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Darwin: Portrait of a Genius Hardcover – October 11, 2012

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Always provocative, historian Johnson critiques Charles Darwin, whose insight into evolution by natural selection he acknowledges but whose intellectual weaknesses he scores as hindrances to Darwin’s achieving more in science. Johnson writes that Darwin was a procrastinator, poor at math, and ignorant of foreign languages. The charges asserted, Johnson raises them at particular points in his narrative of Darwin’s life. Darwin’s habit of delaying publishing to conduct overly meticulous research, for example, nearly defeated his claim to fame. On the Origin of Species was panicked into print by Darwin’s fear of preemption by Alfred Russel Wallace. By Darwin’s subsequent publications Johnson is but mildly impressed, partly because some do not hold up well (The Descent of Man) and partly because Darwin pursued tangents at the expense of theorizing a mechanism of heredity, as Gregor Mendel did. This was Darwin’s missed opportunity, which delayed the genetics revolution and opened conceptual space for the pernicious doctrines of social Darwinism––so runs Johnson’s argument. Characteristically pithy and incisive, the ever-popular Johnson offers a Darwin who will be much in demand. --Gilbert Taylor

Review

“Riveting . . . The `genius’ of Paul Johnson’s biography of Charles Darwin is manifestly, impressively apparent [in his discussion of] 'On the Origin of Species.’”
—Wall Street Journal

 


“Excellent and courageous.”
Michael Flannery, author of Alfred Russel Wallace


 


“This little sketch reminds us why Darwin’s theory of natural selection endures and continues to provoke controversy.”
Publishers Weekly

 


“This is a first-rate biography, one that brings Darwin and his ideas into brilliant focus.”                         
History Book Club
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; 1St Edition edition (October 11, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670025712
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670025718
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 0.7 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #835,944 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Beginning with Modern Times (1985), Paul Johnson's books are acknowledged masterpieces of historical analysis. He is a regular columnist for Forbes and The Spectator, and his work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Michael Kellar on February 15, 2013
Format: Hardcover
I have not read any of Paul Johnson's other books and I was a bit puzzled when I noticed that this author of a book on Darwin had also written one called "Jesus: A Biography From a Believer". By the time I finished this book, it was obvious that Mr. Johnson has reached some conclusions regarding Darwin's relevance which are quite different from my own. However, although the author's slant seems to have drawn a great deal of negative criticism from other reviewers, it did not interfere with my enjoyment of his book. I found his 'portrait' to be a concise and interesting biographical introduction, and one which will inspire me to seek out more information. I can draw my own conclusions from the facts that were presented, thank you.
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24 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Joseph M. Hennessey on October 20, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Paul Johnson's crie du coeur agaist the nearly blind adulation of Charles cultus rankles them, even those who admit they have not read the brief addition to the Johnson extensive corpus. Yes, Darwin was brilliant, but not infallible, weak in many branches of what is now just called 'science.' Good counter-balance to the worshipers of their guru, he was the first to admit that he was an unoriginal amateur in mathematics and an unacknowleding their of the more profound work of his contemporaries and predecessors.

Unfortunately, Johnson does use a lot of 'post hoc ergo propter hoc' logic, that Darwin had caused all the atheist excesses of evil of the past 2 centuries, yet only the blind do not admit at least a remote connection. Darwin was more of an agnostic because of personal losses rather than a reasonable rejection of Christian doctrine.

well worth a few hours of your reading time.
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30 of 41 people found the following review helpful By Hande Z on December 31, 2012
Format: Hardcover
The reviews are clearly divided into two camps. The creationists who despise Darwin and thus love Johnson, and those who eschew creationism and thus condemn Johnson. As a biography, the raw information is sparse and most, if not all, can be found in established works by authors such as Janet Browne, Cyril Aydon, and Tim Berra, whose concise biography (in 92 pages) has more information than Johnson's 150-page book, of which more than 50 pages were devoted to specific denigration of the "Genius" Johnson thought he was portraying. Johnson's book was clearly intended to portray Darwin in the worst possible light. If the descriptions were accurate and true Johnson was surely entitled to do so. But were they? Much of his negative portrayal concerned petty accounts that were not set out in context. For example, one should compare his description that Darwin "rushed" to publish "The Origin of Species" in the "mass market" press because he got wind that Alfred Russell was about to publish a similar thesis with Janet Browne's account.

More crucially, Johnson falsely and unfairly attributed all sorts of social ills to Darwin. He linked the US Supreme Court's decision in "Buck v Bell" to Darwin. He also attributed the misapplication of eugenics to Darwin. None of those charges were remotely true or fair.

Given the negative portrayal of Darwin throughout the book, one wonders why "Portrait of a Genius" was chosen as the title. One can only surmise that Johnson intended the legions of Darwinian admirers to read this book. The authoritative biography is still Janet Browne's, and a much better concise account is Berra's.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Richard K. Mason on May 30, 2013
Format: Hardcover
This biography is a pleasure to read. I enjoyed the book so much that I gave my copy to my eldest brother, who loves Darwin, and sent a copy to a friend. Thereafter I happened to read some of the reviews on Amazon, and was surprised to see a few critical ones, so much so that I wondered whether we had read the same book. So I bought another copy and have now re-read it. Paul Johnson brings Darwin and his ideas to life, and is profuse in his praise for Darwin and most of what he wrote. However, he includes how Darwin overstated some things and made some mistakes, and how some, including Hitler, have misused his ideas. It is apparently this latter quality to the book, which has the virtues of being (1) true, (2) interesting, and (3) quite within the bounds of legitimate biography, which has caused some to object, lest their man be subject to criticism. I say let the chips fall where they may. All scientific endeavors should be subject to the constant and never-ending pursuit of truth. This book is a gem and anyone wanting a superb introduction to Darwin, his life, and his ideas should be well pleased with it, as I was.

Johnson notes that Darwin was a "machine for accumulating countless facts." For a 20th century parallel, interested readers might enjoy "A Congenial Fellowship: A Botanical Correspondence Between Charles C. Deam and Floyd A. Swink 1946-1951." It is the incredibly detailed and technical correspondence of two botanists in search of botanical truth. I should note that I knew Mr. Swink.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Mvr on November 5, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Johnson presents a tight well written personal profile of Darwin.
Readers will enjoys the psychological side of his biological journey. He points to the strengths and significant defects in Darwin intellectual arsenal. This book adds a different view of his relationships and reclusiveness. I would have enjoyed more of his conflicts with the creationists. It is short enjoyable read for the history of science fan
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