Darwin: Portrait of a Genius by Paul Johnson, was an obvious book for me to read instantly on publication. It is about one of my favorite scientists, Charles Darwin, and by one of my favorite historians, Paul Johnson. The book got off to a wonderful start with a beautifully clean portrait of Darwin as an old man on the cover. It was downhill from there. It is well written in clean English as befits the author of many splendid books, but from beginning to end there is more than a suspicion that Johnson’s grasp of evolutionary theory is weak. Well, let that pass; this is a story of the man himself and not so much how the theory works or why it works, but more about the man and his historical impact. The book takes a strange turn in the last chapters and shows how Darwin’s impact on the 20th century was much vaster than an adjustment of humanity’s view of its origins and its place in the universe.
Early on the dismissal of Alfred Russel Wallace as a poverty-stricken crank from a family of working class surveyors was bothersome, even though later in the book he admits that Darwin was forced to publish or be deprived rights of origination of the basic ideas promulgated in On the Origin of Species. If Wallace had sent his letter from Ternate describing the processes of evolution (by sailboat from Indonesia), to any publisher or scientist other than Darwin, we would never have heard of this wealthy scion living off the wealth of his family, while studying barnacles.
The basic theory of how natural selection works was totally revealed to Darwin by Wallace, and Darwin published his book before Wallace could return to England and publish his own book. Wallace sent the letter to Darwin and told him to publish it if he thought fit. What Darwin did was pure intellectual theft of an idea, as is proven in the book A Delicate Arrangement: The Strange Case of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace by Arnold Brackman. If Johnson had read that book, he couldn’t have thrown Wallace out with the bathwater in a couple of disparaging sentences. This is another case of winner take all. Darwin did grudgingly drop a few crumbs of recognition to Wallace, but strangely Darwin never published as clear and concise a theory of evolution as was presented to him in that first letter. Most of The Origin was based on observations he had developed exploring natural phenomena before he read Wallace’s letter, and thus before he understood the how and why of evolution. That’s my opinion, of course, but it is based on reading those two men’s work many years ago. It requires a stretch of credibility when reading Darwin’s earlier writing that he had any idea how evolution worked, even though it was generally accepted that evolution had taken place.
Johnson’s book is yet another apology for Darwin’s decades long delay on publishing what he later claimed to have known all along. The twist this time is that Darwin not only didn’t want offend his 1st cousin Unitarian wife with a scandal, but that he was terrified of a public protest condemning him and his work. That terror was based on a historical event where the scientists of the Lunar society, of which his grandfather Erasmus Darwin was a member, were attacked in an event sixty years earlier, called the Priestly Riots, where liberal churches and their members homes were burned. However, when his book was finally published it was welcome with enthusiasm and not with riots. Darwin’s excuse for keeping secret was unfounded.
Darwin: Portrait of a Genius is a short book and it’s not one of Paul Johnson’s better efforts. If you want to get a better feel for the man read Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle, and for Alfred Russel Wallace read a similar book, The Malay Archipelago. Both of those books are wonderful.