The Secret History of Evolution
By Rebecca Stott
(Spiegel & Grau, Hardcover, 9781400069378, 416pp.)
Publication Date: June 12, 2012
Other Editions of This Title: Paperback
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A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK
“[An] extraordinarily wide-ranging and engaging book [about] the men who shaped the work of Charles Darwin . . . a book that enriches our understanding of how the struggle to think new thoughts is shared across time and space and people.”—The Sunday Telegraph (London)
Christmas, 1859. Just one month after the publication of On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin received an unsettling letter. He had expected criticism; in fact, letters were arriving daily, most expressing outrage and accusations of heresy. But this letter was different. It accused him of failing to acknowledge his predecessors, of taking credit for a theory that had already been discovered by others. Darwin realized that he had made an error in omitting from Origin of Species any mention of his intellectual forebears. Yet when he tried to trace all of the natural philosophers who had laid the groundwork for his theory, he found that history had already forgotten many of them.
Darwin’s Ghosts tells the story of the collective discovery of evolution, from Aristotle, walking the shores of Lesbos with his pupils, to Al-Jahiz, an Arab writer in the first century, from Leonardo da Vinci, searching for fossils in the mine shafts of the Tuscan hills, to Denis Diderot in Paris, exploring the origins of species while under the surveillance of the secret police, and the brilliant naturalists of the Jardin de Plantes, finding evidence for evolutionary change in the natural history collections stolen during the Napoleonic wars. Evolution was not discovered single-handedly, Rebecca Stott argues, contrary to what has become standard lore, but is an idea that emerged over many centuries, advanced by daring individuals across the globe who had the imagination to speculate on nature’s extraordinary ways, and who had the courage to articulate such speculations at a time when to do so was often considered heresy.
With each chapter focusing on an early evolutionary thinker, Darwin’s Ghosts is a fascinating account of a diverse group of individuals who, despite the very real dangers of challenging a system in which everything was presumed to have been created perfectly by God, felt compelled to understand where we came from. Ultimately, Stott demonstrates, ideas—including evolution itself—evolve just as animals and plants do, by intermingling, toppling weaker notions, and developing over stretches of time. Darwin’s Ghosts presents a groundbreaking new theory of an idea that has changed our very understanding of who we are.
Praise for Darwin’s Ghosts
“Absorbing . . . Stott captures the breathless excitement of an investigation on the cusp of the unknown. . . . A lively, original book.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Stott’s research is broad and unerring; her book is wonderful. . . . An exhilarating romp through 2,000 years of fascinating scientific history.”—Nature
“Stott brings Darwin himself to life. . . . [She] writes with a novelist’s flair. . . . Darwin and the ‘ghosts’ so richly described in Ms. Stott’s enjoyable book are the descendants of Aristotle and Bacon and the ancestors of today’s scientists.”—The Wall Street Journal
“Riveting . . . Stott has done a wonderful job in showing just how many extraordinary people had speculated on where we came from before the great theorist dispelled all doubts.”—The Guardian (U.K.)
Rebecca Stott is a professor of English literature and creative writing at the University of East Anglia and an affiliated scholar at the department of the history and philosophy of science at Cambridge University. She is the author of several books, including Darwin and the Barnacle and the novels Ghostwalk and The Coral Thief. She lives in Cambridge, England.
“Absorbing…Stott’s narrative flows easily across continents and centuries…her portraits evoke vividly realized and memorable characters…Stott captures the breathless excitement of an investigation on the cusp of the unknown…[a] lively, original book. Darwin’s Ghosts unfolds like an enjoyable and informative TV series, each episode devoted to a fascinating character who provides a window into the world of ideas of his time….it [helps] us see the necessity of bold and ambitious thinking. And right here, right now, it has additional value. Stott reminds us that even if evolution is currently fought over more brutally in the United States than elsewhere, this fight has a long and stubborn ancestry, one that is by no means peculiarly American or entirely modern.”—The New York Times Book Review
"Stott gives personality to her historical characters, introducing their families, their monetary concerns, their qualms about publishing so-called heretical theories, and the obsessions that kept them up at night. She also brings her settings and secondary characters to life, from the deformed sponge divers Aristotle consulted in ancient Lesbos to the exotic animals in the caliphate’s garden that inspired Jahiz in medieval Basra to lost seashells found by Maillet in the deserts outside 18th-century Cairo. Stott’s focus on her settings makes her narrative compellingly readable, and it also reminds us that even as animal species are shaped by their environment, so intellectuals are shaped by their societies….Stott’s book is a reminder that scientific discoveries do not happen in a vacuum, that they often stem from incorrect or pseudo-scientific inquiries, and that they are constantly changing, mutable concepts as they meander towards something that might eventually be called the truth.”—Christian Science Monitor
