Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Paul Johnson's "Darwin: Portrait of a Genius" reviewed

 "The Gentleman Naturalist"


David Askew

June 4th, 2013

Dublin Review of Books

Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Charles Darwin are often said to be the three figures of modern Western thought who, from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries, revolutionised the way reality is perceived. Darwin’s reputation has only increased with the development of Mendelian genetics (indeed, the synthesis of his insights and genetics remains the dominant paradigm in biology). The Origin – On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life or simply (no wonder!) On the Origin of Species or as here the Origin – in particular has not only had a scientific but also a cultural impact. While Darwin’s thought had an immediate impact on biology, social Darwinism also played a role in shaping a new politics. Today he continues to exert an influence in areas such as morality, economics, and even literature.

Charles Robert Darwin FRS was born in 1809 and died in 1882. Well-heeled, educated to the cloth, in many respects a member of the Establishment, and stereotypically bourgeois in his private life, Darwin makes for an unlikely revolutionary.

Those interested in the life and works are blessed with an embarrassment of riches. The book for which Darwin is best known, the Origin, was published in 1859. By a happy coincidence, 2009 thus marked both 200 years since the birth and 150 years since the publication, and was celebrated with a number of works, the pick of which was perhaps Darwin’s Sacred Cause (Allen Lane, 2009) by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, if only because their earlier biography, Darwin (Michael Joseph, 1991), had attracted so much critical attention.

Of the many biographical works, the great pleasure to be derived from Janet Browne’s magnificent two-volume biography, Voyaging and The Power of Place (Jonathan Cape, 1995 and 2002) must be mentioned. Exemplary editions of the letters and works are available: The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, edited by Frederick Burkhardt and Sydney Smith, has been coming out from Cambridge University Press since 1985, while from 1987 to 1989 The Works of Charles Darwin, edited by Paul H Barrett and RB Freeman, were published by Pickering & Chatto in the UK and New York University Press in the USA. Darwin also has a significant online presence, with sites such as the Darwin Correspondence Project ( ) and the Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online ( ).

Many of these works are very substantial. Only a relatively small number of books provide a short introduction to the life, times, and thought of the man. While interesting, Jonathan Howard’s Darwin: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 1982/2001) focuses almost exclusively on the biological scientific work. Although very different, Peter J Bowler’s Charles Darwin: The Man and His Influence (Basil Blackwell, 1990) and Gertrude Himmelfarb’s Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution (W. W. Norton, 1959/1968) are still among the better introductory texts. The book under review is certainly short, and does deal with the life and thought of Darwin, and so will be competing with these.

Paul Johnson has chosen his topic well. Darwin was born into a highly literate and distinguished family, some members of which are the focus of biographical studies in their own right. He was the grandson of Erasmus Darwin on his father’s side, and of Josiah Wedgwood on his mother’s. It was a splendid inheritance. A successful medical doctor, Erasmus corresponded with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin, and hobnobbed with Matthew Boulton, James Watt, Joseph Priestly, and other members of the Lunar Society. His Zoonomia was placed on the Catholic Index of forbidden books. Josiah was such a successful entrepreneur that Samuel Smiles wrote a book on him. Robert, Erasmus’s son and Charles Darwin’s father, married Susannah, Josiah’s oldest daughter. As was the case with many of the Darwin men, Robert was a closet freethinker and atheist. The Wedgwoods on the other hand were religious (Josiah was a staunch Unitarian).

Robert was another successful medical doctor and astute financier (money was invested rather than spent: sober thrift was a characteristic his son was to share). Thus Darwin was born into wealth, and adhered to the conservative values of the landed gentry. By all accounts a quiet, placid, even-tempered child, he was taught at home by his older sister Caroline before being sent, in 1817, to a local day school; in 1818, when he was nine, he was moved to the Shrewsbury Grammar School. The classics were wasted on the young schoolboy – he was brought up in a household which spent much time outside, fishing, hunting, gardening; his own preferences are seen in his father’s sharp words, “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.”

In 1825, now sixteen, he was packed off to Edinburgh – a “purgative” in the words of Desmond and Moore – in order to follow the family tradition and study medicine. He spent two years there before throwing in the towel (a wonderful anecdote is of the lectures on anatomy in which the professor repeated, word for word, the lectures his own grandfather had delivered over a century before – including asides such as “When I was a student in Leiden in 1719”).

