Darwin's Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists

Rebecca Stott

Darwin's Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists

Christmas, 1859. Just one month after the publication of On the Origin of Species, Darwin received a letter that deeply unsettled him. He had expected criticism. Letters were arriving every day like swarms, some expressing praise, most outrage and accusations of heresy. But the letter from the Reverend Powell was different. It accused Darwin of failing to acknowledge his predecessors, of having taken credit for a theory that had already been discovered by others, Baden Powell himself and Darwin's own grandfather among them. For all the excuses that leapt to mind - publication had been rushed; he hadn't been well - Darwin knew he had made a grave error in omitting to mention his intellectual forebears. Yet when he tried to trace these natural philosophers, he found that history had already forgotten them... Darwin's Ghosts is a retelling of the collective daring of a few like-minded men who had the imagination to speculate on nature's ways and the courage to publish at a time when to do so, for political as well as religious reasons, was to risk everything. 4.3 out of 5 based on 6 reviews
Darwin's Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists

Omniscore:

Classification Non-fiction
Genre Science & Nature
Format Hardback
Pages 400
RRP
Date of Publication May 2012
ISBN 978-1408809082
Publisher Bloomsbury
 

Christmas, 1859. Just one month after the publication of On the Origin of Species, Darwin received a letter that deeply unsettled him. He had expected criticism. Letters were arriving every day like swarms, some expressing praise, most outrage and accusations of heresy. But the letter from the Reverend Powell was different. It accused Darwin of failing to acknowledge his predecessors, of having taken credit for a theory that had already been discovered by others, Baden Powell himself and Darwin's own grandfather among them. For all the excuses that leapt to mind - publication had been rushed; he hadn't been well - Darwin knew he had made a grave error in omitting to mention his intellectual forebears. Yet when he tried to trace these natural philosophers, he found that history had already forgotten them... Darwin's Ghosts is a retelling of the collective daring of a few like-minded men who had the imagination to speculate on nature's ways and the courage to publish at a time when to do so, for political as well as religious reasons, was to risk everything.

Reviews

The Literary Review

Colin Tudge

Here is a rich tale indeed. It needs a novelist like Rebecca Stott to get to grips with it; and so she does, triumphantly.

01/06/2012

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The Sunday Telegraph

Gillian Beer

[An] extraordinarily wide-ranging and engaging book … Stott has consulted experts in a great variety of fields and fully acknowledges the generous and essential support they have given her. She draws on an array of scholarship and assembles it into an intricate sequence of stories and investigations that are her own. The outcome is gripping as well as fair-minded.

07/05/2012

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The Sunday Times

Bee Wilson

The book could have done with fewer writerly descriptions (“Aristotle would watch the lean body first squat and then arc through the air…the rope slithering after him into the depths”) and more analysis of the ideas themselves. Nevertheless, this is a gripping and ambitious history of science which gives a vivid sense of just how many forebears Darwin had; even if none of them can match the man himself.

13/05/2012

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The Guardian

Richard Fortey

Every character that Stott introduces has a riveting story to tell, and all their histories are told with style and historical nous. I feel enriched for having learned about De Maillet, Tremblay, Palissy and al-Jahiz. There remains, though, the question of whether a tradition of "transmutation" really influenced Darwin. Was he the successor of a suppressed current of speculation, a species of samizdat thought that finally had its day when the grip of religion weakened? The identification of a long line of intellectual "ancestors" carries with it an implication of this kind. Doubtless, the 19th century was truly the right time for evolution to emerge from the shadows. Yet Darwin always strikes his readers as a "bottom up" thinker, not quite Baconian in a devotion to facts before generating theory, but nonetheless somebody who took nothing for granted until he had tested it through experiment or by collecting facts.

02/06/2012

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The Independent

Ziauddin Sardar

But were these men evolutionists? Perhaps not in the sense that we understand evolution today. Even Darwin did not claim to be an evolutionist. The point of Stott's book is to show that Darwin stood on the shoulders of giants. There were many starts, true and false, towards the discovery of natural selection. But the end product owes something to all of them. The result is a fascinating history of an idea that is crucial to our understanding of life on earth.

02/06/2012

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The Independent on Sunday

Mark Wilson

Beautifully written and compelling … There's always a danger of a beguiling teleology in a history of ideas, but Stott recognises that incremental progress towards the truth is an illusion: "The story of the discovery of natural selection is a story of meanderings and false starts," she writes, "of outgrowths, adaptations and atrophies, of movements backwards as well as forwards, of sudden jumps and accelerations and convergences."

13/05/2012

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