Darwin: Portrait of a Genius

Paul Johnson. Viking, $25.95 (176p) ISBN 978-0-670-02571-8
Renowned historian Johnson (Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties) rehearses the already well-known facts of Darwin’s life and work, among them his descent from a distinguished lineage of working scientists; his wealth; his voyage on the Beagle as a gentleman-naturalist; his plodding development of the idea of natural selection and his passionate marriage to his first cousin Emma Wedgewood; and his inability to forgive God over the death of his favorite daughter, Annie. Johnson does call Darwin’s ability as an anthropologist into question, observing that Darwin did not bring the same acute power of observation he showed when studying birds, sea creatures, insects, plants, and animals, but no followers of Darwin have ever taken the great naturalist’s treatment of the Fuegans in the Origin as true or as a model of good scientific observation. Johnson points out that Darwin lost control over his own theory, as when Darwin decided that in order to be internally coherent natural selection had to be comprehensive and universal, yet, as thinking creatures, humans discover ways to frustrate natural selection. Although Johnson reveals very little new about Darwin and his work, this little sketch reminds us why Darwin’s theory of natural selection endures and continues to provoke controversy. (Oct.)
Reviewed on: 07/23/2012
Release date: 10/11/2012
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