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

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

Darwin's Ghosts

The Secret History of Evolution

by Rebecca Stott

Darwin's Ghosts
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Jun 2012, 416 pages
    Mar 2013, 416 pages

  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Guidarini

Buy This Book

About this Book

Print Excerpt

This morning was no different. Darwin reached for the first letter from the top of the pile that his butler had arranged on his desk. The envelope was postmarked Redhill in Surrey. He tried to recall who he knew there, who might have sent the letter. Inside the envelope, he found a letter from Grece and a cutting from the Morning Star dated November 10, 1866. Grece explained that he was sending an oddity of nature for Darwin’s files in case it might be of use in the future. The newspaper headline read “freak of nature,” and the article described a pig that had apparently sloughed off its entire black and bristly skin from snout to tail in one mass in a single night, revealing underneath an entirely new mottled pink body. The pig was, the journalist recorded, apparently unperturbed by its night adventure and was eating as hungrily as before, oblivious to the scores of visitors who had flocked to see it. The owner had pinned the discarded skin to the door of the pig’s sty with a notice that read “Do not touch.” No natural philosopher, the letter writer complained, had yet been to see the pig. He encouraged Darwin to do so. He might be able to make sense of the unusual occurrence. “You may recollect me as having some year or two since pointed out to you a passage from Aristotle,” Grece wrote, “shewing that ‘Natural Selection’ was known to the ancients.” Grece was claiming his due, Darwin realized, as if having been placed in a footnote with Aristotle in the fourth edition of Origin were not reward enough. By 1866, Darwin was weighed down with a sense of the debts he owed to the hundreds of naturalists who sent him things. “Should you like to see the animal,” wrote Clair James Grece, town clerk of Redhill council, railway enthusiast, chronicler of the local sloughing practices of pigs, “it is on the premises of one Mr. Jennings, a baker, in Horley Row about one mile north of the Horley Station of the London and Brighton railway. A fly might not be procurable at that station, so that you might prefer to alight at the Redhill Station, where vehicles are readily obtainable, and whence it is about four miles to the southward.”

By the time Darwin’s “Historical Sketch” appeared in the fourth edition of Origin, it had been ten years in the making. Of the distribution of nationalities of these evolutionists, fourteen were British, nine French, six German, two American, one Italian, one Russian, one Austrian, one Estonian, one Belgian, and, if he were to count Aristotle, one an ancient Greek. A reviewer might easily have thought that Darwin was making a point about British superiority in the biological sciences. Yet only Darwin knew how little design there had been in the composition of the “Historical Sketch.” Only he knew the way in which certain names had been shoehorned in at the last minute and how doubtful he was about the status of some of those claimants, particularly the most recent additions.

Yet Darwin found the final distribution of nationalities pleasing. There were only nine Frenchmen as against fourteen British. Now he had finally proved once and for all that evolution was not an exclusively French idea, that it was not the spawn of French revolutionaries, part of a conspiracy to bring down the church and government and all social hierarchies. It was just as much the discovery of British clergymen, doctors, fruit farmers, and gentleman naturalists working away with microscopes in houses in the British provinces.

Darwin looked at the gaps in the list, too. That enormous gap between the first person on his list and the second—the Greek philosopher Aristotle and the eighteenth-century French naturalist Buffon—puzzled him. What had happened in that chasm of more than two thousand years? If Grece was right and Aristotle had begun to formulate vaguely evolutionary questions about the history of animals in 347 bc, even if they were only flickers of a vision he could not yet see clearly from his vantage point, what had happened to those embryonic ideas? Where had they disappeared to? Religious repression was too easy an answer; there were always freethinkers in a population of people, however repressed, however much they lived under the eye of censoring priests. There must have been transmutationists in that gap of two thousand years, he reflected. Perhaps they had disappeared beyond all historical record.

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.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book:
  The Darwin Awards

Support BookBrowse

Become a Member
and discover your next great read!

Join Today!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Hag-Seed
    by Margaret Atwood
    There's a scene in The Tempest that many critics have concluded is indicative of Shakespeare&#...
  • Book Jacket: Crossing the Horizon
    Crossing the Horizon
    by Laurie Notaro
    In Crossing the Horizon, Laurie Notaro takes us back to a time when flying was a rare and risky ...
  • Book Jacket
    Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions
    by Mario Giordano
    Munich matron and self-described worldly sophisticate, Isolde Oberreiter, has decided to retire to a...
Book Discussions
Book Jacket
The Bone Tree
by Greg Iles

An epic trilogy of blood and race, family and justice.

About the book
Join the discussion!

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    The Next
    by Stephanie Gangi

    Fast-paced, wickedly observant, and haunting in the best sense of the word.

    Read Member Reviews

Win this book!
Win The World of Poldark

Win the book & DVD

Enter to win The World of Poldark and the full first series on DVD.


Word Play

Solve this clue:

One S D N M A S

and be entered to win..

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.


Free Weekly Newsletter

Keep up with what's happening in the world of books:
Reviews, previews, interviews and more!

Spam Free: Your email is never shared with anyone; opt out any time.