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Darwin's Ghosts

Cover of Darwin's Ghosts

Darwin's Ghosts

The Secret History of Evolution
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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.)
From the Hardcover edition.
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.)
From the Hardcover edition.
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Excerpts-
  • From the book

    Just before Christmas in 1859, only a month after he had finally published On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection, Charles Darwin found himself disturbed, even haunted, by the thought of his intellectual predecessors. He entered a state of extreme anxiety that had the strange effect of making him more than usually forgetful.

    It had been a cold winter. Though Darwin might have liked to linger on the Sand Walk with his children to admire the intricately patterned hoarfrost on the trees, he knew he had work to do, letters about his book to answer, criticisms to face.

    He had weathered the first blasts of the storm of censure in a sanatorium in Ilkley, where he had been taking the water cure, wrapped in wet sheets in hot rooms, the skin on his face dry and cracked with eczema. Since his return to his family home, Down House, now garlanded with Christmas holly, ivy, and mistletoe by his children, he had braced himself every morning against the sound of the postman's footsteps on the gravel outside his study window. The letters, he lamented to his wife, Emma, came like swarms.

    Each new mailbag delivered to Down House brought letters voicing opprobrium, some veiled, some outspoken; a few contained praise. But though some reviewers might be expressing outrage, Darwin reassured himself, hundreds of ordinary people were reading his book. On the first day of sale in November, the entire print run of 1,250 books had sold out. Even Mudie's Select Lending Library had taken five hundred copies. Now his publisher, John Murray, was about to publish a second edition; this time Murray intended to print three thousand copies, and he had agreed to let Darwin correct a few minor mistakes. Darwin was relieved. The mistakes embarrassed him.
    As readers and reviewers took up their positions for or against his book, Darwin began to keep a note of where everyone stood on the battleground. "We shall soon be a good body of working men," he wrote to his closest friend and confidant, the botanist Joseph Hooker, "& shall have, I am convinced, all young & rising naturalists on our side."

    The letter that launched Darwin into a prolonged attack of anxiety came from the Reverend Baden Powell, the Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford, a theologian and physicist who had been forthright in his support for the development theory for some time.

  • The elderly professor was on the brink of being prosecuted for ecclesiastical heresy. Of all the letters in that day's pile, the one from Powell would be innocuous enough, Darwin assumed. He scanned it quickly, relieved to glimpse phrases like "masterly volume" and a few other words of praise. But Baden Powell was not happy. Having finished with his compliments, the professor launched into a direct attack, criticizing Darwin not for being wrong, not for being an infidel, but for failing to acknowledge his predecessors. He even implied that Darwin had taken the credit for a theory that had already been argued by others, notably himself.
    This was not the first time Darwin had been accused of intellectual theft, but until now, the accusations had been tucked away in reviews and had been only implicit. How original is this book? people were clearly asking. How new is this idea of Mr. Darwin's?

  • The Reverend Baden Powell was the father of Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the
    Scouting movement.

    He might have protected himself better from charges of plagiarism, Darwin reflected fretfully, if he had only written a preface, as most scientists did when they published any controversial set of claims: a survey of all the ideas that had gone before. It gave the ideas a history and a context. It was a way of showing...
About the Author-
  • 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.

Reviews-
  • The New York Times Book Review

    "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."

  • Christian Science Monitor "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."
  • The Telegraph (UK) "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."
  • Nature "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."
  • The Independent (UK)
    "
    "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
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Darwin's Ghosts
Darwin's Ghosts
The Secret History of Evolution
Rebecca Stott
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