Rebecca Stott tells the stories of the intellectuals who grappled with the theories of evolution and natural selection centuries before Darwin got there.
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But all Stott’s characters contributed to the development of natural science and therefore eventually to the theory of evolution and natural selection as we know it today.Skip to next paragraph
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Stott, a professor at the University of East Anglia, grew up in a Creationist household, which led to her fascination with Darwin and his predecessors. Stott’s respect for these intellectual mavericks and risk-takers is clear, as is her background as a creative writer. A professor of creative writing who has authored two novels ("Ghostwalk" and "The Coral Thief"), 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. Although much of her book is dedicated to describing individual intellectual feats, Stott avoids the so-called 19th-century “Great Men of History” theory, which supposes that heroes conquer countries or write great theories in a vacuum.
Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and his colleagues at the Jardin des Plantes would not have engaged in research and heated debate over “transformisme” if the Jardin had not been swelled by natural spoils sent back to France as Napoleon’s soldiers marched across Europe and into the Middle East. Huguenot potter Bernard Palissy’s preoccupation with fossils and the origin of species may have taken a different shape without the patronage of Catherine de Médici and the persecution from Catholics he faced later in life. And Stott’s early modern European scientists would have had vastly different experiences if they had not had to worry about ostracism or imprisonment from secret police and societies bent on stamping out atheistic inquiries into evolution.
Like the species they studied, Stott’s historical figures were products of the societies they lived in. 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.
Emily Cataneo is a journalist and book critic based in Boston.