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DARWIN by Paul Johnson


Portrait of a Genius

by Paul Johnson

Pub Date: Oct. 15th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-670-02571-8
Publisher: Viking

A provocative short biography of one of the most influential scientists of all time.

Historian and prolific biographer Johnson (Socrates: A Man for Our Times, 2011, etc.) begins by noting the importance of heredity in Darwin’s accomplishment. Both his grandfathers and his father, arguably geniuses in their own right, bequeathed to Charles the intellectual tools to pursue science, plus the financial security to do so without the compromises of making a living. In addition to a first-rate education, he received the opportunity to join the HMS Beagle expedition, gathering the material evidence for his theory of evolution. Johnson quickly summarizes the key events of Darwin’s formative days, then devotes the meat of the book to his development of the theory and the publication of The Origin of Species. Darwin’s long delay in publishing his theories may have been based on a fear of religious opposition, but Johnson argues that the opposition was comparatively mild. Unfortunately, writes the author, Darwin’s failure to recognize Gregor Mendel’s work on heredity, published only a few years after Origin, deprived him from recognizing the final element needed to explain how natural selection works. Johnson also points to what he considers two central flaws in Darwin’s work: a too-literal acceptance of Malthus’ theories and insufficient understanding of anthropology. More pernicious, according to Johnson, was Darwin’s insufficient understanding of the non-Western societies he encountered. He too easily swallowed second- and thirdhand accounts that portrayed Maoris and other native peoples as bordering on subhuman. Together, Johnson writes, those elements led to social Darwinism, a philosophy that was used to justify the worst atrocities of the modern era, from British colonial oppression to Hitler to Pol Pot. While it may be an unfair accusation, it’s certainly sobering.

A probing, well-written overview of Darwin’s impact.