“Mesmerizing, colorful, and often moving…richly drawn…This many-threaded story of intellectual development – of different discoveries and enquiries into fossils and polyps, of tropical birds and the curious properties of sponge, of men scouring seashores and caves, and trying to work new ideas around the fixed, immovable pillars of religion – is hypnotic….The subject is science, but Stott has a novelist’s confidence, and there are vivid tableaux…This is a sympathetic examination of the innate human qualities of curiosity and inquiry, the helpless compulsion every generation has to probe further and further into the structures of creation.”—The Telegraph (UK)
“This extraordinarily wide-ranging and engaging book rediscovers evolutionary insights across a great span of time, from the famous, such as Aristotle and the Islamic scholar Al-Jahiz, to the 16th-century potter Palissy, the 18th-century merman-believer Maillet and the transformist poet and botanist, Rafinesque – as well as from Diderot, Lamarck, Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus and his contemporary Wallace. And these are just a few of the figures who emerge from the dark into the glow of Stott’s attention. Each of them is evoked with an intimacy that is also clearheaded about the way ideas get stuck, or prove wrong-headed, but can’t be parted with. Stott can make the nuances of ideas emerge in descriptions that suddenly bring the person close…. Gripping as well as fair-minded… Darwin’s Ghosts is a book that enriches our understanding of how the struggle to think new thoughts is shared across time and space and people.”—The Sunday Telegraph (UK)
“Stott's research is broad and unerring; her book is wonderful…. An exhilarating romp through 2,000 years of fascinating scientific history.”—Nature
“Impressively researched... A gripping and ambitious history of science which gives a vivid sense of just how many forebears Darwin had.”—The Times (UK)
“[Stott] has revealed an extraordinary batch of free thinkers who dared to consider mutability during times when such ideas might still cost the thinker his head….Every character that Stott introduces has a riveting story to tell, and all their histories are told with style and historical nous….Stott has done a wonderful job in showing just how many extraordinary people had speculated on where we came from before the great theorist dispelled all doubts.”—The Guardian (UK)
“A fascinating history of an idea that is crucial to our understanding of life on earth.” —The Independent (UK)
“Beautifully written and compelling…These mavericks and heretics put their lives on the line. Finally, they are getting the credit they deserve.”—The Independent on Sunday (UK)
"Stott provides the lucid intellectual genealogy of evolution that the great man could not."—New Scientist (UK)
“Stott does a superb job of setting the scene for her protagonists, whether on the island of Lesbos, 18th-century Cairo, or revolutionary Paris. But her real strength lies in intellectual history. She demonstrates conclusively that evolutionary ideas were circulating among intellectuals for many centuries and that, for most of that time, those who promoted these ideas found themselves under attack by religious and political leaders. Darwin’s scientific breakthrough, therefore, did not occur in a vacuum, but rather provided the most fully conceptualized theory. Stott has produced a colorful, skillfully written, and thoughtful examination of the evolution of one of our most important scientific theories.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A lively account of the ‘pathfinders, iconoclasts, and innovators’ who were Darwin's spiritual kin…. Stott masterfully shows how Darwin, by discovering the mechanism of natural selection, made a unique contribution, but he did not stand alone—nor did he claim to.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“The history of science comes alive as a drama of vibrant personalities wrestling with a dangerous idea.”—Booklist
“Charles Darwin provided the mechanism for the evolution of the exquisite adaptations found in plants and animals, but the awareness that species can change had been growing long before him. With wonderful clarity Rebecca Stott traces how ideas about biological evolution themselves evolved in the minds of great biologists from Aristotle onward. Darwin would have loved this brilliant book—and so do I.”—Sir Patrick Bateson, president of the Zoological Society of London
“Clever, compassionate, and compellingly written, Darwin’s Ghosts interweaves history and science to enchanting effect. The evolution of the theory of evolution is a brilliant idea for a book, and Rebecca Stott has realized it wonderfully.”—Tom Holland, author of Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic
“From Aristotle onward, evolutionists have—thank God—always been a quarrelsome lot, and not much has changed. Rebecca Stott shows how dispute, prejudice, and rage have accompanied their science from the very beginning. Darwin’s Ghosts is a gripping history of the history of life and of those who have studied it, with plenty of lessons for today—perhaps for today’s biologists most of all.”—Steve Jones, author of Darwin’s Ghost: The Origin of Species Updated
“The concept of evolution was not created fully formed and placed in the garden one day for our delight and terror but, as Rebecca Stott demonstrates in her inspiring book, evolved as much as we did. Darwin’s Ghosts is a beautiful tribute to the buried tradition of curious, courageous observers who, before Darwin explained how evolution worked, witnessed the mutability of species for themselves and recorded what they saw.”—Jonathan Rosen, author of The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature