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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Lisa Guidarini

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Hooker’s visit was not to be. Down House seemed besieged from both outside and inside; terrible storms lashed the country. Shipwrecks were reported around the coast; a tornado in Wiltshire uprooted trees, destroyed hayricks, and swept the thatch from the roofs of cottages. Heavy lumps of ice fell in a freak hailstorm, killing birds, hares, and rabbits. As the year turned, nine-year-old Lenny Darwin began to run a fever. When the first flush of spots appeared, Emma urged Darwin to write to Hooker to put him off his visit. Darwin wrote sadly to his friend, repeating his wife’s words of warning: “Lenny has got the Measles & it is sure to run like wild-fire through the house, as it has been extraordinarily prevalent in village. If your boy Willy has not had measles, I fear it will not be safe for you to bring him here.”

In the first week of January 1860, as the measles spread first to twelve-year-old Elizabeth and then to eleven-year-old Francis, and having been unable to talk to Hooker, Darwin resolved to write to Powell and to draft a historical sketch just as he had planned to do years before. The timing was good: the American botanist Asa Gray was organizing an authorized American edition of Origin and he wanted a preface from Darwin. Darwin talked aloud to himself, resolving to put it all straight in the American preface by adding a full historical sketch, reminding himself that the idea of species mutability was not his. Not even the idea of the descent with modification was his. It belonged to Lamarck and Maillet, and further back it was probably in Buffon and even in his grandfather’s book Zoonomia. He had never claimed that descent with modification was his idea, though of course Powell thought that he had. But natural selection—the idea that nature had evolved by selecting the fittest to survive—was his. No one, not even Wallace, had discovered natural selection before he had, or at least put all the ideas together in such a way as to make it explain so many large groups of facts. He owed it both to himself and to his predecessors to explain what was his and what was theirs.

It was only when he began to write his letter to Powell on January 8 that Darwin suddenly remembered that he had started writing a list of his predecessors several years earlier. He went to find it. The embryonic historical sketch was in the drawer where he had left it, in the file with the big still-to-be-published full manuscript version of the species book. The list was not finished, of course; it was just a scribbled catalog of predecessors with notes. But it was there. He had started it back in 1856, knowing that his species book would have to have one. And—it made him blush again to see the scale and extent of his own forgetting—there was the Reverend Baden Powell in the catalog, properly acknowledged and praised.

So he wrote to Powell. “My dear Sir,” he began, my health was so poor, whilst I wrote the Book, that I was unwilling to add in the least to my labour; therefore I attempted no history of the subject; nor do I think that I was bound to do so. I just alluded indeed to the Vestiges & I am now heartily sorry I did so. No educated person, not even the most ignorant, could suppose that I meant to arrogate to myself the origination of the doctrine that species had not been independently created. . . . Had I alluded to those authors who have maintained, with more or less ability, that species have not been separately created, I should have felt myself bound to have given some account of all; namely, passing over the ancients,—and here Darwin had to glance again at his earlier catalog so as to remember the names, and some of the spellings—Buffon (?) Lamarck (by the way his erroneous views were curiously anticipated by my Grandfather), Geoffry St Hilaire [sic] & especially his son Isidore; Naudin; Keyserling; an American (name this minute forgotten); the Vestiges of Creation; I believe some Germans. Herbert Spencer; & yourself. . . . I had intended in my larger book to have attempted some such history; but my own catalogue frightens me. I will, however, consult some scientific friends & be guided by their advice.

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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