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Darwin: Portrait of a Genius

Darwin: Portrait of a Genius

Author: Paul Johnson
Rating: 7/10
Last Read: May 2017

Quick Summary:  I read Darwin: Portrait of a Genius based on Ryan Holiday's recommendation. This biography is short and taken from a historian's perspective. Johnson spends less time focusing on the specific details and facts of Darwin's life, instead focusing on how Darwin fit in with the world and his contemporary scientists. Johnson also provides some analysis to the social consequences of Darwin's work.

Overall, I am glad I read this biography and learned more about Darwin. He has certainly been elevated to the status of a scientific saint, and Johnson helps straighten the story out for us. 

My Highlights

All his life, Charles Darwin believed that inheritance was much more important in shaping a man or woman than education or environment. Nature rather than nurture was formative, in his view. --loc 56

He had a maxim: “Any man who never conducts an experiment is a fool.” --loc 66

His chief passions, however, were botany and animal life. As he prospered, he bought a plot of land and planted an eight-acre experimental garden. He wrote and published a two-part didactic poem, The Botanic Garden, covering “The Economy of Vegetation” and “The Loves of the Plants.” It was highly successful, much praised by the fastidious Horace Walpole, and translated into French, Italian, and Portuguese. He expanded the lore of his poem in a prose work, Phytologia; or, The Philosophy of Agriculture and Gardening (1799), which contains much speculation about the generative life of plants. --loc 69

There seem to be two types of genius, the purely cerebral and the intuitive-cerebral, Galileo being an example of the first and Newton of the second. --loc 92

In his superb essay on Newton, J. M. Keynes, another genius, pointed out that Newton always took a major step forward by an intuitive leap, but then held his discovery tightly by his “strong, intellectual muscle-power,” until in due course, satisfied by its veracity, he proceeded to prove it by reason. --loc 93

In addition, he never learned human anatomy. Hatred of this essential but dull, difficult, and exhausting business is the biggest single reason why medical students give up or fail their course, today as then. --loc 222

As Galileo observed: The universe cannot be read until we have learned the language and have become familiar with the characters in which it has been written. It is written in mathematical language, and the letters are triangles, circles and other mathematical figures, without which means it is humanly impossible to comprehend a single word. --loc 233

William Paley’s View of the Evidences of Christianity. This work was and still is remarkable not so much because it “proves” that nature is the work of a Supreme Being but because it is a model of deductive logic, step-by-step argument, and not least, clarity of exposition. There is no doubt at all that Darwin learned a great deal from Paley about how exactly to put a lucid, cogent, and sustained case, and that if he had not read and absorbed it, The Origin of Species would have been a much less effective book. --loc 246

Finally, and most important, these sojourns in high places of learning were vital because of the scholars he met and the relationships he formed with them. It is not considered quite proper to suggest that scientists often progress as much by personal charm as by intellect. But it is so. Darwin is an example. --loc 249

This had disadvantages, as we shall see. But the overwhelming advantage was to give the twenty-seven-year-old complete freedom to pursue lines of inquiry he thought most likely to produce worthwhile knowledge, especially about “the mystery of mysteries,” for as long as they might require. He had no one to report to except his own conscience and no institution or body to fit in with except the confraternity of learned men. Was ever a scientist more fortunate or more happy? --loc 398

Ever since he became a systematic naturalist, Darwin had been an evolutionist. That is, he dismissed the account in Genesis of the separate creation of species by Yahweh as symbolic and not to be taken literally. They had, in some way, evolved. There was nothing new, surprising, or alarming in this view. His grandfather had been an evolutionist. So had his French mentors, Buffon and Lamarck. So had other, more distant, thinkers. It was arguable that Francis Bacon had posited some form of evolution, and even that it went back to the pre-Socratic Greeks. Moreover, by the late 1830s, evolution, as opposed to revolution, was a commonplace of philosophers, political and economic, as a natural and desirable way of proceeding in the development of institutions, societies, and much else. The German philosophical heavyweights, Kant and, still more, Hegel, had shown evolution to be inherent in many disciplines and in religion itself. Art, architecture, music, and literature evolved. The English constitution, seen as perfect by many Englishmen and widely admired all over the world, was regarded as a model instance of evolution. The principle was constantly invoked by Goethe. The word comes from classical times and denotes the motion of unrolling a scroll. As set out in Buffon’s evolutionary theory of 1762, what happens in nature is that the embryo or germ, instead of being brought into existence by the process of fecundation, is a development or expansion of a preexisting form, which contains the rudiments of all the parts of the future organism. --loc 434

He saw, in short, that evolution had occurred. What he wanted to discover was why it had occurred, as a prelude to finding out how it had occurred. --loc 449

