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Charles Darwin and Paul Johnson

Darwin - portrait of a geniusHardly anyone actually reads Charles Darwin nowadays, but most people know about him and his work. In the world of science, his ideas are foundational for an understanding of how different species come into existence, how they change, become dominant or get wiped out. Big thinkers, especially in science, cause a big stir, and occasionally their ideas become points of fierce controversy. But if their theories withstand critical scrutiny they become part of the way we understand the physical world; then controversy subsides and withers away. Not so with Darwin.

Darwin’s theory on the origin of species — that they were not created individually, as we are told in the Old Testament, but have evolved from earlier species — created controversy when it was first published in 1859. And his ideas continue to be heatedly attacked and passionately defended even today, chiefly in the United States. Furthermore, his theory of evolution in nature provided the scientific premise for Social Darwinism and eugenics policy. So it’s handy to have a deft little book about Charles Darwin’s life and achievements and that’s what we have in Paul Johnson’s Darwin, Portrait of a Genius.

The book, published by Viking within the past year, is short, only 150 or so pages. It’s nicely bound in black and red with a handsome slip cover showing the old man himself, a white bearded grandfather in a black fedora and Chesterfield coat. Paul Johnson is an experienced writer with considerable knowledge of the subject at hand, and many other subjects as well. This book, being as short as it is, has the feel of an extended essay — a beautifully clear and concise essay.

It’s all here. Darwin’s extraordinary family background (Grandfather Erasmus Darwin, a polymath genius; father Robert, a brilliant doctor of medicine, maternal grandfather Josiah Wedgwood, another genius), his five-year trip around the world as a naturalist on the HMS Beagle, his minute observations of different species, his gradual recognition that different species were not created independently and whole, but evolved from earlier models, his reluctance to publish, and finally his two greatest works, The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. (more…)

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