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

3.7 out of 5 stars 38 customer reviews

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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; 1st edition (October 11, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670025712
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670025718
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,015,002 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I only knew Paul Johnson from his insightful commentaries in Forbes where the 85 year old historian shows us that today's leaders don't always meet the standards of their predecessors. I did not know what to expect in a biography but the elder statesman gets it absolutely right here with Darwin. No dry recitation of facts and dates but insightful analysis of Darwin's times, the full impact of his work in both social and scientific circles, and some glaring oversights and omissions by the great man. I think this is the most riveting account of a 19th century scientist that one could find.

Darwin may have been the world's first full-time scientist. Born on the same day as Abraham Lincoln, Darwin knew only wealth and comfort from his good fortune with family lines into lucrative pottery and medicine. He was well-educated, well-travelled, and well-married. As a young man, he was deemed the best choice for a vast scientific adventure, due as much to his family and up-bringing as scientific knowledge. He did make the most of the experience, hoarding away millions of samples and learning the sharp-elbowed approach to beating scientific rivals to the lecture circuit.

We hear from Johnson on Darwin's many weaknesses. Perhaps the most egregious one was his ineptitude and lack of interest in mathematics which kept him from moving his nascent theory forward. This was left to others, especially Mendel who it appears never crossed paths with Darwin although they were contemporaries. We also learn about Darwin's lack of confidence, limited work hours, unwillingness to spend his available funds on supplemental research, and difficult relationships with some peers and competitors.

Where this book really shines is when Johnson puts the Darwin story into the bigger picture.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Starts by explaining the effect of his grandfather Erasmus Darwin. Erasmus held and published many of the ideas Charles later used. Relates how the attempted attack on Joseph Priestley, a family friend, for his beliefs intimidated Darwin for the remainder of his life. The mob cried out, 'No philosophers - church and king forever!'

Johnson explains that Charles Lyell the geologist had just published a book showing that the earth must be millions of years old. For persons who believed incorrectly that the Bible teaches the earth is only six thousand years old, this evidence destroyed the faith of many. Johnson notes on page 31 this information was more significant in producing disbelief than anything Darwin wrote.

After returning from the Beagle, he read Malthus. This 'had a huge emotional impact'. Malthus law that population always outstrips food,(arithmetical vs geometrical), struck Darwin as the truth, (we now know Malthus was wrong). This erroneous idea was fundamental to Darwin's future writing.

On page 72 Johnson says that Tennyson in his poem, In Memoriam of 1851, 'glorified and almost sanctified evolution'. This is before Darwin's book. The idea of evolution was already accepted by many.

Page 83 "Origin, then, was a cleverly written, superbly presented, and even a cunningly judged book, and quite apart from its veracity deserved to have an enormous impact and sell widely. But it was, and is, open to one objection. This springs from the original excitement and emotion in which Darwin conceived his theory of natural selection. . . His emotions convinced him that the horror scenario was the way nature operated, and he imparted this feeling to his book. The result, in the long term was to have malign even catastrophic consequences.
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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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