Summary and book reviews of Darwin's Ghosts by Rebecca Stott

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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Book Summary

Darwin’s Ghosts tells the story of the collective discovery of evolution, from Aristotle to Al-Jahiz, an Arab writer in the first century, from Leonardo da Vinci to Denis Diderot in Paris, exploring the origins of species while under the surveillance of the secret police.

Christmas, 1859. Just one month after the publication of On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin received an unsettling letter. He had expected criticism; in fact, letters were arriving daily, most expressing outrage and accusations of heresy. But this letter was different. It accused him of failing to acknowledge his predecessors, of taking credit for a theory that had already been discovered by others. Darwin realized that he had made an error in omitting from Origin of Species any mention of his intellectual forebears. Yet when he tried to trace all of the natural philosophers who had laid the groundwork for his theory, he found that history had already forgotten many of them.

Darwin’s Ghosts tells the story of the collective discovery of evolution, from Aristotle, walking the shores of Lesbos with his pupils, to Al-Jahiz, an Arab writer in the first century, from Leonardo da Vinci, searching for fossils in the mine shafts of the Tuscan hills, to Denis Diderot in Paris, exploring the origins of species while under the surveillance of the secret police, and the brilliant naturalists of the Jardin de Plantes, finding evidence for evolutionary change in the natural history collections stolen during the Napoleonic wars. Evolution was not discovered single-handedly, Rebecca Stott argues, contrary to what has become standard lore, but is an idea that emerged over many centuries, advanced by daring individuals across the globe who had the imagination to speculate on nature’s extraordinary ways, and who had the courage to articulate such speculations at a time when to do so was often considered heresy.

With each chapter focusing on an early evolutionary thinker, Darwin's Ghosts is a fascinating account of a diverse group of individuals who, despite the very real dangers of challenging a system in which everything was presumed to have been created perfectly by God, felt compelled to understand where we came from. Ultimately, Stott demonstrates, ideas - including evolution itself - evolve just as animals and plants do, by intermingling, toppling weaker notions, and developing over stretches of time. Darwin's Ghosts presents a groundbreaking new theory of an idea that has changed our very understanding of who we are.

Excerpt
Darwin's Ghosts

Just before Christmas in 1859, only a month after he had finally published On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection, Charles Darwin found himself disturbed, even haunted, by the thought of his intellectual predecessors. He entered a state of extreme anxiety that had the strange effect of making him more than usually forgetful.

It had been a cold winter. Though Darwin might have liked to linger on the Sand Walk with his children to admire the intricately patterned hoarfrost on the trees, he knew he had work to do, letters about his book to answer, criticisms to face.

He had weathered the first blasts of the storm of censure in a sanatorium in Ilkley, where he had been taking the water cure, wrapped in wet sheets in hot rooms, the skin on his face dry and cracked with eczema. Since his return to his family home, Down House, now garlanded with Christmas holly, ivy, and mistletoe by his children, he had braced himself every morning against the sound of ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The true singularity of Stott's book is her in-depth study of philosopher/scientists starting with Aristotle - who, like many early thinkers, concentrated on the evolution of animals - proceeding through all the other major theorists in the field up to the age of Darwin himself. If Stott had stopped there it would have been a very good book, one I'd highly recommend. But what makes Darwin's Ghosts amazing is she goes even further to investigate how the developing scientific thinking on the origins of life influenced the arts and popular culture.   (Reviewed by Lisa Guidarini).

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Media Reviews

Booklist

The history of science comes alive as a drama of vibrant personalities wrestling with a dangerous idea.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Stott has produced a colorful, skillfully written, and thoughtful examination of the evolution of one of our most important scientific theories.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Stott masterfully shows how Darwin, by discovering the mechanism of natural selection, made a unique contribution, but he did not stand alone—nor did he claim to.

The Telegraph (UK)

This extraordinarily wide-ranging and engaging book rediscovers evolutionary insights across a great span of time...a book that enriches our understanding of how the struggle to think new thoughts is shared across time and space and people.

Nature

Stott's research is broad and unerring; her book is wonderful…. Stott's constellation of biographies is an exhilarating romp through 2,000 years of fascinating scientific history.

The Independent (UK)

Beautifully written and compelling…These mavericks and heretics put their lives on the line. Finally, they are getting the credit they deserve.

The Times (UK)

Impressively researched... A gripping and ambitious history of science which gives a vivid sense of just how many forebears Darwin had.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

The Darwin Awards

Wendy Northcutt, who has a degree in molecular biology from the University of California at Berkeley, is the creator of the "Darwin Awards," pop culture's nod to Darwin's theory of the survival of the fittest, awarded annually to one person voted to have "improved our gene pool by removing themselves from it." In other words, someone who - through his or her sheer stupidity - was either killed or made sterile during a totally preventable act.

The Five Rules for this most auspicious award:

  1. Inability to reproduce - Nominee must be dead or rendered sterile
  2. Excellence - Astoundingly stupid judgment
  3. Self-selection - Cause of one's own demise
  4. Maturity - Capable of mature judgment
  5. Veracity - Event must be ...

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