Historian Paul Johnson Is Darwin's Latest Biographer -- and a Pretty Devastating One
This should be good. I have not read the book itself yet but the first review is out now of Darwin: Portrait of a Genius, by the great and prolific British historian Paul Johnson (Viking, October 11, 2012).
Johnson had already made his feelings known about the science behind Darwinism, writing that
My guess is that Darwin's general theory will eventually be overthrown, or fundamentally modified, as Newton's was by Einstein's relativity. Unlike his fundamentalist followers, Darwin was not afraid of change, even if it proved him wrong about some things.In the new biography, after narrating the great man's life, Johnson lays out the concise history of Darwinism's social consequences. Reviewing the book at Slate, Mark Joseph Stern splutters:
[T]here's no harm in remembering Darwin's flaws, misunderstandings, and racist ignorance.No one who is remotely thoughtful blames Charles Darwin "for millions of deaths." But to say, as Johnson does, that Darwin's theory contributed to the growth of a view of the world that in turn had horrendously tragic consequences -- well, that's obviously true, it did. We have documented this extensively here at ENV, as have historians including our contributor Richard Weikart (Hitler's Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany, Socialist Darwinism: Evolution in German Socialist Thought from Marx to Bernstein).
There is harm, however -- intellectual harm, historical harm, and moral harm -- in attributing to Darwin a startling majority of the 20th century's tragedies. This is what Johnson attempts to do in the later pages of his book. We are informed that Darwin's theory led directly to the development of eugenics and forced sterilization, and that the United States' pre-World War II anti-immigrant policies "can be traced back to the publication of Origin." Even more sinisterly, Darwin's book was allegedly relied upon by the Nazis in developing their racial theories, and Marx cited it in support of communism. "Both Himmler, head of the SS and Goebbels, the propaganda chief," were students of Darwin, Johnson ominously reminds us, and Hitler apparently carried the theory of natural selection "to its logical conclusion." "Leading Communists," moreover, "from Lenin to Trotsky to Stalin and Mao Tse-tung" considered evolution "essential to the self-respect of Communists. ... Darwin provided stiffening to the scaffold of laws and dialectic they erected around their seizure of power."
Even Stalin -- not a learned man by any stretch -- "had Darwin's 'struggle' and 'survival of the fittest' in mind" when murdering entire ethnic groups, as did Pol Pot, by Johnson's telling. Maybe Darwin wouldn't have wanted all of this bloodshed, Johnson concedes, but he claims the "emotional stew" Darwin built up in Origin played a major part in the development of the 20th century's genocides. Johnson's most laughable claim is that Darwin's word choice may have partly inspired Hitler to write Mein Kampf -- it means "My Struggle," a word Darwin uses "dozens of times"(!) -- although we do get the caveat that "it is doubtful if Adolf Hitler actually read the Origin."
And so on. You get the idea: Johnson marches again and again up to the line of actually blaming Darwin for millions of deaths, relying on guilt by association to make his point. It's a dirty game, and a dangerous one, for character assassination can be a much more effective way of rejecting natural selection than is flat-out denial.
There is, or should be, nothing controversial about this. Mark Joseph Stern can't effectively argue against the idea; in fact he doesn't even try.