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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  • First Published:
    Jun 2012, 416 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2013, 416 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Guidarini

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Print Excerpt


As he sat reading and rereading Powell’s letter, Darwin’s excuses came thick and fast. He should have included a short preface, he wanted to tell Powell, but his book had been rushed. He had not been at all well. His closest friends, the botanist Joseph Hooker and the geologist Charles Lyell, had been badgering him to publish for years. Then, when Alfred Russel Wallace had sent him that alarming essay from the Malay Archipelago showing that Wallace had worked out natural selection, too, Hooker and Lyell had practically forced him to go straight into print. For months, he had hardly slept for writing. He had never written so fast or for so long. And in all that rush, he had neglected to acknowledge those who had gone before. Besides, aware that he was a poor scholar of history, he had not been confident that he knew exactly who had gone before or that he had the skills to describe their ideas accurately and fairly. They wrote in every language under the sun. Some of them were obscure, others mad. It would have taken years.

Darwin had known from Wallace’s enthusiastic letters that he was getting close to working out natural selection, but until seeing Wallace’s essay he had underestimated the speed at which the brilliant young collector was working. The thought that after all this procrastinating, someone like Alfred Russel Wallace could step in and publish his essay and make a claim to the discovery of natural selection before him was more than he could bear. At that point Hooker and Lyell had intervened, explaining to Wallace that Darwin had first formulated the idea some twenty years earlier. Wallace had been generous. He had given up any claim to being the discoverer of natural selection. He had even written to Hooker to say that he did not mind in the least that Darwin was going to take the credit and that it was right that he do so. He considered himself lucky, he confessed, to have been given some credit.

So Wallace had renounced his claim on natural selection. But now, only a year after Darwin had escaped the Wallace tangle, here was another claimant rising like Marley’s ghost from the mailbag—the Reverend Baden Powell. Darwin had forgotten about Powell.

My theory. My doctrine. Darwin had been writing those words for years in his notebooks. But was it his alone? He had told Hooker and Lyell that he was not ready. It was all very well for them to urge him into print. After all, they were not going to be deluged with disgust and outrage. They were not going to have to explain to their troubled wives; they were not going to have to apologize to and mollify bishops and clerics and bigots or answer plagiarism charges. And now John Murray was about to send another three thousand copies of Origin out into the world.

There was no stopping any of it. His theory had not leaked quietly into the public domain as he had planned; it had entered the world as a deluge, like the water pipes in the Ilkley water cure establishment, cold and gushing and unstoppable. He, Lyell, and Hooker had simply pulled the rope and released the valve. And here were the consequences.

Hooker would know what to do. Darwin wrote to invite him to Down House. Bring your wife, he wrote, bring the children. On December 21, 1859, Joseph Hooker’s wife wrote to Darwin to say that her husband would be happy to visit the Darwins in the second week of January and that he would bring their eldest son, William, with him. Darwin was delighted. Such a visit would do him tremendous good, he wrote to Hooker, for though the water cure had improved his health, now that he was in the midst of the critical storm, he was, he wrote, “utterly knocked up & cannot rally—I am not worth an old button.” The eczema had broken out again. He was sick to his stomach.

The following day, three days before Christmas, while Darwin was still trying to compose a reply to the Reverend Baden Powell, a third claimant emerged, this time from France. Darwin’s butler told him that a parcel had arrived in the evening post. Though the children protested, Darwin left the warm parlor where Emma had been reading aloud to them in the shadow of the Christmas tree and slipped away across the hall to the darkened study to retrieve it.

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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