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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)
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.
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.)
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Rebecca Stott is a professor of English literature and creative writing at the University of East Anglia and an affiliated scholar at the department of the history and philosophy of science at Cambridge University. She is the author of several books, including Darwin and the Barnacle and the novels Ghostwalk and The Coral Thief. She lives in Cambridge, England.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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 the postman’s footsteps on the gravel outside his study window. The letters, he lamented to his wife, Emma, came like swarms.
Each new mailbag delivered to Down House brought letters voicing opprobrium, some veiled, some outspoken; a few contained praise. But though some reviewers might be expressing outrage, Darwin reassured himself, hundreds of ordinary people were reading his book. On the first day of sale in November, the entire print run of 1,250 books had sold out. Even Mudie’s Select Lending Library had taken five hundred copies. Now his publisher, John Murray, was about to publish a second edition; this time Murray intended to print three thousand copies, and he had agreed to let Darwin correct a few minor mistakes. Darwin was relieved. The mistakes embarrassed him.
As readers and reviewers took up their positions for or against his book, Darwin began to keep a note of where everyone stood on the battleground. “We shall soon be a good body of working men,” he wrote to his closest friend and confidant, the botanist Joseph Hooker, “& shall have, I am convinced, all young & rising naturalists on our side.”
The letter that launched Darwin into a prolonged attack of anxiety came from the Reverend Baden Powell, the Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford, a theologian and physicist who had been forthright in his support for the development theory for some time.* The elderly professor was on the brink of being prosecuted for ecclesiastical heresy. Of all the letters in that day’s pile, the one from Powell would be innocuous enough, Darwin assumed. He scanned it quickly, relieved to glimpse phrases like “masterly volume” and a few other words of praise. But Baden Powell was not happy. Having finished with his compliments, the professor launched into a direct attack, criticizing Darwin not for being wrong, not for being an infidel, but for failing to acknowledge his predecessors. He even implied that Darwin had taken the credit for a theory that had already been argued by others, notably himself.
This was not the first time Darwin had been accused of intellectual theft, but until now, the accusations had been tucked away in reviews and had been only implicit. How original is this book? people were clearly asking. How new is this idea of Mr. Darwin’s?
* The Reverend Baden Powell was the father of Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the
He might have protected himself better from charges of plagiarism, Darwin reflected fretfully, if he had only written a preface, as most scientists did when they published any controversial set of claims: a survey of all the ideas that had gone before. It gave the ideas a history and a context. It was a way of showing where the edges of other people’s ideas finished and your own began. But he had not done so, though he had planned to. And now he was being accused of passing off the ideas of others as his own.
As he sat reading and rereading Powell’s letter, Darwin’s excuses came thick and fast. He should have included a short preface, he wanted to tell Powell, but his book had been rushed. He had not been at all well. His closest friends, the botanist Joseph Hooker and the geologist Charles Lyell, had been badgering him to publish for years. Then, when Alfred Russel Wallace had sent him that alarming essay from the Malay Archipelago showing that Wallace had worked out natural selection, too, Hooker and Lyell had practically forced him to go straight into print. For months, he had hardly slept for writing. He had never written so fast or for so long. And in all that rush, he had neglected to acknowledge those who had gone before. Besides, aware that he was a poor scholar of history, he had not been confident that he knew exactly who had gone before or that he had the skills to describe their ideas accurately and fairly. They wrote in every language under the sun. Some of them were obscure, others mad. It would have taken years.
Darwin had known from Wallace’s enthusiastic letters that he was getting close to working out natural selection, but until seeing Wallace’s essay he had underestimated the speed at which the brilliant young collector was working. The thought that after all this procrastinating, someone like Alfred Russel Wallace could step in and publish his essay and make a claim to the discovery of natural selection before him was more than he could bear. At that point Hooker and Lyell had intervened, explaining to Wallace that Darwin had first formulated the idea some twenty years earlier. Wallace had been generous. He had given up any claim to being the discoverer of natural selection. He had even written to Hooker to say that he did not mind in the least that Darwin was going to take the credit and that it was right that he do so. He considered himself lucky, he confessed, to have been given some credit.
So Wallace had renounced his claim on natural selection. But now, only a year after Darwin had escaped the Wallace tangle, here was another claimant rising like Marley’s ghost from the mailbag—the Reverend Baden Powell. Darwin had forgotten about Powell.
My theory. My doctrine. Darwin had been writing those words for years in his notebooks. But was it his alone? He had told Hooker and Lyell that he was not ready. It was all very well for them to urge him into print. After all, they were not going to be deluged with disgust and outrage. They were not going to have to explain to their troubled wives; they were not going to have to apologize to and mollify bishops and clerics and bigots or answer plagiarism charges. And now John Murray was about to send another three thousand copies of Origin out into the world.
There was no stopping any of it. His theory had not leaked quietly into the public domain as he had planned; it had entered the world as a deluge, like the water pipes in the Ilkley water cure establishment, cold and gushing and unstoppable. He, Lyell, and Hooker had simply pulled the rope and released the valve. And here were the consequences.
Hooker would know what to do. Darwin wrote to invite him to Down House. Bring your wife, he wrote, bring the children. On December 21, 1859, Joseph Hooker’s wife wrote to Darwin to say that her husband would be happy to visit the Darwins in the second week of January and that he would bring their eldest son, William, with him. Darwin was delighted. Such a visit would do him tremendous good, he wrote to Hooker, for though the water cure had improved his health, now that he was in the midst of the critical storm, he was, he wrote, “utterly knocked up & cannot rally—I am not worth an old button.” The eczema had broken out again. He was sick to his stomach.
The following day, three days before Christmas, while Darwin was still trying to compose a reply to the Reverend Baden Powell, a third claimant emerged, this time from France. Darwin’s butler told him that a parcel had arrived in the evening post. Though the children protested, Darwin left the warm parlor where Emma had been reading aloud to them in the shadow of the Christmas tree and slipped away across the hall to the darkened study to retrieve it.
With pleasure and relief, he recognized the handwriting on the label as Hooker’s. The parcel contained an essay by Hooker that Darwin had promised to read and a heavy volume of a French scientific journal, the Revue Horticole. Hooker explained in an accompanying letter that a scientist named Decaisne* had written to tell him that a botanist named Charles Naudin had discovered natural selection back in 1852. Darwin, Decaisne wrote, had no right to claim natural selection as his idea.
* The botanist Joseph Decaisne.
Hooker enclosed the volume of the journal in which Naudin’s paper on species had been published so that Darwin could judge the claim for himself. Darwin had read and admired Naudin’s work years before, but he had entirely forgotten the paper.
Darwin ordered the study fire to be relit. He read and reread Naudin’s paper late into the night, struggling with some of the French scientific terms, reaching for his French dictionary, making notes as high winds rattled the windowpanes. Naudin’s claim was not a serious threat, he finally told Emma a few hours later. The French botanist had not discovered natural selection. He was quite sure of that.
The following morning, returning to his desk cluttered with the debris of the previous evening’s struggle with French verbs and the notepaper with all his scribblings across it, he wrote to allay Hooker’s fears, explaining with relief: “I cannot find one word like the Struggle for existence & Natural Selection.” Naudin had gotten no closer to natural selection than had the French evolutionist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, he wrote emphatically. Darwin asked Hooker to pass on his refutation of the claim to their mutual friend Lyell, adding with a touch of embarrassment, “though it is foolish work sticking up for...
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