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Darwin: Portrait of a Genius.

Darwin: Portrait of a Genius. By Paul Johnson. (New York, NY: Viking, 2012. Pp. 176. $26.95.)

More than 130 years after his death, Charles Darwin remains one of the most influential and discussed scientists in history. His Origin of Species [1859] almost single-handedly convinced the international scientific community to accept evolution as a fact within twenty years. It is tempting to attribute Darwin's success to some innate quality such as genius. But decades of increasingly sophisticated scholarship have made a more nuanced and contextual approach not only possible but essential. Unfortunately this vast secondary literature and mountain of archival riches is very difficult for a newcomer to the field to survey, let alone to master.

Paul Johnson retells the story of Darwin's life in a book that is breezy and highly readable. But as a newcomer to the Darwin field, Johnson offers little, if any, new information not available in earlier popular works. The possibility that Queen Victoria may have been sympathetic to Origin of Species, or at least that Prince Albert would have given it a fair hearing, has seldom been noticed.

Most of this book retells traditional legends. It is unfortunate to see them rearing their ugly heads yet again. These include the mistaken belief that Charles Lyell established the ancient age of the earth, the groundless story that the Beagle's captain wished for a companion on the voyage so as not to go mad, and most classic, and most incorrect, that Darwin was struck by the shape of the beaks of the finches while in the Galapagos Islands.

Johnson paints a Darwin full of fear and anguish about publishing his theory. This presumably leads Darwin to keep it a secret for many years. Fear of offending his religious wife is supposedly part of this. And this purported fear and worry is then assigned as the cause of Darwin's mysterious long-term ill health. But there is not a shred of documentary evidence for any of these popular tropes. The same is true for the legendary role of the death of Darwin's daughter, Annie, in killing off the last of Darwin's faith. Once again, there is no evidence for this. The reviewer has omitted mention of many other tales recounted in this work.

Johnson also manages to invent some new legends. First, that Darwin was frightened by the persecution of Joseph Priestly [1791]. The author is clearly on shaky ground whenever discussing Darwin's science. Johnson's favorite angle is that Darwin's focus on a struggle for existence was somehow an error (this would make the cover of Nature if it were true) and that Darwin "was a poor anthropologist." This allows Johnson to try to link Darwin's work with eugenicists and other undesirables after his death. "Darwin's writings led directly to the state of mind that promoted imperialism, the quest for colonies [and] the 'race for Africa,' " writes Johnson (127). This guilt-by-association argument is one normally made by creationists. Perhaps when one reads that Johnson is also the author of A History of Christianity and Jesus: A Biography, from a Believer, these unsympathetic allegations might make more sense.

John van Wyhe

National University of Singapore

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Author:van Wyhe, John
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2014
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