'Darwin: A Portrait of a Genius'—A Review

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Acclaimed historian Paul Johnson is a rare author who can synthesize the life of a great historical figure and write up his findings in enjoyable prose, informative and interesting narrative. Darwin: A Portrait of a Genius is just such a book and part of the Penguin Life Series, which includes other volumes contributed by Johnson including: Socrates: A Man of Our Times; Napoleon: A Life; Jesus: A Biography from a Believer and Churchill. The brevity of such books necessitates that these works are not exhaustive. Perhaps Johnson is best known for A History of the Jews and A History of Christianity. This volume in the series offers a slightly bracing look at Charles Darwin—the quintessentially cultural biologist—including many of his shortcomings. There is no doubt. Darwin has had a profound influence on the story of life on this planet.

Johnson writes about the tragic direction that Darwin’s writings took when he moved beyond the kingdom of plants and animals, where he was especially skilled, into the realm of humans, where his less than objective anthropology was the background for writing The Descent of Man. It was constructed from unsupported evidence; much of it derived from his cousin Francis Galton. a compiler of dubious sociological statistics and the jack-of-all-trades journalist W. R. Greg.

Probably one of the most disturbing features mentioned by Johnson concerned the background of human catastrophes that played a role in Darwin’s natural selection theory. The Reverend Thomas Malthus, a Cambridge graduate with a passion for economics, became concerned about the rapid growth of human populations measured against limited resources. Malthus observed that reproductive forces increased geometrically. Food such as animal and cereals on the other hand increased only in arithmetical progression. Without world-wide evidence Malthus based his reasoning on the population expansion in the United States from 1750 to 1825. Johnson claimed that had Malthus been more careful he would have observed that despite increasing populations in America food consumption was also increasing along with increased productivity per acre, as well as bringing more wasteland into production. Right from the start Darwin, along with others, was emotionally attracted to Malthus’ theories and drawn into thinking about what might happen under environmental pressures related to reproductive geometrical progression.

Actually, as Johnson points out, the timing could not have been better for the publication of Darwin’s best known book The Origin of Species (November 1859). Just before Origins arrival John Stuart Mill’s Essay on Liberty and Samuel Smile’s Self-Help opened the windows of the public mind to accept Darwin. Mill argued that authors had the right to publish dissenting opinions and to hold opposing religious views. Smile’s work presented salutary tales of how able, industrious, and dedicated people rose to wealth—along with how the fittest not only survived but prospered.

Johnson presents the intellectual background for the acceptance of Origins and how the book established itself immediately as an important book and has remained ever since. Darwin saw Origins through five editions making many corrections. Criticized for claiming he had gotten the idea of natural selection without influence from others, Darwin changed “my theory” to “the theory” in later editions. There are many historical tidbits in Johnson’s book that will keep a reader’s interest.

The Origin of Species entered English science with much less hostility than Darwin feared. In fact, the leading circulating library Mudie’s was often overly sensitive about books that offended religious or moral disposition. Yet, the library ordered nearly half of the first edition. Also, it turned out that the Church of England was not offended by Origins. The reason that Johnson gave was that the Church was more interested and ferocious in waging war over doctrines than in seeking to repel scientific confounding ideas. Besides, in Great Britian belief in the literal accuracy of the Old Testament had been declining sharply among the educated since the late eighteenth century. Origin slipped through almost unchallenged with only a few critical reviews by the clergy. Some clerics were favorable about the book.

The first Adventist pioneer to take note of Darwin’s Origins was Elder Roswell F. Cottrell in February, 1875. Cottrell attended a series of lectures by a professed preacher of another faith. The preacher, among other things, tried to convence his audience that Adam was not the first man of the human race and that it was allegorical that God had taken a rib from Adam to create woman. The preacher also “thanked God for giving to the world such a man as Charles Darwin, a devout believer in God, who has done so much for the advancement of science among mankind. One would think from the encomium of that speaker, that man was evolved or devolved from the monkey, was truly one of the greatest benefactors of mankind” (1).

A year later Elder James White, without comment, reprinted an article in the The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald by Rev. P. R. Russel, a non-Adventist preacher, entitled “Darwinism Examined.” Darwin is pictured by Russel as possessing a pantheistic mind, “contriving to get rid of God.” Russel presents seven objections to Darwinism and concludes that the whole theory of Darwin destroys the Scripture record and testimony of natural history. Russel swept aside Darwin by saying that “there is a want of good common sense“ (2).

Darwin himself admitted to his limitations. His failure to advance beyond the teachings of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck that acquired characteristics could be inherited led him into other absurdities, including eugenics. Darwin completely missed Mendel’s theory and genetic laws which eventual became the foundations for an entirely new science of genetics and significant advancements into a greater understanding how natural selection works.

If you are looking for a better biography on Darwin the finest one by many accounts was written by Janet Browne as a two volume set. Charles Darwin: A Biography published by Random House. But if your interest is to simply obtain reasonable biographical background of the character and paradoxes of Charles Darwin this smaller volume written in popular narrative, but less scholarly language by Paul Johnson, should meet your needs. Unfortunately, many of Johnson’s biases show through in his research of Darwin. The main problem with Darwin: A Portrait of a Genius is that it is too brief to be hailed as a definitive biography and the author has not spent his scholarly life devoted to the history of science during the nineteenth-century.

—Dr. T. Joe Willey, received his Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of California, Berkeley and taught at Loma Linda Medical School, Walla Walla and La Sierra University. He was a fellow with Nobel Laureate Sir John Eccles at the University of New York, Buffalo, and research fellow at the Brain Research Institute at UCLA, Los Angeles.

  1. R. F. Cottrell. "Disguised Infidelity." The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald. Februry 11, 1875. p. 53.
  2. P. R. Bussel. "Darwinism Examined." The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald. May 15, 1876.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/4933