Since a medical career was out of the question, his father decided a career in the church might be suitable. Himmelfarb says that Robert “respected neither the clergy nor his son enough to credit them with any profound religious convictions”. Darwin entered Cambridge, and embarked on the three-year education that would qualify him for a clerical career in the Anglican church. While preparing for ordination, he read and enjoyed William Paley’s Natural Theology. He also came across Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent. And he developed interests in beetles, botany, and geology. On the surface at least unambitious, and certainly genial and unassuming, he seems to have drifted through Cambridge, although he was befriended by some of the young professors, most notably John Stevens Henslow and Adam Sedgwick.

He appeared to be set on a life as a botanising country clergyman. However, on graduation in 1831, after returning home to prepare for the first day of the shooting season, he found awaiting him a letter from Henslow, who had recommended him as naturalist for a scientific expedition, to be commanded by a Captain Robert FitzRoy RN, which was to survey the coasts of South America and Tierra del Fuego. Then a young captain, FitzRoy wanted a gentleman companion as much if not more than a naturalist, and Darwin, while not yet a qualified naturalist, was certainly a gentleman. If he accepted, he would circumnavigate the globe, be away from home for what was initially thought to be two years, and be provided with countless opportunities to engage in fieldwork in botany, zoology and geology. Suspecting, in Himmelfarb’s words, that beetle-collecting was not much of an improvement on rat-catching, his father opposed the idea – his feckless son seemed to be determined to turn his back on yet another career – and so Darwin, with regrets, initially declined the offer. However a Wedgwood uncle was not only in favour, but willing to plead his case. Permission was given, and he hastily wrote to accept the offer.

He was to embark on the HMS Beagle, today surely one of the most famous of all British naval vessels. Originally a three-masted, 235-ton Cherokee-class ship – a class known as “coffin brigs” because they had a tendency to sink in bad weather – she had just returned from a five-year voyage, and had to be rebuilt, adding seven tons and a higher upper deck. After some false starts, she successfully set sail from Plymouth Sound in December 1831. Darwin had previously promised FitzRoy to view the planned departure date as the starting date of his “second life” and to celebrate it “as a birthday for the rest of my life”. It certainly made him who he was.

FitzRoy, just twenty-six when Darwin first met him, was a difficult captain. Grandson of both the third Duke of Grafton and of the first Marquis of Londonderry, nephew of Lord Castlereagh, direct descendant of Charles II, and later in life governor of New Zealand and vice-admiral, he was an authoritarian and idiosyncratic aristocrat as well as a naval officer. Darwin was, quietly, a Whig; his captain was an ardent Tory. While Darwin was not yet an unbeliever, FitzRoy was intensely religious. It was an unlikely match, but it worked. In the words of Desmond and Moore, “manners and breeding transcended party and family [Darwin was after all the grandson of the notorious Erasmus]”. FitzRoy provided understanding, cooperation, and support, and must be recognised as having made a substantial contribution to his companion’s eventual success.

Darwin was not a natural sailor, and was dreadfully seasick (years later, on the voyage home, he had still not found his sea legs and was just as miserable as he had been on the outward leg). However, once he reached foreign shores, he was captivated. The sensual pleasure he derived from the lushness of the tropics is obvious from his journals and letters. He geologised, botanised, and zoologised to his heart’s content: the part-time amateur was becoming an experienced and full-time practitioner. As Johnson says, “The Beagle voyage transformed Darwin from a promising naturalist to a widely experienced and dedicated one.”

Homeward bound, Darwin wrote up his account of the voyage. The Voyage of the Beagle, one of his best books, was eventually published (under a much longer title) in 1839. He had amassed a spectacular collection of specimens, of fossils, plants and animals, and had begun to develop new theories to explain his fieldwork. One example was his explanation of the coral reef, which he argued was produced by geological subsidence and the slow upward movement of coral formation – a combination of geological and biological forces. This explanation developed Charles Lyell’s insight that the massive changes seen in geology could be explained as a consequence of the accumulation of many small changes over very long periods of time – an insight that Darwin was then to apply to biological change or evolution.

