Did Darwin make our world or did he undo it? Paradoxically both, although rather than learning how he pulled off this remarkable feat, readers of this labyrinthine biography are more likely to be buffeted by a maelstrom of contrarian pronouncements, and forced to grapple with A.N. Wilson’s misapprehensions of evolution. The opening words “Darwin was wrong” set the scene for a Manichaean epic, in which in a sort of Faustian compact a prominent place in the history of ideas is achieved in spite of wrongs, neglect, loathsomeness and hubris. Darwin’s life provides the thread of Wilson’s narrative, and for the most part it is not a pretty sight. On the one hand, a man of extraordinary powers of observation, a voracious and tireless curiosity, indeed the Einstein of naturalists; on the other, a deeply self-centred individual, skilfully concealing his overweening ambition, afflicted with severe intellectual amnesia, duplicitous in his reasoning, skilled in the dark arts of self-promotion, and Gollum-like in the protection of his theory.
But Wilson’s bold assault on Darwin’s reputation is not just ad hominem.