Hardly anyone actually reads Charles Darwin nowadays, but most people know about him and his work. In the world of science, his ideas are foundational for an understanding of how different species come into existence, how they change, become dominant or get wiped out. Big thinkers, especially in science, cause a big stir, and occasionally their ideas become points of fierce controversy. But if their theories withstand critical scrutiny they become part of the way we understand the physical world; then controversy subsides and withers away. Not so with Darwin.
Darwin’s theory on the origin of species—that they were not created individually, as we are told in the Old Testament, but have evolved from earlier species—created controversy when it was first published in 1859. And his ideas continue to be heatedly attacked and passionately defended even today, chiefly in the United States. Furthermore, his theory of evolution in nature provided the scientific premise for social Darwinism and eugenics policy. So it’s handy to have a deft little book about Charles Darwin’s life and achievements, and that’s what we have in Paul Johnson’s Darwin, Portrait of a Genius.
The book, published by Viking within the past year, is short, only 150 or so pages. It’s nicely bound in black and red with a handsome slip cover showing the old man himself, a white-bearded grandfather in a black fedora and Chesterfield coat. Paul Johnson is an experienced writer with considerable knowledge of the subject at hand, and many other subjects as well. This book, being as short as it is, has the feel of an extended essay—a beautifully clear and concise essay.
It’s all here. Darwin’s extraordinary family background (Grandfather Erasmus Darwin, a polymath genius; father Robert, a brilliant doctor of medicine; maternal grandfather Josiah Wedgwood, another genius), his five-year trip around the world as a naturalist on the HMS Beagle, his minute observations of different species, his gradual recognition that different species were not created independently and whole but evolved from earlier models, his reluctance to publish, and finally his two greatest works, The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man.
Although the writer views his subject as a genius, he sees the man clear and points out his flaws and weaknesses. Among them and most important, Darwin was no mathematician. There’s no question that a deeper understanding of mathematics would have been helpful, to say the least, and perhaps even bountiful. Darwin probably could have worked out patterns of inheritance—just as his near contemporary, young Gregor Mendel, did—if he had had a head for statistics. But he didn’t. And when it came to people in groups—tribes, nations, races—Darwin didn’t have an anthropologist’s eye or mind. He was a brilliant naturalist with plants and animals, not people.
Unfortunately, Paul Johnson wrote this crisp, deft biography for something more than an examination of Charles Darwin’s life and thought. Johnson believes that Darwin himself actively contributed to the fashionable but wrongheaded theories and social policies of eugenics that emerged at the end of the 19th and thrived well into the 20th century. And he believes that Darwin contributed, somehow, to the brutal works of Nazism and Communism. That’s saying a lot.
To put it briefly, social Darwinism says not to rescue from misery the lower ranks of society, because to help them would be to upset the natural order, which, if left to itself, would create a stronger, more intelligent and all around better species of humans. And eugenics means that the best should mate with the best and society should sterilize the worst—the socially wayward, the criminal and the mentally incompetent—again to improve the breed.
Paul Johnson makes the case against Charles Darwin in the last 30 or so pages of Darwin, Portrait of a Genius. And those are the weakest and weirdest in this otherwise smart, scrupulously honest and entertaining little book. Yes, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes did rule that “Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” and it’s true that the United States sterilized more than 100,000 people and that Virginia went on sterilizing people into the 1970s. But while all that is morally rotten, it isn’t actually traceable back to substantive writings or speeches by Darwin.
It’s true that Charles Darwin supported his cousin, Francis Galton, in Galton’s campaign for his newly invented science of eugenics—or, to be precise, Darwin expressed support for Galton’s ideas. And that’s about it. It’s emblematic of the intellectual weakness of Paul Johnson’s writing on these points that he should say, “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.’” No. Darwin’s writing led directly to an understanding of natural selection and the origin of species.
Charles Darwin was a great naturalist, maybe the greatest. He wasn’t a philosopher of society or a politician. About the worst charge that can be leveled against him and his ideas on society and politics is that he held many of the commonly accepted beliefs of his class. It’s certainly true that excellent and fruitful theories can be taken from science and applied, or misapplied, elsewhere. And it’s certainly true that not all new ideas are good ideas. And it always helps when an intelligent, conservative thinker, such as Paul Johnson, remind us of these facts. But not like this.