Darwin's Ghosts

Rebecca Stott tells the stories of the intellectuals who grappled with the theories of evolution and natural selection centuries before Darwin got there. 

Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution Random House 416 pp.

It makes for a tidy narrative when the history of a theory parallels the theory itself. In Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution, Rebecca Stott takes full advantage of this parallel. Readers of her 2,000-year history of the development of the theories of evolution and natural selection will notice that these theories developed through adaptation, false starts, movements backwards and forwards, meanderings, and finally – as Stott points out in her epilogue – by “convergent evolution,” when several scientists independently developed similar theories of natural selection.

If the history of science is not your strong suit, you might pause at the news that Stott’s book spans 2,000 years, since basic history has it that 19th-century Englishman Charles Darwin pioneered the theory of evolution by natural selection. But as Darwin discovered from the outpouring of letters he received when he published "On the Origin of Species" in 1859, intellectuals had been studying the origin of species and theories of evolution for thousands of years.

Horrified, Darwin began a list of his predecessors and added it to subsequent editions of his book. In her book, Stott devotes one chapter each to many of the men on Darwin’s list, and to some Darwin did not know about. She describes their research, their preoccupations, the dangers they faced, and their contributions to natural science’s understanding of how different species came to be.

Stott’s narrative moves from ancient Greece, where Aristotle obsessed over sponges and other animal forms; to medieval Basra, where author Jahiz studied ecosystems and animal adaptation; to the 18th-century Hague, where a regenerating polyp discovered by a tutor electrified European intelligentsia and caused them to question longheld beliefs about life and the primacy of humans; to the British Isles in the mid-1800s, where a book written anonymously by publisher Robert Chambers permanently awakened British curiosity about species origins.

Her narrative concludes on a star-shaped island off the coast of Indonesia, where specimen collector Alfred Wallace, wandering through the fever dreams of malaria, juxtaposed Malthus’ theory of population control with theories of evolution to finally, independently of Darwin, understand natural selection.

Some of Stott’s historical figures did not even believe in evolution; Aristotle, for example, believed staunchly in the fixity of individual forms. And other characters made important discoveries while holding dubious beliefs. For example, although his book galvanized English thought about evolution, Chambers got many of his facts wrong. And while 18th-century French counsel Benoît de Maillet firmly believed man had evolved from sea creatures, he also believed that a secret race of fishmen still existed.

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.

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.

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