Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Darwin: Portrait of a Genius by Paul Johnson

I read Charles & Emma in 2011, and although I learned some of Mr. Darwin's life, a lot of the focus was on his family and their reactions or connections to his work. This year I read Darwin: Portrait of a Genius for Darwin Week to learn a little more about his scientific life.

I really liked how the information about Darwin's life was laid out in this book. It wasn't too dry and it seemed to hit all the high points and spaces between concisely. One interesting fact was that he was a wealthy man, and if he had paid someone to read and gather other scientific papers from the time, Darwin would have had the crucial missing piece of his theory of evolution. "Darwin showed the what of evolution and the why, natural selection. Now Mendel had produced the how, genetics." The irony is that Mendel was a priest! Yes, a priest completed Darwin's theory of evolution by trying to grow the best peas for the other priests in his monastery. Mendel's Laws, that rang a bell.

The other big aha for me in this book was the chapter about Social Darwinism. I had heard that term before but never put too much thought into it. Darwin loved using the term "struggle" when referring to how living things adapt to survive. ("Survival of the fittest" is actually Herbert Spencer's term, which Darwin liked and added in his fifth edition of On the Origin of Species.) As time went on, people chose to misinterpret and misuse his scientific work and apply it incorrectly to the economy or sociology. Hitler's a good example of using Darwin's theory of evolution in a terrible way. Mein Kampf...My Struggle. Yikes. Or others who believe poor people deserve to be poor because they are obviously not fit enough to survive like rich people. Poor Darwin. If he knew how people misused his work he probably would have been horrified, although the author suggests that he was somewhat culpable by, "...always [carefully steering] clear of politics as such."

Reading about the true genius of Charles Darwin was fascinating. I recommend this biography if you love science or are in a creative rut. The man is an inspiration, and born on the exact day as another great thinker of the time, Abraham Lincoln.

P.S. This counts as my Book You Received as a Present for the Take It or Leave It Challenge. (I got it for Christmas from my nephew Kyle.)

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