Reviewed by Cary Seidman
Historian Paul Johnson’s analysis of the life and career of Charles Darwin is sure to ruffle some feathers among those who revere the great naturalist. This biography is at once biologically accurate and still more critical of Darwin's personality traits than most available. For teachers and motivated secondary and college students, it will make be a controversial if thought–provoking choice.
It isn't that Johnson, whose earlier writings include many insightful and very readable world history works, does not have high regard for his subject. We meet Darwin as the son of a privileged English family. Johnson provides a witty and gracefully written account of the voyage of the Beagle and Darwin’s subsequent synthesis of his observations into his ideas on natural selection. Much of the book, however, finds the author carping at Darwin for his weaknesses, several of which the naturalist had acknowledged himself, such as a lack of fluency in foreign languages, a low level of mathematical sophistication, and a needless tendency to procrastinate. That Darwin was a fallible human being and that his theory was not perfect in the light of present day biological scholarship are points worth making, as some students and teachers are prone to elevate him to almost divine status. But Johnson then takes Darwin to task on some shaky ground. He notes that Darwin, in his writings, stated that he did not possess any testable theory of the mechanisms of natural selection. Johnson excoriates him for not finding out about the almost contemporaneous work of Gregor Mendel in central Europe. This seems more than unfair, as Mendel’s work was little noted within scientific circles anywhere in Europe until almost half a century after its publication. Johnson then takes an even harsher shot at Darwin’s legacy in claiming that murderous tyrants such as Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot claimed to use what they called Darwinian ideas in formulating their genocidal policies. It seems far–fetched and mean spirited to somehow blame Darwin for atrocities committed decades after his death, yet Johnson does just that.
Is this thin (151–page) volume of value? Yes, it is, especially in the first half, where the biographical material is so skillfully and concisely drawn. As for the controversial later sections, any biology teacher or student of the history of science is sure to be stimulated by Paul Johnson’s inflammatory rhetoric. Johnson is no creationist, and he realizes the significance of Darwin’s groundbreaking work, but he does an historical and philosophical hatchet job on evolutionary biology’s founder.
Review posted on 1/4/2013