Thursday, January 31, 2013

Review: Darwin's Ghosts

Written by Rebecca Stott
Spiegel & Grau, 2012; 410 pages

Publisher's Description:
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.... 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.
In 1859, around Christmas time and only a month after the publication of his earth-shaking work On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin received a letter accusing him of failing to acknowledge his predecessors in the study of evolution.  Deeply disturbed by the letter, Darwin set about trying to trace all those individuals who had laid the groundwork for his new theory.  The list of names he eventually came up with was to expand and change over time, and proved more frustrating than he imagined when he began.  In Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution Rebecca Stott tells the story of Darwin's research and traces the histories of some of those forerunners. 

What an interesting book this was. I was familiar with the basics of Darwin's work, of course, but really didn't know much about his precursors -- or that there were so many of them! As a non-scientist, I found the information fascinating; and I loved that Stott was able to fit so much data into such (relatively) short and readable sketches.  She also includes a substantial section of notes, and and a wonderful bibliography for further study.

I was a bit bothered at first by her habit of portraying Darwin (and her other subjects as well) actually "thinking" or "imagining" or "feeling" one thing or another -- a little bit too much of the omniscient narrator, for nonfiction, I thought.  I suppose it was an attempt to add some immediacy to the work by "getting inside their heads" -- if so, I don't think it was really necessary. But even with that one problem, I still enjoyed the book even more than I expected I would. Definitely recommended to anyone interested in the history of science, although probably more appealing to the non-specialist.

Disclaimer: My copy of this book was furnished free of charge, by the publisher, through Library Thing's Early Reviewer program. No other compensation was received, and no one attempted to influence my opinion of the book.


  1. I did not realize that Darwin acknowledged and documented those whose work was a foundation for his own discoveries. It does sound like a fascinating book!


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