The first genius of this book is that it is 150 pages long, the perfect length for a short read today (if you are a reader) or a do-able read today (if you are not a reader). Johnson’s biography of Darwin is published by Penguin and marketed to the academic market, which is also why it needs to be fairly brief.
Paul Johnson is a biographer with many “big men” of history under his belt. He tackles Darwin with the same kind of workmanship that he has tackled others. He begins by portraying Darwin’s family tree as trending Darwin towards genius. He had the genetics, the nurturing environment, and, most importantly, he was independently wealthy and free of the need to teach, publish on a schedule, or meet any other external demands.
Johnson handles Darwin’s education with an honest appraisal of his weaknesses, math being key among those. Johnson is also honest about the way in which Darwin crafts the image of his education and downplays those whose influence he wished to discount or disavow, with the overall impact of making his intellect appear innate with very little need for the shaping of formal education. Darwin was first sent to school for medicine, then ordination. He did not acquire much skill in dissection or drawing, two skills that would have helped immensely in his later work. He also was weak in foreign languages, which would later contribute to his not learning about Mendel’s work with genetics. What he did acquire from his formal education that was absolutely crucial was a network of movers and shakers, one of whom garnered for him a place on the Beagle that would set the agenda for the rest of his life.
Johnson portrays Darwin as fascinated with detail. He enjoyed the study of finch beaks and later worms and barnacles. He was much less interested in the people he encountered on his voyages with the Beagle and made, disappointingly, observations of native peoples that were in line with his age—bigoted. Their customs appeared to him extremely primitive and he believed rumors that reinforced his impressions.
Darwin was slow to publish The Origin of Species after his return home for terribly human reasons. First, Johnson argues, he was concerned about the backlash from religious conservatives and his religious wife. Second, he was just not that organized or motivated. He did not need to publish. Only when others began laying the groundwork for evolution and only when another thinker, Alfred Russell Wallace, sent him a manuscript that contained Darwin’s own theory of natural selection, which Wallace had arrived at independently, did Darwin find the self-discipline to quickly and economically write Origins, freeing himself from the extensive scientific structure of the Victorian age and writing, instead, to persuade the public. This, Johnson argues, makes Origin much more readable than any of Darwin’s other works (including his four-volume study of barnacles).
Johnson argues against the idea of Darwin as persecuted and shows, instead, how he used his network to promote Origin and how he used effusive praise of a wide variety of scientists and thinkers within Origin to smooth its reception. Johnson is blunt about Darwin’s continuing weakness when observing humans and his typical Victorian racist and sexist assumptions scattered throughout Origin.
With Origin in publication and Wallace’s threat to his intellectual legacy held at bay, Darwin retreated to his world of minutiae, turning now to his barnacles and worms, puttering in his green houses. Had he read German or hired an assistant to read foreign-language journals and keep him apprised of developments, Johnson argues, Darwin might have realized the importance of Mendel’s work with peas to his natural selection theory (which, in later editions, Darwin amended to the natural selection theory after many pointed out that others had arrived at the same conclusions).
Johnson’s views on Darwin’s relationship to social Darwinism are more complicated. Darwin’s cousin was a virulent social Darwinist, as were many of Darwin’s network, but Johnson stops short of saying Darwin himself held these ideas. Yes, he was racist and sexist, but was he a proponent of social Darwinism? Did he approve of his cousin’s work, yes. Would he have approved of eugenics as it developed? Johnson says we cannot know for sure. What we do know is that he opposed birth control and vaccinations as interfering in the processes necessary for natural selection. Johnson is more direct about the connection between Darwin’s framework of struggle in Origin and the way in which others interpreted his work. Darwin’s view of struggle and the emotional language surrounding it that he employed in Origin set up a social Darwinist reading of the text. Johnson even connects Darwin’s use of struggle and Hitler’s in Mein Kampf. What Johnson as biographer rather than historian does not draw out here is whether Hitler’s and Darwin’s uses are connected through their texts or through the overall tone of the time. What historical forces influenced Darwin to see natural selection through the lens of violent struggle that also influenced Hitler to see his own story as one of struggle?
Johnson reveals his hand in the last pages of the biography, arguing against the deification of Darwin by Darwinian fundamentalists, using language to parallel the religious fundamentalism that fights against Darwinism, natural selection, and evolution. Johnson argues that we need to see Darwin as a historical figure, subject to the weaknesses of his time, and limited by the knowledge of his time. This argument, however, brought me back to the subtitle: Portrait of a Genius. Does not Johnson’s own title perpetuate, even if just for marketing purposes, the deification his text fights against? Darwin in this light has ceased to be a historical figure and has become, instead, a commodity to be traded by publishers as well as biologists and evangelical preachers.