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
    Mar 2013, 416 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Guidarini

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Print Excerpt

Darwin read back over the letter to check the tone. His glance snagged on the clause: “my own catalogue frightens me.” That was overly candid, perhaps, and a touch histrionic. But candor might well disarm Powell. And after all, it was true: the catalog did frighten him. Those scribbled names on the sheet of paper frightened him.

Predecessors? Who were they? Most of them were dead. Their names slipped from his memory. Why could he not remember the name of the American evolutionist?* Exhausted by the very idea of writing a historical sketch, he folded up the letter to Powell and handed it to Parslow, his butler, for the post.

It seemed as if his work would never be done. He felt the burden of censure heavy on his shoulders now that he was back in the study, stoking the fire, feeling the heat agitating the itching on the dry and flaking skin of his face. He had placed himself at the mercy of all his readers as soon as he had gone into print—the priests, the theologians, the reviewers, the letter writers. Four days before his book had been published, an anonymous reviewer in the Athenaeum had denounced Origin and declared it too dangerous to read. Darwin wrote to Hooker the following day: “The manner in which [the reviewer] drags in immortality, & sets the Priests at me & leaves me to their mercies, is base. . . . He would on no account burn me; but he will get the wood ready & tell the black beasts how to catch me.”

And there in the light from the fire, Darwin remembered the heretics who had been burned in the marketplaces of England. Burned because they kept mass or because they did not keep mass. Burned because, even under torture and starvation, they would not recant. Even his close friends would turn against him now that he had gone into print. Their priests and bishops would expect it of them. This was the final reckoning, the taking of sides. He had warned the naturalist Hugh Falconer on November 11 that when he read Origin, “Lord how savage you will be . . . how you will long to crucify me alive.” “It is like confessing a murder,” he had admitted to Hooker back in 1844 when he had finally summoned the courage to tell his friends about his species theory for the first time.

* It was Samuel Steman Haldeman (1812–1880), an American taxonomist and polymath.

Over the next three weeks, as winter deepened, a cold spell iced over the lakes and rivers of Britain and high winds returned, whistling around Down House and rattling the windowpanes, Darwin’s list grew. There had been only ten names on the list he had sent to Powell, he told Emma, “and some Germans” whose names he had also forgotten. Now, as the predecessors came one by one out of the shadows and into the clear light of his own prose, his fears began to subside. Not only did he come to feel their presence as a kind of protection, a shield from charges of intellectual theft, but he began to think of them as allies, as fellow outlaws and infidels. He read and reread their words, increasingly reassured by his new knowledge. Now, if pressed, he could define exactly where his ideas had been preempted and where they were entirely new.

He admired them. He stopped forgetting their names.

On February 8, Darwin sent the first version of his “Historical Sketch” to America for the authorized American edition, a corrected and revised version of the first (pirated) version. Darwin’s list had almost doubled in length since he had assembled the first tentative ten names for Powell in mid-January. There were eighteen names on this new list published in the summer of 1860. Darwin’s catalog of predecessors was now, he was sure, as definitive as he could make it. He sent the same version of the “Historical Sketch” to Heinrich Georg Bronn in Heidelberg, who was translating Origin for the first German edition of 1860.

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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