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Darwin: Portrait of a Genius

3.56 of 5 stars 3.56  ·  rating details  ·  190 ratings  ·  45 reviews
Eminent historian Paul Johnson provides a rich, succinct portrait of Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin is arguably the most influential scientist of all time. His Origin of Species forever changed our concept of the world’s creation.

Darwin’s revolutionary career is the perfect vehicle for historian Paul Johnson. Marked by the insightful observation, spectacular wit, and highly
Hardcover, 164 pages
Published October 11th 2012 by Viking Adult
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Johnson's biography offers a lucid portrait and valid critique of Darwin until its final pages, in which he connects Darwin's theory of natural selection with the evils of national, racial, and cultural essentialism, such as the mass genocides undertaken by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot (but no mention of the evils of U.S. & U.K. nationalism). His tirade could easily lead a less critical reader down the path of believing that Darwin is ultimately to blame, thus (as happens with connection ...more
Carl Rollyson

The 'genius' of Paul Johnson's biography of Charles Darwin is manifestly, impressively apparent in "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection; or, The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life," to give the full title of the first edition. "Favoured Races," was an unexceptionable term to his contemporaries, individuals Darwin treated with extraordinary sensitivity. As Mr. Johnson observes:

No scientific innovator has ever taken more trouble to smooth the
Let’s say this book should be rated thusly: 2 stars for the first half and 0 for the second. Here’s how it plays out:

First, I see the book on one of my favored websites. In the science section. It’s called Darwin: Portrait of a Genius. OK. Though I’ve read Darwin and know a lot about his life as both a biology student and now educator, I realize I’ve yet to actually read a proper biography of the man. So I buy it sight unseen. When the book shows up I see that not only is it a mere 150 pages lon
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Andd Becker
Charles Darwin was a polymath: he had expertise in many areas.
Paul Johnson brings Darwin to life through intriguing anecdotes about Darwin, his genius grandfathers, his father, and his contemporaries.
The historian/author gives a sparkling analysis of Darwin's word-choice in THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES.
The writing style is high-interest/can't-put-this-book-down.

Jim Razinha
I've outgrown Paul Johnson. I first found him in 1992, with his Modern Times. I was enthralled: details, notes, references, broad scope. He set the bar for me that others haven't met often (Example: David McCullough writes nice histories, but doesn't cite anything. Very annoying.) I would read his books with two bookmarks - one for the notes - and spend more time on the notes and references than the actual text. I never made it through Modern Times twice...dense.

This is not that Paul Johnson. N
Great little book about Darwin. I have stared down several thick biographies of Darwin, shamefully turning away after accepting that I lacked the commitment necessary. This book is short, to the point, and full of insight I doubt you would get from a tome covering Darwin's every move and thought. I got a feel for the man, a better understanding of his struggles as a man and a scientist, and an appreciation of the dynamics of the sea change that evolution brought to the naturalist community. Ever ...more
Oct 10, 2013 Lianne added it
A slim but focused biography by British historian Paul Johnson about one of the most famous and controversial scientists of the 19th century. Johnson goes deep on a few important points rather than going for a comprehensive wide treatment of the life of Darwin. First, Darwin came from an exceedingly privileged family and three generations of scientists and intellectuals. He was given free rein by his father to follow his passion for being a naturalist and in many others ways seemed to be a very ...more
Kate Lawrence
At 150 pages, this new biography by British historian Johnson is an approachable overview of Darwin's life. The man enjoyed consistent good fortune, being born into a well-educated, highly intelligent, supportive and wealthy family, being selected to go on the amazing voyage of the HMS Beagle, able to live well throughout his life without ever needing to earn money, having a happy marriage, and enjoying widespread fame during his lifetime. He also managed to avoid the public criticism he had exp ...more
The title of this book is rather misleading as this is by no means a portrait but rather a quick sketch and the driving force of the author seems to be the aim to prove that Darwin was by no means a genius but a fortunate product of the privileged high society of the Victorian era (which is quite obvious anyway) and immense amount of luck. It would better qualify as a bitter review of Darwin's works, although 150 years too late as his contemporaries seemed to lack the ability to be critical enou ...more
Barbara Justiniano
I was perusing the science section of Barnes & Noble when I came across this very thin book hidden well among the many texts. I first off liked the subject of course, a book about a great man, but second I liked the cover of the book which encouraged me to purchase it. I thought I knew about Darwin from my high school days but this book proved that I didn't know much at all about the man himself. This book was well written and quite educating. I now look forward to reading more work by Paul ...more
Brandy Bones
Fine. A bit partial to uncovering darwin's biases in a way that did not contribute to the overall narrative. Johnson couldn't say enough times how lucky Darwin's lot in life was. we get it, he was independently wealthy; please move on. I read origin and I have read descent and the latter was full of faults and the former pretty brilliant. Johnson failed to make me a hater of the polymath despite his best efforts. Really interesting to learn about the overlap bw Mendel and Darwin and how Darwin w ...more
Another concise, yet brilliant, biography from the master himself: Paul Johnson. Johnson has a knack for summing up the lives, warts and all of his subjects, and this little gem on the life of Charles Darwin is no exception. Readable over a weekend, you will enjoyably learn much about this fascinating man and his work. Even today, Darwin is still a figure of some controversy, and Johnson deftly tells us how and why.
So, short book which may account for its somewhat 2-dimensional treatment of the subject. As between the description of the man and the implications of his work, the latter fares better. Interesting digression into the influence of Malthus.