He arrived back home in October 1836. The voyage had taken almost five years (Browne calculates that he spent only eighteen months at sea, with the remainder of his time spent on land). As Himmelfarb says, he left home younger than his twenty-two years of age, but returned older than his twenty-seven. He had not only decided what he wanted to do with his life, but moreover – perhaps by modelling himself on FitzRoy – had acquired the necessary self-discipline to achieve his goals.

Darwin was obviously interested in botany, zoology, and anthropology, but The Voyage of the Beagle, especially the first edition, shows a particular interest in geology. It was an exciting time for that science: Principles of Geology (1830-1833) by Lyell, who was to become a lifelong friend, had only recently been published (Darwin took the first volume, a present from FitzRoy, with him on the Beagle, and picked up subsequent volumes while away), and Lyell’s uniformitarianism was sweeping all before it.

The Voyage of the Beagle brought him some fame and considerable professional respect. He presented a copy to Humboldt, and in an accompanying letter tried to convey something of how important Humboldt’s work had been to him. The reply was wonderful.

You told me in your kind letter that, when you were young, the manner in which I studied and depicted nature in the torrid zones contributed toward exciting in you the ardour and desire to travel in distant lands. Considering the importance of your work, Sir, this may be the greatest success that my humble work could bring. Works are of value only if they give rise to better ones.

As Browne says, “The grand old man [Humboldt] behaved just as grand old men were expected to behave.”

Darwin worked in Cambridge, arranging his massive collection of specimens, and in London, where he wrote up his notes, and was introduced to a range of public intellectuals, including Thomas Carlyle (he recalled later a long, non-stop harangue by Carlyle that lasted from the start to the end of dinner on the virtues of silence). In November 1838 he became engaged to and in January 1839 married his cousin, Emma Wedgwood. Johnson approves of her: “Emma was clever, educated, equable, hardworking, industrious, economical, and not least, sensitive,” he says, and later adds that compared to her husband she “was in some ways a wiser person … (one might say, in many ways)”. Less gallant readers of Johnson may take this with a pinch of salt. With marriage came financial security: Robert settled a large sum on him, and Emma brought with her a generous dowry. Darwin never had to work for a living.

From perhaps March 1837 he became interested in the idea of the “transmutation” or evolution of species. His fieldwork provided him with two approaches to the problem. First, the fossil record indicated that extinct mammals in South America resembled modern species. Second, his fieldwork with birds such as the rheas (and of course his finches) suggested that birds in neighbouring locations were related. In both cases, physical similarity hinted at a common ancestor. Chronological time (geology) and geographical space thus both helped to shed light on transmutation. His clandestine notebooks, opened in July 1837, show him developing his heretical ideas in leaps and bounds.

Not yet thirty, in 1838 he read An Essay on the Principle of Population by TR Malthus. Malthus discussed “struggles for existence”, and Darwin realised that with animal and plant life too this struggle could function to propel the mechanism of evolution: competition meant that “favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed”, a process which would eventually lead to new species. In the Origin he wrote “This preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection”. He had discovered a causal mechanism that explained evolution.

He was also to draw on his knowledge of the industrial process and the specialisation or division of labour seen there to develop ideas about the specialisation of life forms that exploited new niches. His own era, the improving age, provided his theory with a central metaphor. His theory reflected the ethos of imperial capitalism: the economy of life was dynamic, and competition was not only inevitable but beneficial.

It is characteristic of his personality that he embraced not only the theoretical world of high science but also the practical (and decidedly non-genteel) world of the dog breeder and pigeon fancier. The central analogy of the Origin is between artificial selection (which he researched at least in part by becoming a pigeon enthusiast himself) and natural selection.

Darwin’s mechanism was self-regulating: it could explain the birth of new and the death of old species without having to turn to supernatural causes. It constituted a thorough rejection of the dominant natural theology of the day. Rather than publishing his ideas on the origin of species and the theory of natural selection, however, he sat on them – and maintained a public silence for two decades. This is not surprising. Evolution, Desmond and Moore remind us, was seen by the gentry to be “morally filthy and politically foul”, and Darwin himself acknowledged that to admit to the belief that species are mutable was akin to “confessing a murder”. Desmond and Moore also notice that he was happier “hunting with the urban gentry, rather than running with the radical hounds”.

