Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution
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A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK
“[An] extraordinarily wide-ranging and engaging book [about] the men who shaped the work of Charles Darwin . . . a book that enriches our understanding of how the struggle to think new thoughts is shared across time and space and people.”—The Sunday Telegraph (London)
Soon after the publication of On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin received an unsettling letter that accused him of taking credit for a theory that had already been discovered by others. Realizing his error of omission, Darwin tried to trace all of the natural philosophers who had laid the groundwork for his theory, but he found that history had already forgotten many of them.
Rebecca Stott goes in search of these ghosts, telling the epic story of the discovery of evolution and natural selection from Aristotle to the ninth-century Arab writer Al-Jahiz to Leonardo da Vinci to the brilliant naturalists of the Jardin des Plantes to Alfred Wallace and Erasmus Darwin, and finally to Charles Darwin himself. Evolution was not discovered single-handedly. It was an idea that was advanced over centuries by daring individuals across the globe who had the imagination to speculate on nature’s extraordinary ways—and the courage to articulate such speculations at a time when to do so was often considered heresy.
Praise for Darwin’s Ghosts
“Absorbing . . . Stott captures the breathless excitement of an investigation on the cusp of the unknown. . . . A lively, original book.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Stott’s research is broad and unerring; her book is wonderful. . . . An exhilarating romp through 2,000 years of fascinating scientific history.”—Nature
“Stott brings Darwin himself to life. . . . [She] writes with a novelist’s flair. . . . Darwin and the ‘ghosts’ so richly described in Ms. Stott’s enjoyable book are the descendants of Aristotle and Bacon and the ancestors of today’s scientists.”—The Wall Street Journal
“Riveting . . . Stott has done a wonderful job in showing just how many extraordinary people had speculated on where we came from before the great theorist dispelled all doubts.”—The Guardian (U.K.)
Everywhere in Living Beings, Jahiz defends and celebrates hybrids and crossbreeds, creatures that are interstitial or transcategorical in some way. He lost no opportunity to point out when creatures did not fit comfortably or easily into one category but extended across several: birds, for instance, that were both herbivorous and carnivorous. After a long preface about the usefulness of written as opposed to oral knowledge, the first book of Living Beings begins with a sixty-page disquisition on
his warders. At the age of eighty, Palissy was moved to the Bastille, where the prison warder, determined to test the old man’s mettle, told him he would be burned alive immediately if he did not convert. Palissy still refused. He died a year later from “misery, need, and poor treatment.” Palissy’s books disappeared from the shelves of Paris libraries, only to be rediscovered again 150 years later in another garden in the city, the mighty Jardin des Plantes, by the great naturalist the Comte de
in his exile from Samarkand for heresy. As consul, Maillet had access to Khayyám’s geographical and geological work, pages that have been lost to the West. Maillet was acutely conscious that with Telliamed he, too, was on extremely dangerous ground. In 1717, Maillet returned from Leghorn, where he had been first consul and then inspector of French establishments in the Levant and on the Barbary Coast,* to Marseilles. The French port city, which received goods from the East, silk from Spain, rice
Faculty of Theology, and for the continuation of his important public position at the Jardin du Roi. For his efforts he had achieved public acclaim, power, and royal patronage. Now he was seventy-nine years old. What had he to lose by breaking his contract? In 1778 he published his most controversial book yet, The Epochs of Nature (Époques de la nature). The book was seriously at odds with the beliefs of the Church and with Genesis. Buffon discussed the origins of the solar system; he proposed
Society in the hope of getting some translations commissioned, and when the contributors failed to produce anything very useful, he began translating Linnaeus’s Latin phrases into English himself. Although the translation work was laborious and slow, he found it counterpointed and complemented the poetry in surprising ways. For four years Erasmus slipped between the two manuscripts piled on his desk, the embryonic poem now called The Loves of the Plants and its prose notes and the translation