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Let’s Not Be So Quick to Dismiss Paul Johnson’s Darwin

Michael Flannery

Darwin Portrait of a Genius.jpegPaul Johnson’s Darwin: Portrait of a Genius has sparked interest at ENV, including a review I posted in October. Richard Weikart too commented on Johnson’s take on social Darwinism. I agree with Richard’s outline of the many flaws in Johnson’s book, which include a variety of factual errors and some conceptual ones too. But I believe Johnson’s take on Darwin’s unwitting contribution to social Darwinism and 20th-century genocide and mass murder (though certainly unintended) is more right than wrong.
Johnson asserts that Darwin’s Origin ushered in a new way of thinking, one that saw “the notion of struggle being natural and essential in the improvement of humanity.” According to Johnson, Engels and Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, Stalin and Mao Tse-Tung all embraced in some measure and in various ways “Darwin’s theory of natural selection as justification for class struggle.” He even goes so far as suggest that Pol Pot was introduced to Darwin’s evolutionary theory by Jean-Paul Sartre, which he “translated . . . into an urban-rural struggle [in Cambodia] in which one fourth of the population died.”
Let me explain why I think Johnson, for all the faults of his book, is right about this. First of all, the willing — even enthusiastic — embrace by Marxists of Darwin’s theory is a matter of public record. This is thoroughly documented in Chris Talbot’s three-part essay, “Marx and Darwin: Two great revolutionary thinkers of the nineteenth century,” at the World Socialist Web Site. While Talbot’s polemic is largely an ideological diatribe promoting a sort of political scientism against a host of foes (including Discovery Institute), he actually makes my point when he writes,

I [Talbot] hope that I have been able to show you something of the connections between Darwin and Marx and to see them both as central to the development of science in the 19th century, which of necessity, had to take a historical standpoint in relation to both biology and society. I have also insisted that it is necessary to revive the approach to science in its wider social significance, that dates back to the Enlightenment, as an approach to nature and society that enables mankind to understand their laws, causes and mechanisms in order to change them.

Indeed it is this worldview, this kind of thinking that impelled the actions of many of the dictators listed by Johnson and, therefore, correctly associated with social Darwinism.
True, one may wonder at Johnson’s inclusion of Stalin amongst this group, especially given his sanction of Lysenko’s purge of Russian geneticists under the banner of his odd brand of Lamarckism. But the Soviets were opposed to the implications of a deterministic Mendelian genetics, one they felt might ill served their social planning schemes, not necessarily Darwinism per se. It must be remembered that Darwin’s own pangenesis was essentially neo-Lamarckian. I’ll leave it to David Klinghoffer to clarify the connection between Darwin and Mao.
Finally there is Pol Pot. Why should we think there is any connection between this mass murderer and Darwinian evolution by way of Jean-Paul Sartre? Secular humanist Austin Cline has summarized “Evolutionary Theory and Existentialist Philosophy” at some length. He writes:

Of course, for Darwin the “struggle to live” was a biological issue dealing with how members of different species compete for resources and strive to reproduce. Existentialists, however, have found the similarity between this biological matter and their own philosophical work to be very interesting.

Without going into it in more detail, the important point is that although Kierkegaard founded existentialism, it was Sartre who cast it in modernist terms by stripping it of Kierkegaard’s “divine guide” and asserting that we are “condemned to be free” in a mechanical, purposeless world, a world commensurate with Darwin’s pitiless necessity and cold chance. Sartre was merely stating a Darwinian principle more philosophically when he said “we are interested obervers of existence but inessential to the thing observed.” If it was
Darwinian determinism that disturbed the social planning of some Marxists,
Sartre’s existentialist “freedom” certainly made it safe for the Left (even though some, notably Max Horkheimer, were admittedly Darwin skeptics). Sartre was the about face of Will Provine’s denial of free will, a Janus-faced Darwinian reductionism. With Sarte’s brand of existentialism, Darwinian mechanisms could explain virtually any human condition or behavior whether seen as deterministic or totally free.
What does all this have to do with Pol Pot (birth name Saloth Sar) and why would Johnson be justified in linking him with Sartre? Here the lack of references in Johnson’s Darwin hurts his case. Had the reader been given a source it might have been made clearer. That source, interestingly enough, could be Johnson himself. In an article on Jean-Paul Sartre published in The Wilson Quarterly (Spring 1989), Johnson pointed out,

His [Sartre’s] influence on South-East Asia, where the Vietnam War was drawing to a close, was even more baneful. The hideous crimes committed in Cambodia from April 1975 onwards, which involved the deaths of between a fifth and a third of the population, were organized by Pol Pot’s group of middle-class intellectuals known as the Angka Leu (“the Higher Organization”). Of its eight leaders, five were teachers, one a university professor, one a civil servant, and one an economist. All had studied in France during the 1950s, where they had not only belonged to the Communist Party but had absorbed Sartre’s doctrines of philosophical activism and “necessary violence.” These mass murderers were his ideological children.

This point is supported in Philip Short’s biography, Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare (2004), in which he points out that “the foreign intellectual legacy which would underpin the Cambodian revolution was first and foremost French.” It was in Paris from 1949 to 1953 that Saloth Sar would be influenced by the evolutionary ideas served up by Sartre and his French intellectual elites. Elizabeth Becker indicates in When the War Was Over: Cambodia’s Revolution and the Voices of Its People (1986), “When Jean-Paul Sartre made his dramatic switch to support the Soviet Union in 1952 he started a major movement.” It would transform the young Cambodian students there (Sar among them) from democrats to militant Marxists.
So when Paul Johnson states that “In the twentieth century, it is likely that over 100 million people were killed or starved to death as a result of totalitarian regimes infected with varieties of social Darwinism,” he is essentially correct.
One other thing I think Johnson gets right is his frank assessment of Darwin’s scientific prowess. While Johnson applauds Darwin’s work on barnacles and lower life forms, he correctly observes that Darwin’s abilities shrink and fail the bigger the biological picture gets. “One has the feeling,” writes Johnson, “that Darwin was often inclined to avoid the hard cerebral activity of thinking through fundamental scientific principles, taking comfortable refuge in minute observations. So his work on species remains incomplete.” When these fundamental principles turn toward largely philosophical matters his weaknesses become even more pronounced. Gertrude Himmelfarb put some meat on this argument years ago with her Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, one of the few historians to do so.
All in all, then, I acknowledge the blemishes in Johnson’s work but want to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is substance and value here. A cleaned up second edition fully referenced and thoroughly fact checked could make this a valuable contribution.
Professor Flannery is the author of Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life (Discovery Institute Press) and other books.

Michael Flannery

Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Michael A. Flannery is professor emeritus of UAB Libraries, University of Alabama at Birmingham. He holds degrees in library science from the University of Kentucky and history from California State University, Dominguez Hills. He has written and taught extensively on the history of medicine and science. His most recent research interest has been on the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913). He has edited Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution: How Wallace’s World of Life Challenged Darwinism (Erasmus Press, 2008) and authored Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life (Discovery Institute Press, 2011). His research and work on Wallace continues.