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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Robert Grant, who was also new to the list, was Darwin’s old mentor at Edinburgh. Now impoverished and mocked for his views, he was teaching at the University of London. Reading Darwin’s Origin had prompted Grant to finally publish his evolution lectures and to remind Darwin that he had published articles on evolution in Scottish journals all through the 1820s. Darwin disliked Grant’s radical political views and wanted to distance himself from them, but he knew he would have to include him in the list if he was to stick to the rules of gentlemanly behavior.

There were demotions, too. In 1860, Darwin took one name off the list: Benoît de Maillet, the eccentric Frenchman who had worked up a theory of animal-human kinship in Cairo in the early eighteenth century. In his savage review of Origin, Richard Owen had implied that Darwin was as foolish as the deluded Maillet, who had believed in mermaids. That was more ridicule than Darwin could bear. He took a pen and put a line through Maillet’s name.

By the fourth edition of Origin, completed in ten weeks in 1866, Darwin’s list had swelled to no fewer than thirty-seven names. Since the publication of the third edition, he had found another eight European evolutionists in an article published back in 1858 by his German translator, Heinrich Georg Bronn, which he had not been able to read until Camilla Ludvig, the Darwin family’s German governess, translated it for him. Darwin no longer had the time or the patience to test each of the claims individually, so he placed all eight new names inside a single footnote.

And then in 1865, just as Darwin was completing the final amendments to the fourth edition of Origin, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle stepped out of the shadows as a claimant. James Clair Grece, a town clerk and Greek scholar from Redhill, wrote to Darwin claiming that he had found natural selection in Aristotle’s work, ideas recorded in lecture notes scribbled in Athens two thousand years earlier. He had translated the passage into English for Darwin as proof. Darwin had read Aristotle at school. He admired him above all other naturalists, he told Hooker— even more than Linnaeus or Cuvier. But he knew so little of his work, and he was not going to learn Greek at this stage in his life. So in every version of the “Historical Sketch” he had written so far, he had simply “passed over” the “ancients,” apologizing for the limitations of his knowledge.

The passage Grece sent was from a book that Darwin did not know, and, given that Grece’s translation was pretty incomprehensible and that he was reading the words out of context, it was difficult for him to tell whether it really was an ancient Greek version of natural selection, as Grece claimed. But Darwin was prepared to give the clerk the benefit of the doubt because he admired Aristotle; he was the first man to have looked closely at animals and the structures and connections of their bodies—all animals, right down to the sea urchins and the oysters and the sponges. And he had done all of that close observation and dissection without microscopes or dissecting tools or preserving spirits.

With no time to ask abroad or test the claim, Darwin placed both Aristotle and Grece together into the same footnote destined to appear in the fourth edition of Origin.

Aristotle was now the first man on Darwin’s list and the last man to enter it. Darwin was delighted to add Aristotle to his list but wished he could have said more, explained more about how the Greek philosopher might have come to understand species and time more than two thousand years earlier. Instead he had to make do with a footnote.

The next time Grece wrote to Darwin it was not about Aristotle but about a pig.

It was November 12, 1866. Darwin’s morning mailbag had doubled if not tripled in size since the publication of Origin. People continued to write to him from all over the world. They offered him facts like gifts, as if he were now the sole chronicler of all nature’s strange and peculiar ways, as if he were the owner of a great factory of facts, grinding them out in the millstones of his brain to make something that might be labeled “nature’s laws.” People sent him facts about the tendrils of climbing plants, the valve structures of barnacles, the mating habits of hummingbirds. He collected them all and filed them away.

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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