“Darwin: Portrait of a Genius” by Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson is a superb biographer. He has written a series of short, accessible biographies on people like Socrates, Jesus, Mozart, and Napoleon that are effective at engaging the reader, and placing the figure in a historical context that elucidates why they story is still relevant.He does just this with Charles Darwin, the eminent Victorian naturalist.

The biggest surprise to me was how old an idea evolution was even 150 years ago. Darwin was simply the best traveled scientist of his day and so was the first to notate the surprising varieties of species in the world. He didn’t invent the ideas of evolution or natural selection, he was the scientist famous for popularizing the theories and had gathered the most evidence for them. The climate of Victorianism is completely antithetical to the zeitgeist of today, and the places his ideas were carried in the absence of knowledge of Mendelian genetics are disturbing. From natural selection comes Social Darwinism, eugenics, and forced sterilization.

The history of these ideas are still relevant, and being fought over, and so this portrait of a Victorian genius and his ideas is still vitally relevant today.

Vocabulary and Anecdotes
exponent—a person or thing that expounds, explains, or interprets.
panjandrum—a person who has or claims to have a great deal of authority or influence.
saponaceous—of, like, or containing soap; soapy.
polymath—a person of wide-ranging knowledge or learning.
Quotes and Anecdotes: The Ancient Theory of Evolution and The Power of Ideas (For Good and Evil).

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Highlights

“Any man who never conducts an experiment is a fool.”

Darwin quoted a young doctor as saying that his father was “wholly unscientific” bit his “power of predicting the end of an illness was unparalleled.” He rightly disapproved of many injurious current practices, such as bleeding—he hated the sight of blood, a horror he passed on to his son—and his treatment was, often enough, sensible advice and reassurance, which, given the state of medical knowledge then, and the unavailability of effective drugs except opium, was just as well. The best doctors in the early nineteenth century were those who, physically, did least, and Robert Darwin was one of them. Instead, he provided wisdom and sensibility.

It is not considered quite proper to suggest that scientists often progress as much by personal charm as by intellect. But it is so.

Apart from his older contemporary, the great German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, who spent the years 1799-1804 in Latin America, no other scientist had travelled anything like so long as Darwin making studies on the spot or had observed so wide a variety of phenomena on land and ocean.

It is important to grasp that Darwin was not only a cerebral and intuitive man but a highly emotional one.

The Beagle voyage transformed Darwin from a promising naturalist to a widely experienced and dedicated one. He now knew what he loved: to investigate nature in the greatest possible detail and on the widest possible scale. He said later that he had become a machine for accumulating countless facts and finding out from them universal laws. He delighted in being that machine.

It is important to grasp this point: Darwin never had to exhaust his energies on teaching, to scrabble about to get an academic appointment, or to keep it by conforming to the fashions and prejudices of the academy and its rules about publication. This had disadvantages, as we shall see. But the overwhelming advantage was to give the twenty-seven-year-old complete freedom to pursue lines of inquiry he thought most likely to produce worthwhile knowledge, especially about “the mystery of mysteries,” for as long as they might require. He had no one to report to except his own conscience and no institution or body to fit in with except the confraternity of learned men. Was ever a scientist more fortunate or more happy?

He proposed on November 11 and was promptly accepted. He called her “the most interesting specimen in the whole series of vertebrate animals.”

He saw himself as collecting material for his great book so as to present his theory backed by overwhelming evidence, and it is certainly true that he amassed an ever growing pile of facts about the way organisms grew. As he put it, “I am like Croesus, overwhelmed by my riches of facts.” The term overwhelmed was apt. Like many other scholars of all times, Darwin accumulated more material than he could ever possibly have needed. He never acquired the basic economic theory of research: an overprovision of material and evidence is not only unnecessary but a positive hindrance to a completed work.

Natural selection is the why of evolution.