Life was a ferocious struggle not only between species but within them. This was because the fecundity of production in life forms greatly exceeded any increase in their food supplies. And the struggle itself was the engine of evolution, for it meant that only those forms whose variations gave them an edge over their competitors survived, and the process produced not only improved species but also new ones. --loc 453

That natural selection was and is a remarkable explanation of evolution is not to be doubted. What is more questionable is the horror scenario with which Darwin accompanied it, treating this as not merely occasional and often accidental but as essential and inveterate. To him the horror was unavoidable, which was why he averted his gaze from the spectacle of heavily armed soldiers exterminating Indians. It was nature’s way. But was it? --loc 469

In fact, Malthus’s law was nonsense. He did not prove it. He stated it. What strikes one reading Malthus is the lack of hard evidence throughout. Why did this not strike Darwin? A mystery. --loc 488

Malthus’s only “proof” was the population expansion of the United States. In 1750 the total white population was 1 million. In 1775 it was 2 million. In 1800 it was 4.3 million. Here was his evidence of population doubling every twenty-five years, with annual rates reaching 3 percent. But this did not take into account immigration, still less the reason for mass immigration, the opening up of the Midwest, the largest and richest uncultivated arable region in the world, capable of producing grain and livestock for the entire planet. --loc 490

If Malthus had troubled to inquire further, he would have discovered that the food consumption of the United States had been, and was, increasing per capita all the time, in quantity and quality. --loc 493

There was no point at which Malthus’s geometrical/arithmetical rule could be made to square with the known facts. And he had no reason whatsoever to extrapolate from the high American rates to give a doubling effect every twenty-five years everywhere and in perpetuity. --loc 504

But Darwin did not think about these things. He swallowed Malthusianism because it fitted his emotional need; he did not apply the tests and deploy the skepticism that a scientist should. It was a rare lapse from the discipline of his profession. --loc 515

May not the habit in scientific pursuits of believing nothing until it is proved, influence your mind too much in other things which cannot be proved in the same way, & which if true are likely to be above our comprehension. --loc 585

He very likely would have concluded the illnesses were psychosomatic in origin, provoked by Darwin’s worry about his work, the widening breach between natural selection and religion, and the fear of distressing Emma. --loc 621

Like many other scholars of all times, Darwin accumulated more material than he could ever possibly have needed. He never acquired the basic economic theory of research: an overprovision of material and evidence is not only unnecessary but a positive hindrance to a completed work. --loc 697

No scientific innovator has ever taken more trouble to smooth the way for lay readers without descending into vulgarity. What is almost miraculous about the book is Darwin’s generosity in sharing his thought processes, his lack of condescension. There is no talking down, but no hauteur, either. It is a gentlemanly book. --loc 868

It is clear, from the first week Origin was published, that everyone concluded man was inevitably part of the theory. It was their first reaction on finishing the book. But Darwin nowhere says that man was descended from apes. What he does say, in his last two paragraphs, is designed to be reassuring and uplifting. We can all “look with some confidence to a secure future.” Natural selection, he insists, “works solely by and for the good of each being” and “all mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection.” That was exactly what the Victorian public, with its love of reform and improvement, wished to hear. --loc 882

This last point is a reminder that one of Darwin’s intellectual weaknesses was to accept the Lamarckian doctrine that acquired characteristics could be inherited, later shown conclusively to be baseless. He thought the lesson applied particularly to women, who should be encouraged to learn things and read widely before they had children, so as to be sure to pass on what they had acquired. --loc 1130

In 1860 he switched to orchids, and after he built his new orchid house at Down, he devoted six months entirely to the project, finishing in April 1862 the book he called The Fertilisation of Orchids. Orchids are beautiful things, and the pleasure Darwin got in finding out their secret history and how insects served them conveys itself to the reader, so it is highly enjoyable even to nongardeners and completely convincing. --loc 1196

The truth is, he did not always use his ample financial resources to the best effect. He might build new greenhouses and recruit an extra gardener or two, but he held back on employing trained scientific assistants. A young man with language and mathematical skills, with specific instructions to comb through foreign scientific publications for news of work relevant to Darwin’s particular interest, would have been invaluable to him. Such an assistant would almost certainly have drawn his attention to Mendel’s work and given him a digest in English. --loc 1276

One has the feeling that Darwin was often inclined to avoid the hard cerebral activity of thinking through fundamental scientific principles, taking comfortable refuge in minute observations. --loc 1296

By 1920 fifteen states had sterilization laws. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled most of them unconstitutional until 1927, when in Buck v. Bell, it decided that Virginia could sterilize Carrie Buck, a feeble-minded epileptic, daughter of another low-mentality woman and already the mother of a child judged “an imbecile.” Passing judgement, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes ruled, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” In the quarter century up to 1935, U.S. states passed over a hundred sterilization laws and sterilized over a hundred thousand people with subnormal mental faculties. Virginia went on sterilizing up to the 1970s. --loc 1391