He and his growing family moved in 1842 to Down House in Down (later Downe) in Kent, where he purchased a former parsonage and lived the life of a country curate. As Browne says, he shouldered “some of the unspoken duties of a village squire and country parson”. Still a young man, he was to spend the rest of his life at Down House.

The debilitating illness(es) that afflicted Darwin for the rest of his life is (are) a mystery. It would be unkind to suggest hypochondria, although he was certainly happy to use his health as an excuse to avoid burdensome social interaction, and his marriage seems at least in part to have been based on a patient-nurse relationship with his wife. Psychological or psychosomatic stress caused by the heretical nature of his theory of natural selection sounds persuasive – except that, if true, one would have expected his health to bounce back after the publication of the Origin.

In any case, one of the consequences of his ill health was that he was forced to shelve any hopes of continuing his work as a field geologist. (Johnson scolds Darwin for making “no real attempt to become an expert anthropologist”, but his inability to conduct fieldwork meant that this was never an option). Instead, he retired to a rural lifestyle in Downe, and pursued research projects that he could do at home, working on orchids, insectivorous plants, and earthworms – as Bowler says, he elected to live like Voltaire’s Candide, tending his own garden. For the rest of his life, his world revolved around the double leitmotiv of work and illness

Having arrived at the principle of natural selection, in his own words:

I was so anxious to avoid prejudice, that I determined not for some time to write even the briefest sketch of it. In June 1842 I first allowed myself the satisfaction of writing a very brief abstract of my theory in pencil in 35 pages; and this was enlarged during the summer of 1844 into one of 230 pages, which I had fairly copied out and still possess.

He was convinced that his theory was significant. He took steps to ensure that the 230-page version would be published if he happened to die before seeing it into press, and wrote up a list of possible editors (a decade later he amended the list – the project remained one close to his heart). He did not die, however, and his work remained, for the moment, unpublished. Meanwhile he worked on the Geology of South America, taking time out only to work on a second edition of The Voyage of the Beagle. In October 1846, with both tasks completed, he began what he had initially believed would be a brief examination of barnacles, a project that was to last eight years, until 1854 (his younger children grew up thinking that all adults were similarly engaged: “Where does he do his barnacles?” one asked of a neighbour). The work earned him the Royal Society’s royal medal for natural science in 1853. He was now recognised as one of the country’s (and the world’s) leading scientists.

On June 18th, 1858, potential disaster struck. Another reader of Malthus, Alfred Russel Wallace, submitted to Darwin a manuscript describing what Darwin thought was his theory of natural selection: “if Wallace had my M.S. sketch written out in 1842 he could not have made a better short abstract!” he moaned in a letter to Lyell. If published, it threatened to deprive him of any claim to originality. He turned to his friends for advice. Lyell proposed a joint publication of Wallace’s paper and extracts from Darwin’s work: both men would share the honour of priority. Darwin himself was reluctant to act dishonourably, but was persuaded that this was a gentlemanly solution. The papers were presented to the Linnean Society in July 1858, and met with silence: as Desmond and Moore say, “no fireworks exploded, only a damp squib”. Indeed, Thomas Bell, the president of the society, was to say, in his 1858 presidential address, that the year had “not … been marked by any of those striking discoveries which at once revolutionize, so to speak, the department of science in which they bear”: the theory of natural selection, of course, was shortly to revolutionise everything.

Darwin became serious about publicising his theory: Wallace had finally goaded him into print. The Origin, an abstract of the ideas he had been pursuing at leisure, was published by John Murray in November 1859. In many ways the book marks the beginning of a new era in Western history. His ideas had been anathema in Victorian Britain but by the time he died were mainstream opinion: he had transformed long-accepted notions about nature and humanity. One of the remarkable aspects of the Origin is not only how revolutionary the work was, but how quickly its ideas about natural selection and evolution were accepted: here, we see a true paradigm shift. This acceptance is symbolised in the decision to bury the agnostic Darwin in Westminster Abbey.

The Origin consisted of a close argument combining the theory of natural selection (what Herbert Spencer called the “survival of the fittest”) and theory of evolution (or descent): the first was the mechanism which explained the second. The theory of natural selection is based on three principles or generalisations. First, there are differences between individuals belonging to the same species (the principle of variation). Second, offspring will resemble their parents to a greater degree than other members of the same species (the principle of heritability). Third, given the conditions of limited resources and the subsequent struggle for survival, the characteristics of those who manage to secure sufficient resources and so have offspring will tend to be reproduced in the next generation. The three principles produce natural selection. In turn, natural selection explains the origin of species. Some variations provide an advantage in coping with the environment, and those with this advantage will enjoy benefits such as preferential survival and reproduction. The next generation will see more members with this variation – and over long periods of time, all will come to share it.

