Occasionally, it is possible for an individual to change how people understand the world and thereby unleash forces that ultimately bring about great good or great harm. This however can lead to a certain amount of mythologizing and exaggeration regarding their lives, their work or their intentions. In his most recent book, Darwin, Portrait of a Genius, well-known historian and biographer Paul Johnson provides a fresh look at the life and times of the great naturalist Charles Darwin, and reassesses the significance of his groundbreaking work.
Charles Darwin, a genius born in 1809 in Shropshire, England, believed that inheritance determined a person more than education or environment and fittingly came from a brilliant family. His father and both paternal grandfathers, in the course of a half-century, rose from modest landownership to renown and wealth as medical practitioners, gentlemen scientists who studied the transference of traits from one generation to the next. His grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was an early evolutionist who hypothesized a “common filament” connecting both plant and animal life that was passed on from parent to offspring. While early on, Charles displayed an aptitude for observation and analysis, he later proved to be an uninspiring and unenthusiastic medical student at Edinburgh.
Charles however formed close relationships with his professors of natural science, one of whom recommended him to be the naturalist aboard the H.M.S. Beagle for its voyage of discovery around the world. Embarking in 1821, Charles spent five years exploring flora and fauna. His astute observations and compelling theories on plant life in South America and coral formation in the Indian Ocean, sent from the deck of the Beagle, popularized him in scientific circles even before his return in 1826, when his father Robert Darwin established him up as a gentleman scientist to pursue his lifelong passion for science. Darwin now more thoroughly analyzed the thousands of samples and innumerable notes he had also collected during his voyage, including 500 stuffed finches from the Galapagos Islands. By the time he married his cousin Emma Wedgewood in 1839, he had roughly formed his theories regarding the process of the evolutionary development of physical traits. However, wary of their controversy, he continued to develop them in private until 1856, when a fellow naturalist, Alfred Russell Wallace, came to many of the same conclusions. Releasing his groundbreaking work, The Origin of Species, Darwin published only a few months ahead of Wallace and sealed his place as the founder of the theory that would change the study of biology.
Johnson is that rare author who can synthesize the entire life of a great historical figure in under 200 pages of eminently enjoyable prose. Johnson’s brevity necessitates that his work is not exhaustive, but presents the aspects of Darwin’s life that are likely most relevant to Johnson. He succeeds at “de-mythologizing” Darwin by offering a fresh look at his shortcomings as well as his brilliance. He also highlights the challenges that Darwin faced as he applied his biological paradigm to anthropology in his second and far more controversial work, The Descent of Man, arguing effectively that Darwin was a far better scientist than anthropologist. He suggests that Darwin’s clumsy attempts at that discipline lacked the empirical rigor that characterized his previous biological work and left The Descent of Man open to radical interpretation by the new generation of eugenicists and self-styled ‘Social-Darwinists.’ Johnson’s book is a compelling portrait that raises important new interpretations of Darwin and his work for the 21st century.