a blog

by Josh Nicholas

paul johnson

The curious life of Charles Darwin

Your ideas are the sum of your influences. This is something I first came across in Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From:

“ideas are works of bricolage; they’re built out of that detritus. We take the ideas we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape.”

And it's this concept, what Steven Johnson calls the "adjacent possible", that kept coming to mind as I read Paul Johnson's brilliant, short biography of Charles Darwin.

The story is packed with Darwin's influences, from Malthus to Lyell, and, of course, The Beagle. These are the dots that Darwin eventually joined in his scientific work.

"At intervals in the five-year voyage, Darwin was able to spend a total of three years and one month on land, traveling widely... He shot a wide variety of birds and animals, went on an ostrich hunt, studied the effects of a large-scale earthquake, observed a major volcanic eruption, and visited at length tropical rain forests, high mountains, sierras, pampas and other grasslands, rivers, lakes, and a wide variety of scrub and brushwood areas, as well as scores of native villages, settler towns, mines, and cities."

As we can see from that one passage, Darwin was voracious. In an age of specialisation, its easy to forget that people like Darwin dabbled, slowly expanding horizons and building up the bricolage.

"In 1838 he came across... Malthus's Essay on Population... This had a huge emotional impact on him, equivalent to the ones he had felt when he first experienced the savages of Tierra del Fuego..."

"He liked to have several projects going at once and switch from one to another as the spirit or the excitement generated by results moved him - from zoology to botany to physiology or anthropology, from insects to plants, the invertebrates, to men, and back to insects again."

The voracity of the ideas doesn't even seem to matter. Even in Darwin and Malthus' day, the evidence was against Malthus' Iron Law of Population. But it inspired something else and was reworked. The important point is to be open to fresh thinking.

"Darwin was a polymath. It was his great strength. Without the breadth as well as the depth of his knowledge, it is doubtful whether Origin could have succeeded.

This is a great, short intro to Darwin. Although, it will probably leave you wanting more. If anyone has any suggestions for a longer Darwin bio I'm all ears.

Mozart was a village

It's hard to fathom the mind of a genius. Although I really enjoy biographies, I often learn more of and from the world around them than I do from the subject itself.

In the case of Paul Johnson's short, brilliant biography of Mozart, it's Mozart's father that piqued my interest. The endless renditions of concertos, operas and symphonies went over my head. But the dotted references to Leopold Mozart, WolfGang Mozart's father, humanises both the story and Mozart himself.

"Leopold Mozart... the son of a bookbinder, was a well-educated man with a degree in philosophy who had come to Salzburg in his late teens and joined its musical fraternity as a valet instrumentalist.

He loved music and became one of the most learned musicologists of his day. He specialised in the violin, and his Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule, published the year of Mozart's birth, is not only a handbook of instruction but a theoretical work that made him well known in musical circles throughout Europe."

Mozart didn't suddenly appear, fully formed. He might have been phenomenally gifted from an early age, but that had to be nurtured by someone with time, passion and knowhow.

Unfortunately, its these stories that often get lost. We value and laud the individual, not the village. Leopold Mozart was well known by his peers, but how many know him now?

When you listen to Mozart's music, if that is your wont, do you appreciate the wider sacrifice that went into the prodigy?

"Leopold Mozart's ability as a composer in addition to his work as a violin expert should not be underrated. But about 1760, according to Nannerl, he "abandoned violin teaching and composing music to devote himself to educating his two children"...

After 1762 he composed rarely and never after 1770-71. He is often seen as a tyrant toward his children, but the fact is, he surrendered his own future as a musician for their sake, and their progress justified his sacrifice."

Definitely recommend Mozart by Paul Johnson. Even if you are a musical philistine (as I am), you'll smash it out in a couple of hours and learn a lot along the way.