The Origin and the subsequent debate, particularly the famous clash between TH Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce, symbolises the conflict between science and religion. Darwin himself had lost his earlier faith: “disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete”, he was to write.

Darwin played down the origin of man when writing about the origin of species, because he believed that his book would do better if he skated over the question. In private, however, he was willing to say that man was an animal, and so was descended from animals. In The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, a work he began in 1867, completed in 1870, and published in 1871, he took the bull by the horns.

Darwin continued to publish after The Descent of Man, including books such as Insectivorous Plants (1875) and The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms (1881). The earthworm book was an illustration of Lyell’s insight about the accumulated consequences of very small changes. In terms of sales, it was also the most popular work he ever published (which says something endearing about the Victorian reader). His work in fields such as barnacles, orchids, insectivorous plants, and earthworms was all done at home – and demonstrates a very different man from the Beagle Darwin of popular imagination. Johnson has obviously decided to restrict himself to an analysis of the Origin and The Descent of Man, which is perhaps inevitable given the brevity of his book.

While Darwin’s thinking was radical, his family life was conservative and his politics liberal. He lived in a world shaped by low church Anglicanism, although he was familiar with the Dissenters. A Whig when young, a liberal when old, his political opinions do not seem to have changed much over his lifetime (in stark contrast to his religious beliefs). He was passionate about some political issues – the one to which he was most deeply committed was perhaps the anti-slavery cause. His values were those of imperial capitalism’s middle class: he believed in self-help, thrift, economy, and the pursuit of self-interest by autonomous and free individuals within the framework of a competitive society.

Darwin has often been criticised for imputing to nature the major characteristics (his critics would use the word vices) of the bourgeoisie and of imperial capitalism. The claim that his theory not only reflected the dog-eat-dog ideology of capitalism but actually projected the Weltanschauung of his own class onto nature is however ridiculous. He worked in the field of natural science and outlined a hypothesis about a natural law. Thus his theory is a descriptive one – it explains the mechanism by which one species changes into another. Nevertheless, as social Darwinism, it has been used for prescriptive purposes, to legitimise public policies that many see as abhorrent (imperialism abroad, or the sterilisation of specific groups of individuals at home, for instance). And of course it contradicts a literal reading of the Bible, which has made Darwin the bugbear of some religious fundamentalists. For both moral and religious reasons, modern debates on Darwin himself and especially Darwinism remain highly polarised, at least in some circles.

Johnson uses the themes of genius and luck as a framework on which to develop his portrait. Darwin: Portrait of a Genius bears a rather unfortunate sub-title, if for no other reason than that Johnson obviously believed it necessary to use the word “genius” in the text of his work. This leads to some unfortunate writing, such as when he pontificates “There seem to be two types of genius, the purely cerebral and the intuitive-cerebral, Galileo being an example of the first and Newton of the second.”

Johnson claims that “two of his [Darwin’s] grandparents and his father can reasonably be classified as geniuses”. Although he amends that sweeping statement and says that whether Robert actually “was a genius is a matter of opinion, but he was certainly remarkable”, he quickly returns to it. Robert was a doctor, and his “genius” is found in his “immediate, physical contact with the patient, on first diagnosis, on visits, and at every point in the course of the condition”. Erasmus was an “imaginative genius”, Josiah an “empirical genius”, and Robert an “intuitive genius”. Darwin was the “progeny” of genius, Johnson says, and so “had access to a gene pool of the highest possible quality” (while critical of Darwin, Johnson nevertheless uses Darwinian language). Fortunately for the reader, after the first chapter, genius is quickly dropped in favour of luck. “Throughout his long life, Darwin was an extremely lucky man,” Johnson says. “Of all the great scientists in history, he was the most favored by fortune.” Some would quibble. He was a gentleman scientist, a member of the privileged upper ranks of society – but much the same could be said of all other nineteenth century gentlemen scientists. Johnson combines the genius in the subtitle with his new master narrative, luck, adding that “His genetic inheritance, as we have seen, was magnificent.” This again might well be queried (do we know anything about a genius gene?).

