Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution

  • Rebecca Stott
  • Spiegel & Grau
  • 416 pp.

A long line of thinkers who influenced the development of evolutionary theory get their due in this highly readable and personality-driven book.

Reviewed by Josh Trapani

On a recent trip to the ruins of Chichen Itza, I was jarred by the juxtaposition of sacrificial altars carved with human skulls alongside precisely aligned pyramids and an astronomical observatory. The Mayans uncovered the workings of the universe not in a quest for scientific truth or optimal technocratic rule, but rather in service to their pantheon of gods. This same disconnect between scientific methodology and culturally-determined application stuck in my mind while reading the accessible and wide-ranging Darwin’s Ghosts, Rebecca Stott’s personality-driven investigation of the history of ideas that led to evolutionary theory.

Stott starts and ends with Charles Darwin, but her book — when partnered with scientific advances over the last 150 years — illustrates that the famous British naturalist should be considered a central pivot, rather than the crux, in our understanding of the history of life on earth. While society tends to credit lone researchers like Einstein, or pairs like Watson and Crick, with paradigm-shattering discoveries, these brilliant people and their ideas do not emerge out of a vacuum. Science, like all human endeavors, is social. Scientists operate as members of their contemporary communities, benefiting from — and building upon — knowledge generated by their predecessors. As Sir Isaac Newton wrote of his own discoveries: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Yet those giants may also determine the direction and scope of the view.

Among the criticisms of On the Origin of Species, Darwin was chided for failing to acknowledge his intellectual predecessors. In response, subsequent editions of the book included a short “historical sketch of the recent progress of opinion on the origin of species” that itself evolved through successive printings. Stott carefully analyzes the sketch; wisely, however, she does not confine herself to it, broadening the lens beyond Darwin’s thinking to encompass the history of the ideas themselves.

Outside of scientific circles, it is little known that On the Origin of Species was a mere “abstract” of a larger work never published during his lifetime, and was hastily thrown together when he learned the theory of natural selection had independently been formulated by Alfred Russell Wallace. With two naturalists separately “discovering” it, natural selection was clearly an idea whose time had come. But where had it come from? And why did it ripen at the time and in the place that it did? While Stott explicitly aims to address the first question, the book also sheds light on the second.

Darwin’s Ghosts devotes a chapter to each individual in a selected group of early evolutionary thinkers. The chapters are arranged in roughly temporal order, beginning with Aristotle’s contemplations of tidal pool life and ending more than 2,000 years later with Wallace’s potent cocktail of malarial fever and the writings of Thomas Malthus. Along the way, the narrative meanders through the lives of the early Islamic naturalist al-Jahiz, the renowned Leonardo Da Vinci, and other philosophers and naturalists including Darwin’s own grandfather Erasmus (the “Dr. Darwin” Mary Shelley referenced in her introduction to Frankenstein).

These disparate people had several common characteristics: a fascination with motion and change, an interest in the phenomenon of time, and — most important of all — a burning curiosity about the things they observed in nature (e.g., “Why do those shells appear to be made of rock, and how did they get from the sea to the top of that mountain?”). They also had a willingness to follow wherever the evidence led, often at the risk of their fortunes, their reputations and even their lives.

Central ideas not just in evolution, but in ecology, behavior and animal structure are presaged and elucidated in Darwin’s Ghosts, and readers occasionally encounter the almost absurdly modern. For example, as described by Stott, A System of Nature, a tract from pre-revolutionary Paris, portrays a worldview so materialistic it would be at home in a Richard Dawkins book.

But there is an important caveat to the similarities between these thinkers, as what also emerges again and again is the centrality of social and cultural influences in the way these thinkers both asked fundamental questions about nature and interpreted evidence in answer. Religion, predictably, was often a driving force; what surprised me was the frequency with which contemporary politics also played a leading role.

This book is not a complete or systematic exploration of the development of evolutionary theory, and Darwin’s familiarity with the thinkers Stott covers varied greatly. But a comprehensive investigation would not be nearly as dynamic nor include as much fascinating context as Darwin’s Ghosts. The book’s strength is in Stott’s gift for situating readers in different places and times, so we can understand both the significance of the discoveries and what drove the discoverers. In Stott’s narrative, both well known and obscure figures in the history of science jump off the page. I especially appreciated the way Cuvier, Lamarck and Geoffroy — indistinguishable but for their views on natural history when I studied them as a graduate student — became flesh-and-blood human beings with ambitions, desires, families and fears. Yet one need not be trained as a scientist to appreciate this book; a significant part of its power comes from focusing on people simply looking at the world around them and wondering: why?

Darwin deserves credit for articulating and marshaling the evidence for natural selection, but there was plenty still to know, and he went to his grave without understanding — just as one fundamental example — the mechanism of inheritance (genetics). While our knowledge of evolution and the history of life has expanded tremendously since Darwin’s time, many of the same religious arguments about the implications of evolution continue today. Stott’s book shows that, at least in this regard, there truly is nothing new under the sun, and it is no less difficult for us to detach ourselves from social constructs than it was for the remarkable thinkers Stott highlights, or for the Mayans who used their knowledge of the universe to determine the precise timing of human sacrifices.

Darwin’s Ghosts reminds us that, despite our imperfections and our differences, wondering why and seeking answers to questions about the natural world are part of what makes us human. The world is ripe for contemplation and discovery; the rub lies in how we use what we learn.

Josh Trapani is a senior review editor for the Independent.

comments powered by Disqus