Darwin: Portrait of a Genius

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A “riveting” (The Wall Street Journal) biography of one of the most influential and controversial scientists in Western history

Acclaimed historian and biographer Paul Johnson turns his keen eye on Charles Darwin, the towering figure whose work continues to spur scientific debate.

With his publication of On the Origin of Species, Darwin forever changed our concept of the world. While Johnson praises Darwin’s extraordinary skills as a natural ...

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Darwin: Portrait of a Genius

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A “riveting” (The Wall Street Journal) biography of one of the most influential and controversial scientists in Western history

Acclaimed historian and biographer Paul Johnson turns his keen eye on Charles Darwin, the towering figure whose work continues to spur scientific debate.

With his publication of On the Origin of Species, Darwin forever changed our concept of the world. While Johnson praises Darwin’s extraordinary skills as a natural scientist and his monumental achievements, he does not sidestep Darwin’s tragic failures as an anthropologist. Johnson argues that by applying his theory of natural selection to humans, Darwin provided a platform for the burgeoning eugenics movement. Lay readers and academics alike will enjoy this concise and unflinching exploration of Charles Darwin, a genius whose discoveries—even the flawed ones—add significant dimension to our understanding of his mind, the era in which he lived, and his everlasting impact on our world.

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Editorial Reviews

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A concise, 176-page biography of Charles Darwin (1809-1882), an epoch-making scientist and thinker who set an indelible imprint on the modern world. No mere trot, this life was composed by none other than renowned British historian Paul Johnson (Modern Times; Heroes; Napoleon).

Publishers Weekly
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.)
Kirkus Reviews
A provocative short biography of one of the most influential scientists of all time. Historian and prolific biographer Johnson (Socrates: A Man for Our Times, 2011, etc.) begins by noting the importance of heredity in Darwin's accomplishment. Both his grandfathers and his father, arguably geniuses in their own right, bequeathed to Charles the intellectual tools to pursue science, plus the financial security to do so without the compromises of making a living. In addition to a first-rate education, he received the opportunity to join the HMS Beagle expedition, gathering the material evidence for his theory of evolution. Johnson quickly summarizes the key events of Darwin's formative days, then devotes the meat of the book to his development of the theory and the publication of The Origin of Species. Darwin's long delay in publishing his theories may have been based on a fear of religious opposition, but Johnson argues that the opposition was comparatively mild. Unfortunately, writes the author, Darwin's failure to recognize Gregor Mendel's work on heredity, published only a few years after Origin, deprived him from recognizing the final element needed to explain how natural selection works. Johnson also points to what he considers two central flaws in Darwin's work: a too-literal acceptance of Malthus' theories and insufficient understanding of anthropology. More pernicious, according to Johnson, was Darwin's insufficient understanding of the non-Western societies he encountered. He too easily swallowed second- and thirdhand accounts that portrayed Maoris and other native peoples as bordering on subhuman. Together, Johnson writes, those elements led to social Darwinism, a philosophy that was used to justify the worst atrocities of the modern era, from British colonial oppression to Hitler to Pol Pot. While it may be an unfair accusation, it's certainly sobering. A probing, well-written overview of Darwin's impact.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780147509772
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/24/2013
  • Pages: 176
  • Sales rank: 676,391
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 7.60 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Paul Johnson is the author of many bestselling books, including Socrates: A Man for Our Times; Jesus: A Biography from a Believer; and Churchill. He lives in London.

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Table of Contents

1 A Heritage of Genius, and Its Shadow l

2 Education and Self-Education of a Scientist 15

3 The Loss of God 37

4 The Making of a Masterpiece 65

5 Among the Apes and Angels 87

6 How the Great Botanist Missed an Opportunity 111

7 Evils of Social Darwinism 123

8 Triumph and the Reversal of Natural Selection 137

Further Reading 153

Index 155

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 20, 2015

    Decent read.

    Gidd(yeshly) entertained that we, as a nation, still argue this one after 150 years. :)

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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