And was Darwin really that lucky? He lost his mother at the age of eight, and it seems clear that he never understood how much his father truly loved him. He spent much of his life struggling with chronic ill health (this was, Johnson admits, “the only real misery in an astonishingly fortunate life”). While he did enjoy a happy marriage, and was blessed with ten children, only seven survived into maturity. The three who died, and in particular his favourite child, Annie, who died age ten, weighed heavily on his mind. These deaths “were painful tragedies to him” and the loss of Annie “was the worst single torment in his entire life” (Johnson seems to be contradicting his earlier claims about Darwin’s illness being his “only real misery”). In reality, of course, Darwin’s life was like many other lives, consisting of happy opportunities seized and tragedies endured.

Johnson persists, however. “Was ever a scientist more fortunate or more happy?” he asks. As also with tragedy, he is not quite sure what was the luckiest moment in what he argues was a blessed life. The decision by Henslow to recommend Darwin to FitzRoy was the largest “stroke of luck of his entire life”. However, “Wallace’s intervention [the letter of 1856] was an astounding stroke of luck for Darwin, typical of the good fortune that attended him throughout his life”. Wallace stimulated Darwin to write his book on evolution: “In what we have seen to be a remarkably lucky life, this was the greatest stroke of good fortune he enjoyed”.

As we have already seen, Darwin famously sat on his theory of natural selection for decades. Johnson criticises him: “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.” However, an underprovision of evidence is also to be avoided. Johnson’s book is marred by a number of obvious howlers, such as the claim that FitzRoy “eventually blew his own brains out”, that are difficult to explain given that Johnson must have read the major biographies (FitzRoy did kill himself, but did so by cutting his throat with a razor – mirroring the suicide of his uncle Lord Castlereagh).

Some of Johnson’s interpretations are also questionable – a case in point being his misreading of Malthus. He seizes on the fact that human populations do not double every twenty-five years to claim that the Malthusian “geometrical/arithmetical rule” does not “square with the known facts”. Of course, in reality, Malthus argued that the recognition that human populations do not in fact double every twenty-five years is crucial – what mechanisms, he asked, prevent a population explosion? As we shall see below, the misreading of Malthus leads to a misreading of Darwin.

Johnson uses pop psychology to explain Darwin’s motives: “He swallowed Malthusianism because it fitted his emotional need.” He also tends to use inflated hyperbole. So, for instance, “Few men have lived such a successful and contented life as Darwin”. Darwin delayed publishing the Origin – delayed through “over-research” no less! – because to do so threatened to “detonate the crisis of his personal, professional, religious, and, indeed, marital life”. Both sentences can be characterized by hype – and Johnson comes very close to contradicting himself in saying Darwin was content but in a state of near crisis.

Johnson has two quarrels with Darwin, and one with Darwin’s followers. He is sceptical of Darwin’s account of evolution. He is scathing of Darwin’s secularism. And he has no time for Darwinists.

Johnson writes that the Origin “was a cleverly written, superbly presented, and even a cunningly judged book … But is was, and is, open to one objection … His emotions convinced him that the ‘horror scenario’ was the way nature operated, and he imparted this feeling to his book”. In his own words, “By a process of selection over countless generations, nature pushed forward those creatures best able to compete, in countless different and often forceful, cruel, and savage ways, for the available food supplies”.

Johnson questions what he calls natural selection’s “horror scenario”, which he claims Darwin saw “as not merely occasional and often accidental but as essential and inveterate”. He believes that the “horror scenario” has not been demonstrated. Darwin “gives very few examples of the horrific destructiveness of nature and certainly never demonstrates, by an overwhelming evidence of examples, that nature invariably or habitually or even often extracts a terrible price in suffering for each forward step” (the use of the term “forward” here is unfortunate).

Johnson says, in summarizing Malthus’ arguments, that “Without restraints, the reproductive forces in nature increased in geometrical progression. Food supplies, by contrast, increased only in arithmetical progression”. The “without restraints” here is crucial. In 1859, the year the Origin was first published, two dozen rabbits were set free in Australia and exploded into 22 million rabbits in six years; although there were an estimated 750 million by the 1930s, the earlier rate of growth was not maintained, simply because the rabbits ran up against the barrier of a limited supply of food. Malthus and Darwin both emphasise that the potential rate of population increase cannot be long sustained. The rate is restrained by an incessant and relentless competition for scarce resources (the struggle for survival).