A reasonable attempt at critiquing the more odious off-shoots of his science, e.g., Holmes opinion in Buck v Bell and "Mr. Spencer's" horror show.
Interestingly, Johnson's "portrait" of Darwin isn't very flattering. He highlights Darwin's shortcomings and mistakes, his arrogance, his lack of intellectual discipline, his biases, his inability to understand the subtleties of human nature, his pettiness, his intolerance, and his mean-spiritedness. That being said, this short book is still a quick and interesting read.
Perry Clark
[This review is based on a reading of the Kindle version.]. I'm quite fond of Paul Johnson as a popular historian and writer. While his biographies are never the definitive tomes, he generally does a very-good to excellent job of acquainting the reader with the more important facets of the subject, whomever it may be. Unfortunately, his recent bio of Darwin is not of his usual caliber. He makes few errors of note, but he doesn't seem to have been willing to grapple with Darwin the man enough to ...more
This books is really about Paul Johnson's take on Darwin which is that Charles Darwin was a great scientist/naturalist, but a lousy anthropologist. Paul Johnson is the true genius here - with Darwin being a genius when he is writing about the things he is best at - like categorizing ants - and less of a genius when he is categorizing people. Paul Johnson is best when he is putting Darwin in his historical context. My take away is that I should retry reading The Origin of Species, but skip Darwin ...more
Jeff J.
An excellent short biography of Charles Darwin. The brevity forces the writer to focus on the fundamentals of both Darwin's life and ideas. Recommended.
I'm just not a big fan of biographies, except when I really like the person. And I just never got into this one. Abandoned at 40%.
Audiobook - It was interesting really... although I found my mind wandering while listening to it.
A great little book for putting Darwin in perspective. Spends a little more time on historical context and recounting the research and behavior of contemporary and historical scientists than I expected, but then it's such a short book, that content was needed to make this more than just a thesis.

But it's extremely well-written, and I learned a great deal about Darwin's habits which explain why achievements were so misunderstood. Also very informative to reexamine Darwin's work in the context of
Just enough information about Darwin to make me smarter but not so scientific as to bore.
A short (and rather critical at times) account of Darwin's life and work. The book shows Darwin to have been born into financial as well as intellectual privilege. He was never burdened with the monetary concerns that hold so many other potential scientists back. His work was of course ground-breaking and forever changed our view of history, but it also had some pretty negative implications as well. For example, Darwin was in no way concerned for the fate of indigenous people being conquered by ...more
Well researched and written but nothing new regarding Darwin.
About time I learned about him.
Xi Xi
a short read.
A very nice, but short, biography of Darwin. More a review of his work than of his life. I really enjoyed it ... particularly the discussion of his missing the genetic work done by of Mendel. The linkage of evolution and genetics was not made until about 30 years after Darwin died. The discussion of Social Darwinism was also enlightening. Darwin was did NOT repute Social Darwinism ... in fact he argued against vaccinations and birth control.

I would recommend the book and a new look at Darwin.
Jacob Thornburg
Maybe it's cos I just finished two Malcolm Gladwell books and The Road, but I didn't really care for this guy's writing style. He was too aloof.

I just read some more Gladwell. This guy is a fine writer, I was just tainted by how engrossed I was by Gladwell. Read this book.
Joscelyn Krauss litvak

Boring biography of a rather bland life in spite of his travels.I felt that Paul Johnson was trying to fill up pages, to make a book that was still rather short for a biography of someone as important as Darwin is supposed to be. Lack of depth in the man an his biography.
I would only recommend it to someone that wants to know about Darwin quickly and succinctedly.
A well researched, concise look at Darwin, his past, his genius and his short-comings. If you want a great overview of this mans life and contributions to science, this is the book for you. What I loved most was how the author completely humanized Darwin; putting his relationships (both personal and professional) into context.
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Paul Johnson works as a historian, journalist and author. He was educated at Stonyhurst School in Clitheroe, Lancashire and Magdalen College, Oxford, and first came to prominence in the 1950s as a journalist writing for, and later editing, the New Statesman magazine. He has also written for leading newspapers and magazines in Britain, the US and Europe.

Paul Johnson has published over 40 books incl
More about Paul Johnson...
Churchill A History of the American People Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties, Revised Edition A History of the Jews (Perennial Library) Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky

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