Editor’s note: For more of ENV’s commentary on Paul Johnson’s book, see here and here.
Darwin: Portrait of a Genius, Paul Johnson’s brief biography of Charles Darwin, shows yet again Johnson’s penchant for staking out contrarian positions on historical topics. While admiring Darwin as a genius who “is here to stay among the select band of leaders who dispersed the darkness of ignorance,” he castigates Darwin for embracing a distorted view of humanity. While accepting biological evolution as a fact, Johnson is ambivalent about the Darwinian mechanism, natural selection, and he especially does not think natural selection applies to humanity.
Johnson is uncomfortable with Darwin’s theory of natural selection, because if one adopts it, “it is hard to see any moral purpose in nature or indeed any purpose at all. . . . . The result is nihilism.” One is left with a “colossal vacuum that swallows the universe in pointlessness.” Johnson’s point here rings true, and many evolutionists admit that Darwin’s theory annihilates teleology. Unlike Johnson, however, they revel in it. Upon reading Darwin’s Origin of Species in late 1859 Friedrich Engels exulted to his comrade Karl Marx, “There was one aspect of teleology that had not yet been destroyed, but now that has been done.”
Adopting a contrarian viewpoint can sometimes produce valuable insights, some of which are on display in this work. However, other times it can fall flat. Unfortunately, some of Johnson’s interpretations fall into the latter category, because where his positions are original, they are sometimes based on misunderstandings. Worse yet, the biography is littered with historical mistakes and problematic interpretations that do not inspire much confidence in his mastery of the subject. The lack of footnotes and a very thin bibliography don’t help, either.
Some of the mistakes are relatively trivial, such as the false claim that Marx read Darwin’s Origin of Species the very week it was released (he didn’t read it until a year later). However, others are more serious. For instance, Johnson calls Malthus’s population principle nonsense and criticizes Darwin for adopting it. Why? Because (Johnson informs us) nowhere in the world did the human population double in 25 years, as Malthus allegedly claimed it would. Here Johnson misunderstands Malthus, who never claimed the population would double in 25 years; he merely claimed it would double if there were no countervailing forces limiting it (such as disease, famine, war, etc.). I’m no fan of Malthus, but Johnson’s critique misses the mark. Johnson is also puzzled about Darwin applying Malthus to the world of non-human organisms, since Malthus was writing about humans. Johnson apparently does not realize that at the beginning of his famous essay Malthus stated clearly that his population principle did indeed apply to other organisms.
Johnson’s discussion of Mendel is also problematic. He assumes that Mendel “completed Darwin’s work on evolution,” and he laments that Mendel did not write Darwin to tell him so. Perhaps it seems so, since today’s neo-Darwinian theory merges Darwinism with Mendelism. However, Johnson’s interpretation is anachronistic. Many historians think that Mendel was likely trying to disprove Darwin, not substantiate his theory. Further, many early Mendelians saw Mendelian genetics as an alternative to, not a confirmation of, Darwinian theory. Indeed, Mendelian genetics by itself does nothing to explain biological evolution; it only explains how hereditary traits that already exist are passed on. Only with the addition of the concept of mutations (which Mendel did not know about) could Mendelism be brought into harmony with Darwin.
In his closing chapter Johnson argues that natural selection is a process working on inanimate objects, just as well as organisms. This shows once again that Johnson does not understand the scientific ideas of his subject. Natural selection is based on the superfecundity of organisms. Since inanimate objects do not reproduce, natural selection — at least in the Darwinian sense of the term — does not apply to them.
One of the most controversial parts of the book, which has already raised the hackles of reviewers, is its treatment of social Darwinism, which is worth pursuing in more detail. Tomorrow I will cover Johnson’s discussion of social Darwinism.
Richard Weikart is professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus, and author of From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany and Hitler’s Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress.