In response to Scambray, Laszlo Bencze writes the following letter to the editor, "A Dull Plodder," in the current issue (July-August 2014):
As Terry Scambray makes clear in his review of Paul Johnson’s Darwin: Portrait of a Genius (May), Charles Darwin was hardly the scientific giant of present-day adulation. In fact, flattery of Darwin has reached its apogee now that he is often called the greatest scientist of all time, the man who had the “best idea” in the history of mankind.Needless to say, defenders of the reigning orthodoxy, like Arthur M. Shapiro (in the same issue), were not happy.
Yet the truth, as Scambray points out, is that Darwin was very much a man of his time — and a dull plodder at that. He spent eight years writing a four-volume study of barnacles. Yet, oddly enough, barnacles are never mentioned in The Origin of Species. Why? Was it impossible to discern evolutionary evidence in these complex and obscure creatures he knew so well? Instead, he devoted almost every bit of his magnum opus to tedious examples of artificial selection in domestic animals. He brushed away the glaring advantage of artificial over natural selection with rhetoric along the lines of “I see no reason why” natural selection might not have fashioned the eye or any other organ or living thing. For such schoolboy ineptitude he was roundly criticized by his contemporaries, all of whom are now consigned to history’s dustbin, regardless of their skills and biological competency.
As for Darwin having honestly formulated his theory based on slowly accumulating evidence, his own private notebooks reveal that as early as 1844 he proclaimed that he would “transform the ‘whole [of] metaphysics.’” We will not find such words in the works of Newton, Pasteur, or Einstein. Perhaps they were not genius enough.
Scambray wisely warns against laying “yet another coat of bronze to the iconic figure of Darwin.” It’s too bad Paul Johnson felt he had to take on the role of literary foundry man.