Charles Darwin – Victorian Mythmaker
Guest Post by the inimitable Mr B!
Charles Darwin – Victorian Mythmaker.
I have always had a bit of a man crush on Charles Darwin. Not that I am any great scientist……….That is why I am sat here writing book reviews for Duffy! Although he lived in an extraordinary time of discovery and invention, his “invention” was a bit different. He didn’t invent a steam engine or a typewriter or the electric light bulb or morse code. He simply tried to explain and convince a sceptical world about a natural phenomenon and he devoted his life to this work. His theory of natural selection challenged the very foundations of society, but over time became almost universally accepted.
Andrew Norman (“A.N.”) Wilson’s book, “Charles Darwin – Victorian Mythmaker”, is a detailed account of the life of this amazing man. But what is natural selection? Here is an extreme example. I remember reading about the archer fish as a kid. Have you ever seen an archer fish? Check this out:
So the theory goes something like this (In my own words and not the eloquence of A.N. Wlson)…….Not even God after a big night out could directly create something as weird as an archer fish! It must have evolved. It must have adapted to its environment. This process occurs not only amongst all the fish in the fish pond, but also amongst all the archer fish hanging out in the same pond. So over time, not only might archer fish rule the pond, but those archer fish which, for example, can shoot even further, could dominate other archer fish to the point where over time all the archer fish shoot further.
In the more eloquent words of A.N. Wilson:
“Species of plants and animals are very fertile. They produce far more than can ever survive into adulthood. Their population remains….unchanged. So there is a fierce struggle for life. The large numbers of eggs, spores, offspring, seeds being multiplied by nature have to fight for limited amounts of nutrition. It follows, therefore, that the stronger and the better fitted to survive, the greater a species’ chance of survival.
Now, in the reproduction of species by means of sex, there is a variation. No two individuals are ever completely identical. Therefore, in a world of stable populations where each individual struggles to survive, those with the most favourable characteristics will be the ones who survive. Nature chooses the best and discards the weakest. This is natural selection. Plants and animals will adapt themselves to their environment.”
Darwin’s thinking developed over his entire life. As a young man of 22, he travelled to South America on HMS Beagle culminating in his famous journey through the Galapagos Islands. His eyes were opened on that trip to very different environments and the animals and plants which lived in them and he collected thousands of specimens. When he returned to England in 1836, he tried to make sense of it all. He got inspiration from an unlikely source. Thomas Malthus was an economist who’s “Essay on the Principle of Population” was published in 1798. Malthus believed that the fight for food was the key to economic history. Makes sense when you really think about it! The author writes of Darwin’s thought process:
“The implications of Malthus’ book……………‘struck me at once’. That is, it was not just the strongest or the most robust who would get ahead in the ‘struggle for existence’. Rather, it was those who possessed some particular attribute, or variation, which made them suited to living in a particular environment. Those possessing such attributes got ahead. Those lacking them went to the wall. Little by little, over many generations, these attributes would be refined, until: ‘The result would be the formation of a new species……..Here at last I had a theory by which to work.”
Darwin also drew inspiration from his own family. His grandfather Erasmus himself was a physician and inventor. Erasmus had published evolutionary ideas back in the 1700’s. These ideas were seen by some to coincide with his support for the French Revolution. But Wilson claims that Darwin gave his grandfather no real credit for inspiring him. He was however happy to accept his inheritance. You see, if you wanted to be a great man of science in the 19th century, you ideally came from a wealthy family. This meant that you didn’t have to do paid work and could spend your life advancing science! Not only did his own family have money, but Darwin married his cousin Emma Wedgwood – of Wedgwood pottery fame. They went on to have 10 kids – talk about survival of the fittest!
The detail the author goes into in this book is impressive. Historical biographies like this require detailed research. It’s not like Mr Wilson could interview anyone who knew Darwin. He had to pour through mountains of documents and correspondence. The book has an impressive bibliography and footnotes and a fantastic index which makes it easy for the reader to dive back into the book. There is no doubt technology has helped in this process and the author acknowledges the “magnificent” Darwin Correspondence Project based at the Cambridge University Library:
More than 8500 of Darwin’s letters and more are now available to schools and the general public on line. This creates more knowledge, more research, more writing and more books! For which we need more book reviewers!! Talk about a win:win!
Every book like this needs an angle. So much has been written on Darwin that any new work requires an original way of presenting or interpreting material which has often been trawled through by many writers before. In pushing this angle, it is not hard to over-reach. A. N. Wilson praises Darwin as one of the world’s greatest naturalists, but he is critical of Darwin’s “mythic status in the history of science” and he accuses Darwin himself as much as anyone of creating the myth. Wilson calls Darwin a “self mythologizer, a man who wanted to represent himself, when the moment was ripe, as the pioneer evolutionist”. He also puts the view that Darwin’s theory provided Victorians with their own controversial myth: “The vigorous happy and healthy who bought books, and rode in carriages, and sent their sons to Rugby and Haileybury and Eton were consoled to realize that, although it required much destruction and death to allow them to exist, the inferior and discarded breeds felt no pain as they died out.” This taps into the darker side of Darwin which appealed to racist and extremist elements in Europe – whites were naturally superior to blacks.
Now Wilson is no slouch when it comes to writing biographies like this. He taught literature for seven years at New College, Oxford where he won the Chancellor’s English Essay Prize and the Ellerton Prize. His biography of Tolstoy won the Whitbread Prize in 1988. But in this book, Wilson does stretch the evidence to support his views. Some of his views would almost require a psychological assessment of Darwin for him to make the claim. Kathryn Hughes reviewing the book for The Guardian goes so far as to say the book is a “cheap attempt to ruffle feathers”:
Hughes’ review got me thinking…………book reviewers like us here at Duffy really should get more credit than we do. We hold the authors of the world to account. We keep them honest! We keep their standards up and help them improve their next book. Go Duffy! Go Duffy! Go Duffy! Go…….Sorry, am getting a bit carried away. There are dance moves that go with this, but I will leave those for another review.
Anyway, if you want to learn more about Charles Darwin or if you like historical biographies, you will like this book. Just bear in mind the author is putting his particular spin on it. The book also has a beaut cover and would look great on any book shelf!
Buy this stunning looking, if feather ruffling book, right now at Booktopia, Amazon, and Book Depository
Check out some other non-fiction reviews here