The prolific novelist and biographer probes the character and controversies of Charles Darwin’s life and the controversial theory that turned the world on its head.
Wilson (The Queen, 2017, etc.) writes that Victorian England, deep into the Industrial Revolution, “was ready for a theory of nature which revealed everything in existence to be in a state of becoming, rather than fixed arrival.” Born into an upper-class family, Darwin followed in the footsteps of his father and attended medical school. However, he was more intrigued by the natural world than human bodies, and when he was given the opportunity to join an exploratory voyage, he took it. The huge collection of natural specimens that Darwin amassed on this five-year voyage was, in Wilson’s eyes, his greatest achievement. After settling down to a quiet country life with his family, Darwin formulated the theory of evolution that he would lay out in On the Origin of Species and further develop in The Descent of Man. Wilson thoroughly analyzes the various facets of Darwin’s life for influences both conscious and unconscious. While Darwin is usually credited with the theory of evolution, another scientist, Alfred Russel Wallace, actually came up with the theory at the same time. Both found inspiration from a tract about human population by Thomas Malthus. While most of us now take evolution as a given, there were plenty of questions left open, some of which Darwin himself recognized. The study of genetics has answered some of these questions, but the idea of evolution as the “survival of the fittest” continues to be challenged. Integrating a wealth of biographical details with in-depth discussions of the criticisms and arguments around Darwinism, Wilson helps readers understand how Darwin was an almost inevitable product of his times. As he writes, “the idea…that he alone was responsible for the scales falling from the eyes of the human race is a piece of mythology.”
An illuminating new biography of a legendary figure in the scientific world whose legacy continues to draw reappraisals.