Malthus “had malign consequences”. Johnson repeats the charge later: “The result [of viewing nature in Malthusian terms] … was to have malign, even catastrophic, consequences”. Incessant struggle to survive in the short-term is one aspect of Darwin’s thought. Johnson seems to believe that the slow, long-term evolution that occurs over innumerable generations as a result of natural selection is a more objective perception of reality, but the two can of course coincide (the end product of the struggle today is slow evolution in the future). Johnson seems to be saying that Darwin concentrates on short-term brutalities at the expense of long-term evolution, which strikes this reviewer as ridiculous.

In Memoriam by Alfred, Lord Tennyson had already outlined some of these issues. Darwin among others emphasised two aspects of the evolutionary process. In the short term, nature is brutal, and this has a direct impact on individual life. As Tennyson says, “Are God and Nature then at strife, / That Nature lends such evil dreams? / So careful of the type she seems, / So careless of the single life; // That I, considering everywhere / Her secret meaning in her deeds, / And finding that of fifty seeds / She often brings but one to bear”. In the long term the consequences of repetitions of the short term process impacts on species. Again, as Tennyson says, “‘So careful of the type?’ but no. / From scarped cliff and quarried stone / She cries, ‘A thousand types are gone: / I care for nothing, all shall go[’]”.

Short-term brutalities are a sad reality. Natural selection does operate through death. Death is often slow. As anyone who has ever owned or observed a cat knows, death can be cruel. The ill, the injured, the weak, the unfortunate suffer, almost invariably, certainly habitually, and much more often than not.

A second issue that Johnson has is that of God. The question of Darwin, science and religion is a complicated one. At a time when many of the leading academics in the field were also men of the cloth, Darwin, a respectable and propertied gentleman, did advocate a theory that implied disbelief. Evolutionism was seen as an attack on Christianity (JW Burrow once said that “Bug-hunting was the Trojan horse of Victorian agnosticism”).

Darwin among others questioned the benevolent character of nature. If nature was not benevolent, then the issue of the character of God inevitably emerged. As Tennyson wrote, while Christians might believe that “God was love indeed / And love Creation’s final law”, nevertheless “Nature, red in tooth and claw / With ravine, shriek’d against his creed”.

Darwin’s mature view of the world was bleak. It was not so much that man was alone in a godless world, although that was the message many read into him, but that natural selection was a mechanism fuelled by suffering and death (in the case of the cat with a mouse, a slow and cruel death). Nature was governed not by a benevolent God but by cruelty. If a divine purpose existed, it was malignant. As he once said, “What a book a Devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low & horridly cruel works of nature!”

Darwin, Johnson says, “did not think about God or the possibility of an afterlife”. Instead, “He closed his mind to speculation about the infinite and concentrated on worms. One is tempted to feel that he deliberately shut his eyes to the ultimate consequences of his work, in terms of the human condition and the purpose of life or the absence of one.”

One of the conclusions of Darwinian thought is that the differences between mankind and any other animal are of degree rather than of kind. Having demonstrated this, Johnson says, Darwin “averted his eyes from the consequences – the colossal vacuum that swallows the universe in pointlessness”. Natural selection leaves no room for “any moral purpose in nature or indeed any purpose at all”. “There is no point whatsoever in existence … The result is nihilism”. Darwin has opened up a new pessimism. The “huge, bottomless emptiness of life” was something he perhaps sensed “yawning”, which explains why “he averted his eyes from the big issues and focused them on the small”. The language of a closed mind, of shut or averted eyes is powerful, but seems to be a critique not so much of Darwin but of the modern secular age, and comes close to arguing that Darwin was wrong in not pursuing knowledge in the field of moral philosophy or even theology rather than natural science.

