Monday, January 01, 2018

A New Darwin Biography Gets Fisked

Jerry Coyne, a somewhat outspoken atheist and author of the book Why Evolution is True, has written a review of a new book on Darwin titled Charles Darwin, Victorian Mythmaker by A.N. Wilson.  Coyne is baffled:
Given that many of Wilson’s earlier biographies have been admired for their style and insight, and not criticized for pervasive errors, this new project is baffling. Where Darwin’s other biographers have seen a sensitive and kindly man, a scrupulous scientist who willingly credited his predecessors, Wilson finds a greedy “self-mythologizer” desperate to become famous, even if it required ignoring or plagiarizing his forerunners and fellow naturalists.
In every portrayal of Darwin I have ever read, he is constantly generous, respectful, and professional. Coyne suggests that the problem does not lie with Darwin but with Wilson, who evidently makes many errors in this book:
In the most embarrassing error, Wilson claims that the first 50 pages of an important Darwin notebook have been lost forever, asserting that Darwin destroyed them to hide his intellectual cribbing from his contemporary Edward Blyth. In reality, Darwin simply placed those pages in a folder for later use, and they can easily be found online. Whatever Wilson was doing during the five years he spent researching and writing this book, it bears little relation to what we call “scholarship.”
According to Coyne, the same problem that lies at the heart of the book is the same philosophical problem that affects every anti-evolutionist: Darwin simply had to be incorrect about his ideas.  He simply had to be:
Why the sustained animus against Darwin? I think Wilson’s issue is not really Darwin but his ideas. “Darwin was wrong,” is how he opens the book, referring to the theory of evolution. Wilson plainly dislikes evolutionary biology, but, lacking scientific credentials, is not in a position to provide a thorough scientific critique of the field. Instead, he seems to have written a biography — a task he is at least in principle qualified for, having written 20 books on history — as a platform to launch an assault on evolution. Darwin’s character is simply collateral damage.
This kind of book is frustrating on so many levels.  The author has no knowledge of the subject matter so he makes unsophisticated attacks, and he is philosophically opposed to the subject matter so he deems it “bad.”

I once likened this sort of thing to bugs and a bug zapper.  Evolution is such a tempting target that even people that are absolutely unqualified to address it simply can't stay away.  We have seen this with Nancy Pearcey, Eric Metaxas, and others.  It is unfortunate that the reading public find these people informative on the topic.  As someone (probably not Mark Twain) once said: “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”  Are these people absolutely lying?  Maybe not, but if they continue to repeat the same misinformation time and time again, even after they have been corrected, what difference does it make?

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