom differentiates between monachus and frater, both are generally called Mönch. If you want a less ambigous signifier call him an abbot or priest.

  15. cartomancer says

    Round here in Glastonbury we take the accurate identification of those in religious orders very seriously.

    One of our local fish and chip shops used to be called “The Deep Fat Friar”. About ten years ago somebody (who may or may not have been me, but let’s face it, it was me) pointed out that the man in the robe on the sign was actually a Benedictine monk, and not a friar at all. As he damn well should have been, given that Glastonbury Abbey was a Benedictine foundation.

    Within the week they had changed the name to “ChipMonks”.

  16. Erp says

    Wilson is a Staffordshire man whose family had a long connection with the Wedgwood pottery (a family that Charles Darwin was also closely connected to). He is also a former atheist (and unlike some who claim that has concrete evidence to prove it). He also seems to have fallen for ‘intelligent design” (extolling Denton’s book “Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis”).

  17. mnb0 says

    “When people talk of “missing links”,
    I always ask if the missing links in their family tree between them and Adam and Eve allows me to conclude that they are not human, but disguised aliens.

    “Darwin did not propose that Nature was always ruthless.”
    And even if he did – Pjotr Kropotkin withing ten years showed with his Siberian research that cooperation (he called it mutual aid) is also an important factor. So this is simply not an argument against Evolution Theory on any account.

    “to sustain the thesis that Hitler was a Darwinian”
    we must in the first place ignore Mein Kampf. It tells us:“iron law of Nature–which compels the various species to keep within the definite limits of their own life-forms when propagating and multiplying their kind.” and “The fox remains always a fox, the goose remains a goose, and the tiger will retain the character of a tiger.” Last million times I checked these were creationist points.

  18. Brian English says

    MARIA BARBA RURSUS VICTRIX OMNIUM INTERRETIUM EST

    Mary Beard is winner of the internet again?

    There should be a crack squad from Oxford or Cambridge, who get out there whumping sticks (and pigs heads if they’re old Etonians) and play frappe le twat! (I’m sure it would some sexist name like that) against whomever dares dispute Mary Beard without having any idea what they’re on about…

    Some idiot was arguing that he’d published more than her in an unrelated field and would sell more books. O tempora O mores!

  19. emergence says

    I’ve noticed this phenomenon where some creationists seem to wall themselves off from information about evolution, and tend to repeat trite, cliched arguments over and over as if they were fresh and new. It never registers for them that scientists have already heard these arguments thousands of times and refuted them just as many times.

    It doesn’t help that the arguments being mindlessly repeated are all founded on basic misunderstandings of how evolution works.

    It’s mind-bendingly stupid to insist that we haven’t found any transitional forms when you can find entire databases of them online. Some of them are so obviously transitions between different taxonomic groups that creationists confronted with them have to basically deny what’s right in front of their faces.

    This guy also seems to deny natural selection entirely, something even a lot of major creationist organizations don’t do. Not only have we observed natural selection both in the wild and in the lab, the basic idea is undeniable if you actually understand it. Different genetic traits influence how likely an organism is to survive in a given environment. Those that have a greater likelihood to survive have a greater likelihood to reproduce and pass their genetic traits on to the next generation. The only way you could deny this is if you insisted that different genetic traits didn’t give any advantages or disadvantages in different environments, and every individual was equally likely to reproduce. We already know that’s not true.

    What’s really irritating about this guy and every other bargain bin creationist featured here is that his arguments are long-refuted dreck and he has nothing new to bring to the table, but he legitimately believes he’s producing a game-changing challenge to established science.

  20. KG says

    Denton’s book “Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis” – Erp@20

    As it has been for the last 158 years :-p

  21. aziraphale says

    In 1999 Wilson wrote a rather good book, “God’s Funeral”, about the decline of faith in Victorian England. It’s sad to see him now producing such sloppy work.

  22. cartomancer says

    Brian English, #22

    I can still remember when Mary Beard was on Question Time about a decade ago, and some jumped-up Tory journalist tried to lecture her on how immigration and overspending on legionaries’ pensions were what caused the collapse of the Roman Empire. His sole source of information being Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which the journalist in question had read bits of at university. When you find yourself lecturing a world expert in her own field from a book that was 30 years out of date when Charles Darwin was born you should probably take a good long look at yourself in the mirror.

  23. blf says

    An utterly brilliant review of Wilson’s batshite has been posted on Amazon’s site. It’s from Dr Adam Rutherford, the fomer editor of Nature (quoted in its entirety with a few formatting tweaks):

    I am a scientist who has studied evolution and genetics for many years. I have also extensively written about Charles Darwin. Singularly, I have never come across a more incoherent, inconsistent, deranged attempt to analyse Darwin as a man and his science. If AN Wilson has indeed researched this book for 5 years, as he has claimed, he has managed to do something impressive, which is to draw conclusions which are so comprehensively bonkers as to fall into the category of ‘not even wrong’. This book is littered with errors, both trivial and fundamental, ones that could easily be fact-checked. But Wilson seems not to care. His understanding of evolution, of genetics, and of science in general is comically egregious – based on this book, he would fail GCSE biology catastrophically. The anti-Darwinian arguments presented here are not even as cogent as those presented by Young Earth Creationists.

    * To associate Darwin with Hitler’s policies is at best misguided and at worst intellectually dishonest: Darwin’s scientific ideas have little to do with the political ideas of Social Darwinism, and the deranged policies of Nazism drew from distortions of the works relating to Norse mythology, the Bible and a host of other sources.

    * To suggest Darwin did not credit others who thought on evolution before him is not borne out by the fact that he lists more than 38 who did just that, in the Origin of Species itself.

    * To assert that there are no transitional fossils is not supported by the fact that there are literally millions of transitional fossils.

    * To suggest that genetics does not support Darwinian natural selection is contrary to the view held by every biologist in the world that genetics fully reinforces natural selection.

    The only valid criticism I can find herein of Darwin is that he might have been flatulent, which can be attributed to a serious disease that he picked up on his travels on the Beagle.

    And so on. I can’t for the life of me work out how a serious writer could draw these conclusions about someone who has been studied for more than a century, on a subject that millions of people have spent millions of hours and millions of £££ testing. I can only conclude that AN Wilson is not a serious man.

    The pagination is excellent. I like the picture of the bat on the back cover.

    Dr. Adam Rutherford

    Originally found via the forum at Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science. (Here’s the picture of the bat.)

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