Johnson criticises social Darwinism towards the end of his book. “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’s expression, ‘painting the map of the world red’”. The Origin both “embodies an exciting idea and had a devastating intellectual and emotional impact on society”. Racial thinking now had a pseudo-scientific basis. “The passage of the Immigration Act [in America] in 1924 can be traced back to the publication of the Origin. Many countries began to sterilise those deemed to be “subnormal”. Darwinians, Johnson writes, claim that Darwin himself “was in no way responsible … for any ultimately malign or disastrous consequences of his work”. But, he argues, “This needs qualifying.”

Darwinism is sometimes said to be a post hoc construct that is not relevant to any study of Darwin himself. However, in Darwin’s own lifetime there was a boom in social Darwinising. Thus, for instance, Darwinian thought was used to promote racism: “every Irishman in a Punch cartoon”, Desmond and Moore say, “was a ‘Mr. G. O’Rilla’ or ‘Mr. O’Rangoutang’”. And when it came to human beings, Darwin – at least in part because he relied on the expertise of others, but largely because he was a man of his times – did accept the racist notion of a hierarchy of higher and lower races, and did believe that greater intelligence not better technology explained the Western conquest of the globe. Here, if nowhere else, he was a social Darwinist.

Darwinism opened the gates to a great deal of highly unedifying talk. Darwin himself once wrote:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.

Johnson provides his readers with this Darwin. He does not however explain that Darwin went on to emphasise that natural selection has ensured that human beings possess the social instincts that drive them to look after the weak and vulnerable, and to state that “Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature”. Instead he argues that “So anxious was Darwin to prove that natural selection had produced humanity that he was blind to the fact that it was also producing humanitarianism, a moral force that made the operation of natural selection ultimately far more difficult, if not impossible”. But, as we have just seen, Darwin did discuss that very point.

Johnson mentions Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot, developing what has long been one of his major theme: that “ideas develop their own self-sustaining and often destructive careers in history”. Darwin was possessed by an “emotional stew”, one “that permeated with its verbal odors almost every page of Origin, and that “became for some a vicious poison”. His is not a new criticism. Darwin himself wrote in an 1860 letter to Lyell that “I have received in a Manchester Newspaper a rather a good squib, showing that I have proved ‘might is right’, & therefore that Napoleon is right & every cheating Tradesman is also right”.

The twentieth century was marked by totalitarianism, which Johnson believes can be traced back to Down House. Here, however, his arguments are weak. Darwin frequently used the word “struggle”. “It is doubtful if Adolf Hitler actually read the Origin, Johnson admits, but nevertheless he borrowed the term “struggle” for his own book, Mein Kampf. It is not clear what he means when he says that “Both Himmler, head of the SS, and Goebbels, the propaganda chief, were students of Darwin”, but of course the sentence is not literally true. He also notices “a continuing interest among leading communists, from Lenin and Trotsky to Stalin and Mao Tse-tung, in Darwin’s theory of natural selection as justification for the class struggle”. His conclusion is bleak, but unfair: “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 George Henry Lewes wrote as long ago as 1861, “The Darwinian hypothesis … is clamorously rejected by the conservative minds, because it is thought to be revolutionary, and not less eagerly accepted by insurgent minds, because it is thought destructive of old doctrines.” One might also say that it was rejected by the religious and accepted by the agnostic. In either case, however, a sharp distinction should be made between the scientific hypothesis and the motives of those who denounced or embraced it. The hypothesis is correct (that is, it has so far survived Popper’s falsification test, and to date Darwinian or to be more exact neo-Darwinian theory is better than any known alternative). It has been used for repugnant purposes. But it is wrong to argue that Darwin, let alone the hypothesis, is responsible for the abuses.

While Darwin: Portrait of a Genius is an opinionated book, written with the light, informal and chatty touch we have come to expect of Johnson, it will not replace any of the major short introductions to his life and thought. This reviewer came away from it with the impression that Johnson is coasting on his considerable reputation. Perhaps this is doing him a disservice. If he had aimed to write a short book to read on an airplane or a train, to provoke some thought between glimpses of clouds or countryside, and to be discarded on arrival, he has done a solid if rather unimaginative job (those who throw the book away will be tempted to keep the magnificent slip-cover). If on the other hand he had hoped to write a serious and informed work on Darwin and Darwinian thought, then he must be said to have failed.

Darwin: Portrait of a Genius


Paul Johnson

ISBN-10: 0670025712
ISBN-13: 978-0670025718

Thanks to POSP stringer Tim.

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