Darwin, Darwinism, and Uncertainty: book review

If you want to publish a book with a vanity press and no editorial assistance, you had better know what you are doing. Charles M. Woolf, an emeritus professor of zoology at Arizona State University, unfortunately does not know what he is doing. His book, Darwin, Darwinism, and Uncertainty, is a series of three more or less unrelated essays. The first is a biography of Darwin and attempts to show that Darwin was a believing member of the Church of England until the ascent of Darwin to agnosticism later in his life; hence, “Darwinism” and theism are not necessarily incompatible. The second and least important essay is called “Theories for the creation of the universe,” but it concerns mostly the origin of complex, self-replicating molecules, and I found much of it very difficult to understand.

The last essay, “A probabilistic model for the origin of life forms on earth,” uses a crude probability model to suggest that intelligent, upright beings are common in the universe. The author seems to think that his

probabilistic model accounts for the thesis that Homo sapiens is a chance species on earth. It also builds a bridge over the seemingly deep chasm separating theism on one side and Darwinism on the other side, and therefore allows Darwinism to be made compatible [author’s italics] with various different religions throughout the world whose doctrines and practices are not driven by creationists and primitive science of ancient times.

I have read the appropriate section three times and still cannot fathom this argument. It seems to me that the science of evolution (please, not Darwinism) is already compatible with religions that “are not driven by creationists and primitive science of ancient times,” and the author is merely saying that evolution can be made compatible with those religions with which it is already compatible.

The longest and most important part of the book is the essay on Darwin, but it is marred by poor writing, poor editing, poor organization, and poor layout. Most particularly, long footnotes appear frequently in the middle of a page. One footnote is three pages long. Two of the important influences on Darwin’s theology were the existence of suffering in the world and the death of Darwin’s beloved daughter Annie. Darwin was particularly bewildered by a parasitic wasp (the ichneumon wasp) whose larvae eat a caterpillar alive over an extended period. Yet these two influences are mentioned only in a footnote. This footnote, in particular, should have been incorporated into the text. Likewise the three-page footnote beginning on page 27 should have been an appendix if it was not important enough to be included in the text. In that footnote, I think the author uses gene when he means allele, and he never defines Darwinian fitness. All in all, the footnote is hard to follow.

The book contains a good description of Darwin’s theory of gemmules to support his belief in the inheritance of acquired characteristics. The description of Darwin’s drift away from the Anglican church to deism and later agnosticism is good. Darwin was very conservative and opposed strident atheism, saying change must come in an orderly fashion.

As far as I know, Hooker and Lyell’s treatment of Alfred Russel Wallace is described fairly. Hooker and Lyell were concerned, however, that Darwin was too “principled” to act. What does it mean that Darwin was too principled? Were they pressuring Darwin to do something unethical? Or was it unethical only by today’s standards? The incident should have been discussed more.

The book looks as if it was printed straight from a Microsoft Word file, with no additional typesetting whatsoever, so it resembles a typescript rather than a printed book. Paragraphs are long and sometimes run to 2-1/2 pages. Even widow/orphan is not turned on. The book has no index, and very few references are called out in the text. The book is full of mistakes: Dr. Butler’s great school (for grade school?). Discrete for discreet. Shivery for shivers. Confidante for confidant. Oviposter for ovipositor. Mitochondrian for mitochondrion. Fundamental Christian for fundamentalist Christian. Chagrin for chagrined. Titles are often both set in italics and enclosed in quotation marks. Quotations are often enclosed, so to speak, in a single quotation mark (… Darwin was besieged with correspondence concerning this “delightful” and most interesting” book). I will not bore you with the myriad instances where the author uses he and his with an unclear antecedent, usually but not always Darwin. Nor will I dwell on the awkward, passive-voice sentences that often pop up in the middle of an otherwise perfectly good paragraph written in the active voice.

If this author has something to say, and I think the first chapter may have merit, he has unfortunately not said it in a clear, useful, or compelling way.