Except for Canada, the British Empire rejected sterilization, thanks largely to a vigorous campaign conducted by G. K. Chesterton, who wrote a fierce book on the subject. He was helped by a brilliant satire written by Aldous Huxley in 1932, Brave New World, which pictured a “dark Utopia” in which science was used in innumerable ways to create a hygienically perfect but docile and submissive population. --loc 1398

He held that “so long as there are true Germanen in the world so long can and will we have confidence in the future of the human family.” But the entrance of the Jews into European history was the intrusion of “an element foreign to everything that Europe had hitherto been, and achieved.” Darwin used phrases like “as rich as Jews” and blamed “a primitive Jewish God” for much that was wrong with Judeo-Christianity, especially the doctrine of eternal punishment, which he thought positively evil. But he was not anti-Semitic. What made his teaching so destructive in Germany was his emphasis on the constant violence involved in natural selection. It is doubtful if Adolf Hitler actually read the Origin, but he certainly absorbed its arguments and the psychology of strife seen as necessary for the emergence of higher forms. Hitler was fond of dwelling on the awful prospect (which Thomas Carlyle had made into a joke) of mankind evolving backward or downward. He said: --loc 1410

If we do not respect the law of nature, imposing our will by the might of the stronger, a day will come when the wild animals will again devour us – when the insects will eat the wild animals, and finally nothing will exist except the microbes. By means of the struggle the elites are continually renewed. The law of selection justifies this incessant struggle by allowing the survival of the fittest. Christianity is a rebellion against natural law, a protest against nature. --loc 1417

sustaining and often destructive careers in history. The emotional stew that built up inside Darwin’s mind from seeing the Fuegans, looking at beaks in the Galápagos, and reading Malthus—a stew that permeated with its verbal odors almost every page of Origin—became for some a vicious poison. Darwin’s fondness for the word struggle—he used it dozens of times—was particularly unfortunate. Hitler adopted it and made it the title of his book, which was both autobiography and political program, Mein Kampf. Struggle was healthy; it was nature’s way. And under the cover and darkness of war, it became easy to resort to another much-used word of Darwin’s, extermination. --loc 1421

It is important to note that Hitler was not a solitary figure in his peculiar version of Darwinismus. In his ascent to power, he always polled better among the university population, professors and students, than among the German electorate as a whole. German biologists who held academic status were almost unanimously behind the eugenics program, and over 50 percent of them were members of the Nazi party, the highest percentage in any professional group. Both Himmler, head of the SS, and Goebbels, the propaganda chief, were students of Darwin. --loc 1429

The delight with which Engels and Marx pounced upon the Origin the week of its appearance was succeeded by a continuing interest among leading Communists, from Lenin and Trotsky to Stalin and Mao Tse-tung, in Darwin’s theory of natural selection as justification for the class struggle. It was essential to the self-respect of Communists to believe that their ideology was scientific, and Darwin provided stiffening to the scaffold of laws and dialectic they erected around their seizure and retention of power. --loc 1434

Mao Tse-tung, who had his own view of Darwin, saw the “struggle” in terms of his Cultural Revolution, in which one embodiment of Communist culture replaced an outmoded and unfit predecessor. --loc 1439

Pol Pot, introduced by his professor Jean-Paul Sartre to the idea of evolution to higher forms, translated the theory in terms of Cambodia into an urban-rural struggle in which one fourth of the population died. --loc 1441

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. --loc 1442

But he did not think about God or the possibility of an afterlife. He closed his mind to speculation about the infinite and concentrated on worms. --loc 1521

If Darwin was ambivalent about the fact of cruelty, he was also confused about its motivation. How could impersonal nature be, as he said, “horribly cruel”? Judgments of value about nature’s actions, design, efficiency, and success or failure often slipped into his narratives. He found it no easier than anyone else to imagine an existence without object, where, in Thomas Hobbes’s bleak phrase, “there is no contentment but in proceeding.” --loc 1530

Once this is grasped, it is hard to see any moral purpose in nature or indeed any purpose at all. We come under exactly the same fundamental rules as a piece of rock. Nature grinds on but without object or purpose or rationale, long- or short-term. There is no point whatsoever in existence. Nonexistence is just as significant. Or rather, nothing whatsoever signifies. The result is nihilism. --loc 1556

And then, having proved it, he averted his eyes from the consequence—the colossal vacuum that swallows the universe in pointlessness. --loc 1564

That knowledge will expand we can be certain, and at an accelerating pace and in directions we cannot possibly predict. This book is written from the viewpoint of a historian, and while all theories of history are vainglorious absurdities, doomed to eventual oblivion, history does teach certain lessons, one of which is that science, like everything else, becomes out of date. --loc 1597

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