Excerpt from Darwin's Ghosts by Rebecca Stott, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Darwin's Ghosts

The Secret History of Evolution

By Rebecca Stott

Darwin's Ghosts
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  • Hardcover: Jun 2012,
    416 pages.
    Paperback: Mar 2013,
    416 pages.

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With pleasure and relief, he recognized the handwriting on the label as Hooker’s. The parcel contained an essay by Hooker that Darwin had promised to read and a heavy volume of a French scientific journal, the Revue Horticole. Hooker explained in an accompanying letter that a scientist named Decaisne* had written to tell him that a botanist named Charles Naudin had discovered natural selection back in 1852. Darwin, Decaisne wrote, had no right to claim natural selection as his idea.

* The botanist Joseph Decaisne.

Hooker enclosed the volume of the journal in which Naudin’s paper on species had been published so that Darwin could judge the claim for himself. Darwin had read and admired Naudin’s work years before, but he had entirely forgotten the paper.

Darwin ordered the study fire to be relit. He read and reread Naudin’s paper late into the night, struggling with some of the French scientific terms, reaching for his French dictionary, making notes as high winds rattled the windowpanes. Naudin’s claim was not a serious threat, he finally told Emma a few hours later. The French botanist had not discovered natural selection. He was quite sure of that.

The following morning, returning to his desk cluttered with the debris of the previous evening’s struggle with French verbs and the notepaper with all his scribblings across it, he wrote to allay Hooker’s fears, explaining with relief: “I cannot find one word like the Struggle for existence & Natural Selection.” Naudin had gotten no closer to natural selection than had the French evolutionist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, he wrote emphatically. Darwin asked Hooker to pass on his refutation of the claim to their mutual friend Lyell, adding with a touch of embarrassment, “though it is foolish work sticking up for independence or priority.” He had nothing against Naudin, after all. He was a good botanist.

Darwin could not decide how best to answer these phantom claimants. Should he let others intervene, as Hooker and Lyell had done with Wallace? Should he write directly to each new claimant or simply ignore them? What was the gentlemanly thing to do? Even through Christmas dinner the question troubled him. While the children were playing, he slipped away to write to Hooker in the afternoon, scribbling, as if struggling with his own conscience, “I shall not write to Decaisne: I have always had a strong feeling that no one had better defend his own priority: I cannot say I am as indifferent to subject as I ought to be; but one can avoid doing anything in consequence.” The Reverend Baden Powell was different. He needed answering. The man had a point: Darwin was the first to admit that he should have acknowledged all those natural philosophers who had had the courage to publish evolutionary ideas before him—men such as his own grandfather Erasmus Darwin and the misguided but brilliant Lamarck and others. It was bad form not to have done so. In the rush to publish, he had forgotten them.

Everyone had forgotten them.

All through the holidays, all through the singing and the feasts and the toasts, Darwin struggled to formulate a letter to Powell. He imagined the outspoken professor spluttering his outrage to the fellows of Oriel or at Geological Society meetings. Conversations with Powell opened up in Darwin’s head again and again, sometimes angry, sometimes defensive or apologetic. Christmas was no time to be defending one’s reputation, he told himself, trying to attend to the family celebrations, to be a good father and husband and to be attentive to his eldest son, William, home from Cambridge for Christmas and for William’s birthday on December 27.

Despite his resolutions, Darwin still woke in the night, slipping out of bed so as not to disturb Emma and pacing the floor in his study. How many other predecessors had he forgotten? How many did he simply not know about? He had never been a good historian of science. How would he ever write a definitive list?

Excerpted from Darwin's Ghosts by Rebecca Stott. Copyright © 2012 by Rebecca Stott. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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