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.
About Rebecca Stott
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.
When Darwin finally published On the Origins of Species in 1859, he knew he would become the center of passionate debate and possibly even prosecution. However, he did not expect to be charged with “failing to acknowledge his predecessors”—a quotation from a letter sent to him by an Oxford geometry professor, Rev. Baden Powell, who himself faced the possibility of prosecution for heresy. In the first authorized American edition of his iconic work, Darwin attempted to rectify the situation by including a list of his predecessors. Stott amplifies Darwin’s list and provides a lively account of the “pathfinders, iconoclasts, and innovators” who were Darwin’s spiritual kin over the preceding 2,000 years. She chronicles their lives as they struggled to understand the relationship between extinct and existing species, including humans; she also examines the political and religious persecution they faced from their opponents. Stott begins with Aristotle, who was forced into exile on the island of Lesbos, where he stayed for four years. He dissected birds and fish and puzzled over sponges, which had characteristics of both animals and vegetables. Another of Darwin’s kindred spirits was Benoit de Maillet, who by the mid 18th century had assembled geological and fossil findings to substantiate his claim that the earth was billions of years old and that land species had evolved from sea creatures. Unfortunately, as Darwin learned after including Maillet on the list, Maillet also reported sightings of Mermen. The author also includes discussions of, among others, Leonardo da Vinci, Swiss naturalist Abraham Trembley and the ninth-century Islamic philologist and lexicographer known as al-Jahiz. – Kirkus Reviews
Revolutionary Theory - ‘Darwin’s Ghosts,’ by Rebecca Stott
The New York Times Book Review – July 13, 2012 (Excerpt)
The opening pages of Rebecca Stott’s engaging “Darwin’s Ghosts” find Charles Darwin in his study at Down House. It’s December 1859 and “On the Origin of Species” has been on sale in Britain for a month. Darwin holds a letter from the physicist and theologian Baden Powell accusing him of taking credit for a theory developed by others. It provokes, Stott writes, “a prolonged attack of anxiety.”
Darwin had anticipated the charge of plagiarism. Buried somewhere in his notes was a list of predecessors he had planned to acknowledge. With so many enemies lining up against him — venting the expected “disgust and outrage” at his theory of natural selection — he could ill afford to offend his allies. So in the first American edition of “Origin,” he appended a “Historical Sketch” crediting 18 others, including Powell. In subsequent editions, the roll expanded. Stott usefully includes as an appendix the version Darwin added to the fourth British edition, in 1866. It cites over 30 names, many now obscure.
Stott, in her absorbing account, shows that Darwin, who had sat on his discoveries for 20 years, had good reason to worry about his book’s reception. Among many other cautionary tales, there was one very close to home: that of the doctor and poet Erasmus Darwin, his talented and outspoken grandfather. Erasmus — having endured attacks against him in the press and seen the jailing of his publisher — felt compelled to hold back his own major work on evolution until after his death. Charles’s publication of “On the Origin of Species” was precipitated only after he received correspondence from the young naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who wrote from the Malay Archipelago, detailing his parallel discovery of the mechanism of natural selection. [Read the full article...]
THE BLEEDING HILLS A Novel by Wilfried F. Voss
I have fought a good fight,
I have finished my course,
I have kept the faith. - 2 Timothy iv. 7
The Irish War is officially a part of history, but not for Finnean Whelan, an IRA veteran of almost 40 years. British Intelligence has produced evidence that he is the mastermind behind a conspiracy to assassinate the First Minister of Northern Ireland. For Whelan this is not only a mission of revenge, but marks the beginning of a journey into the past and the return to the one true love: Ireland. [More...]
We are the only country that makes guns, including military-style assault weapons, available to anyone who wants to buy them. This is not freedom. It is a tyranny of death and destruction — a tyranny of which the National Rifle Association is proud. The Washington Post
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