- - Thursday, November 15, 2012

DARWIN: PORTRAIT OF A GENIUSBy Paul JohnsonViking, $29.95, 151 pages

Was Charles Darwin the most influential author of the 19th century? One can make a case for Karl Marx, but otherwise it is difficult to find a writer who had greater influence in the Western world than the reclusive English naturalist.

There have been many biographies of Darwin, but here he is the subject of a short, highly readable interpretation by London-based biographer Paul Johnson.

Darwin was born in 1809 into a distinguished and well-to-do family. Although young Darwin was considered to be both personable and bright, he did not easily find the vocation in which he would excel. He had spent years studying first for medicine and then for the ministry when, in 1831, came the opportunity of a lifetime. Through the influence of a family friend, he was invited to join a five-year voyage of exploration that would take him to remote corners of the world.

Darwin’s port calls aboard the Beagle included Brazil, Argentina and Chile, but would become most noteworthy for the weeks spent in the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador. There, Darwin’s observations on variations among bird specimens would become the basis for his famous writings on evolution. The minute differences he observed in birds from different islands were a revelation. “Like many other educated men of his generation,” Mr. Johnson writes, “Darwin had been slowly, almost imperceptibly losing his religious faith.” He did not renounce Genesis, but aboard the Beagle he concluded that the process of creation that the Bible attributed to God “was not necessary, because nature did it herself.”

Back in England, Darwin contemplated marriage, drawing up lists of the advantages and disadvantages of married life. (Under negatives he cited loss of time and cannot read in the evenings.) Nevertheless, in 1839 he married a cousin, Emma Wedgwood, who became his confidante, nurse and mother to his 10 children. So much for evening reading. In 1842, the young couple moved to a house in Downe, Kent, where Darwin would spend the rest of his life.

Darwin at first contemplated a multivolume study of the theory of evolution, but he was not the only naturalist interested in this subject. In 1858, he was shocked to read a paper from another scientist that reached conclusions regarding evolution much like his own. In some haste, Darwin published a single volume titled “The Origin of Species” aimed at a general as opposed to a scientific audience. In Mr. Johnson’s words, “The reader is made to feel he is taking part in a great adventure of the mind.” Anticipating criticism from the clergy, Darwin wrote that natural selection “works solely by and for the good of each being.”

Many churchmen considered the book an affront to the biblical version of the creation, but the scientific community rallied to Darwin, and most reviews were favorable. Queen Victoria indicated that she was open-minded on the subject of evolution. Prime Minister William Gladstone came to call. And Karl Marx wrote that “The Origin of Species” provided “a basis in natural science for the class struggle in history.”

Darwin’s next major work, “The Descent of Man,” was essentially an expansion of the themes of “Species.” Throughout time, he wrote, a process of natural selection had caused the strong and adaptable to survive, and the weak to perish. “Man with all his noble qualities,” Darwin wrote, “with his godlike intellect still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.”

Darwin’s books became the most discussed writings in the Western world, but there was a downside. An enormous number of causes came to base their philosophy on “the survival of the fittest.” In America, millionaires drew upon Darwin’s writings to rationalize their riches. Britons justified their country’s empire on similar grounds. Cecil Rhodes wrote, “We happen to be the best people in the world and the more of the world we inhabit, the better it is for humanity.”

Both fascism and communism made selective use of Darwinism. “Darwin’s fondness for the word struggle,” Mr. Johnson writes, “was particularly important. Hitler used it and made it the title of his book ‘Mein Kampf.’” Stalin, he writes, had “survival of the fittest” in mind while destroying the Kulaks and relocating the Soviet Union’s various minorities.

Darwin’s preference for working alone is far removed from the laboratories and think tanks of today. And when he departed from his field of expertise, his judgment could be faulty. He opposed vaccination, presumably because it would permit the weak to survive. He was convinced that men were inherently more intelligent than women, a view that was not without its critics.

Nevertheless, Mr. Johnson considers his subject to be a key figure of his times. Darwin “had certainly established, to the satisfaction of most educated people, that evolution was a fact. And he had persuaded many of them that evolution embraced all creatures, including man.”

Biographer and historian John M. Taylor lives in McLean.