We have to distinguish between what Darwin actually wrote and what people read into the book. It is clear, from the first week Origin was published, that everyone concluded man was inevitably part of the theory. it was their first reaction on finishing the book. But Darwin nowhere says that man was descended from apes. What he does say, in his last two paragraphs, is designed to be reassuring and uplifting. We can all “look with some confidence to a secure future.” Natural selection, he insists, “works solely by and for the good of each being” and “all mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection.” That was exactly what the Victorian public, with its love of reform and improvement, wished to hear.

Marx and Engels were both reading it the week of publication and exchanging views. Marx was enthusiastic, as the book was “a basis in natural science for the class struggle in history,” and he determined to use the theory of natural selection as a weapon in his ideological war.

In fact, Darwin never had to fight a public battle. He did not suffer in the smallest degree professionally as a result of Origin. Being sensitive, he was hurt by critical reviews. But that was all. In the not so long run, it was the scientists who opposed him who were in danger of victimization. The persecution of Darwin is pure myth. On the contrary, he found himself an eminent Victorian. Darwinism became a term circulating in London society. Darwinismus was hailed enthusiastically as the translation circulated. Indeed the Germans treated him as a hero: In no other country did natural selection, or rather the “survival of the fittest,” catch on so fast. Other translations swiftly followed. His ideas were particularly well received in Japan, then just beginning to enter the modern world and industrialize itself. Soon—by the mid-1860s—there was no corner of the earth where Darwin was not known as “the famous scientist.”

As for Mendel, he outlived Darwin by nearly two years but never got any recognition of his genius. In 1869 he was made abbot of his monastery, the rest of his life was spent largely in administration, and his work passed into limbo. Only in 1900, when he and Darwin had been dead nearly two decades, did three European botanists quite independently develop the same ideas about inheritance. They then, in searching the literature, came across Mendel’s papers, and realized the importance of his work. The science of genetics then began in earnest, and Mendel got due credit. But the blending of Darwin and Mendel never took place. Instead there was a new hybrid, a true monster—social Darwinism in its various forms.

Darwin’s writings led directly to the state of mind that promoted imperialism the quest for colonies, the “race for Africa,” and, to use Rhodes’ expression, “painting the map of the world red.” In less than twenty years, Britain acquired 3.5 million square miles of colonies and a further 1.5 million of protectorates. But of course other nations began to seize colonies too, and expand their earth space, developing their own master-race theories in justification—the Russians, the French, the Japanese, a newcomer to modernity but immensely proud of its undoubted “racial purity,” and above all, the Germans.

Darwin took it as axiomatic that the improvement of the human race, by natural or artificial means, was and is desirable.

The truth is, Origin is a book that, with total success, embodies an exciting idea and had a devastating intellectual and emotional impact on world society. The word devastating is accurate: It destroyed many comfortable assumptions, thus clearing space for new concepts and ideas to spring up in almost every subject. It acted like a force of nature itself, and by the end of January 1860, when the second edition sold out, it was quite beyond Darwin’s control. Darwin became one of the formative thinkers of the twentieth century, alongside Marx, Freud, and Einstein, affecting the way people thought about an immense variety of topics, often quite remote from his own preoccupations.

 In the quarter century up to 1935, U.S. states passed over a hundred sterilization laws and sterilized over a hundred thousand people with subnormal mental faculties. Virginia went on sterilizing up to the 1970s.

In the twentieth century, it is likely that over 100 million people were killed or starved to death as a result of totalitarian regimes infected with varieties of social Darwinism.

As Mendel and his theory of genetics were rediscovered, spread rapidly, and were accepted and enlarged upon, some thought genetics was incompatible with Darwin. But after the First World War, Ronald Fisher showed that it was possible to reconcile Darwin and Mendel. Indeed, said Fisher, “Mendelism supplied the missing parts of the structure erected by Darwin.” Darwin showed the what of evolution and the why, natural selection. Now Mendel had produced the how, genetics.

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