Written by Rebecca Stott
Read by David Baum, associate director for students:
“The standard telling of history is that Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species marked the beginnings of evolutionary thought. As Rebecca Stott lays out in her beautifully written and engaging book, Darwin’s Ghosts, this is far from the truth. Actually, there is a rich history behind the idea that the biological diversity around us today is not as it always was. Stott, using a lively creative nonfiction style, draws the reader into the lives of her various protagonists. From Aristotle lying on his belly watching marine life on Lesbos more than two millenia ago, through Leonardo da Vinci’s experiments on snail movements in the early 16th century, and Abraham Trembley’s observations of freshwater hydras in 18th-century Holland, to Alfred Russel Wallace’s feverish observations of tropical diversity, we see the power of empirical inquiry.
But we also see the human need to achieve some kind of philosophical understanding of the biological world, and humanity’s place in it, even if that understanding might be incompatible with religious orthodoxy of the time. Lesser-known heroes, willing to stand up to the prevailing powers by expressing heretical transformationist ideas, including Denis Diderot outwitting censors in the Reign of Terror, Erasmus Darwin, Charles’ grandfather, slipping radical ideas into medical poetry, and Robert Chambers, resorting to anonymous publishing to expose the British masses to the idea of transmutation. The narrative has a geographic trend, from ancient Greece and North Africa, through Renaissance Italy, to the tumult of continental Europe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and thence to the relative stability of the British Isles in the 19th century. In that northward path, we see the idea that we now call evolution constantly reemerging and, yes, evolving as scientific thinking and methodology advanced. While Charles Darwin certainly made tremendous contributions, most notably by bringing together the more empirical and philosophical threads, the wonderful book shows us the rich history of the idea of evolution and the hard-won acceptance that it eventually earned.
This book reinforced my sense of the importance of developing an internally consistent philosophical framework, but also connecting that framework to empirical data.”