Now in Paperback: Darwin’s Ghosts
Spiegel & Grau, 2013
Charles Darwin, alongside JFK and Lincoln, provides the publishing industry with a deep shaft of treasures upon which to flourish. In 2009, this was especially true; as we celebrated the naturalist’s 200th birthday (and the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species), everything from Darwin’s Dogs to Darwin’s Armada saw publication in connection with his “Theory of Descent with Modification.” Bookshelves were so crowded with the minutiae of his life, in fact, that one expected to find a bound collection of menus from the Down House kitchen, gold-tasseled and lovingly illustrated.
Wondrously, then, comes Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution. By Rebecca Stott (The Coral Thief, 2009), this book enjoys a more legitimate turn on the stage for arriving a few years after the flamboyant hubbub ended. And Stott, like any relevant, vital Darwin scholar, knows that timing is everything.
Here, she wades deep into history, contesting the grossly received wisdom that Darwin is revered above the many scientists he stole from. She starts on familiar shores with the ancient philosopher Aristotle, first on the list (kept by Darwin himself) of people to whom he owed great thanks. Explaining that he had to flee Athens when King Philip of Macedon (Alexander the Great’s father) seized an Athenian satellite town, Stott goes on to say that:
Aristotle did not inherit a tradition of natural philosophy… [he] was the first to collect animal specimens, the first to describe and record species, the first to think those things worth doing. He was the first to believe that if he looked long and hard enough inside the bodies of birds, bees, butterflies, and fish, nature would reveal its secrets. He was the first to believe that nature had secrets, and that those secrets would answer complex metaphysical questions in addition to physical ones.
By crossing the Aegean Sea and hiding away on the island of Lesbos, Aristotle entered a period of intensely focused work. He abandoned Plato’s airy notions–that the physical world is some kind of imperfect copy of an ideal, unseen realm–to pursue knowledge that could be directly experienced; he and his students dissected sea creatures, compared their organs, and wondered if the sea squirt wasn’t a go-between for the animal and vegetable kingdoms. Nevertheless, Aristotle believed living things to be fixed in shape throughout eternity. God(s) didn’t create them, but neither did they cross physical barriers, morphing over time into one another.
Not that Darwin had actually read the Greeks. And a less assured writer might have simply said so before moving on, but Stott proves both the consummate entertainer and educator. She goes in chronological order, revealing evolution’s hidden threads throughout the medieval and Renaissance eras. Among chapters on Da Vinci and Darwin’s own grandfather Erasmus, there are more obscure scholars discussed–like Jahiz (The Book of Living Beings) and Abraham Trembley–in full-bodied, fascinating portraits.
But in reaching the 19th Century, Stott quits cracking old nuts with her beak and begins the dashing surgical strikes. She reminds us of the cranky French scientist Lamarck, who, after discussing how water can shape the earth around it in Hydrogeology (1802), drew this astonishingly straight line:
It is the animal’s habits, its mode of life, and the circumstances in which its individual forebears found themselves that, over time, have determined the form of its body, the number and state of its organs and lastly, the faculties with which it is endowed.
Unfortunately, Lamarck hinted at no visible mechanism to explain how creatures changed other than time and habits. Worse, he had a large dependent family and a combative attitude toward fellow scholars who could have secured his career. He died broke, blind, and a burden to his daughters.
Stott’s penultimate chapter introduces us to Scotsman Robert Chambers, polymath and self-made publishing giant. His determination to bring engaging, informative reading material to the working class with Chamber’s Edinburgh Journal culminated in the short book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844). The volume wove together everything the obsessively well-read Chambers knew about biology and geology, while making sure to accommodate theology:
That God created animated beings, as well as the terraqueous theatre of their being, is a fact so powerfully evinced, and so universally received, that I at once take it for granted. But in the particularity of this so highly supported idea, we surely here see cause for some re- consideration. It may now be inquired–In what way was the creation of the animated beings affected?
Nevertheless, the Church sniffed atheism–the movement which supposedly sparked revolution in France. Vestiges, originally published anonymously, resulted in scalding diatribes, the worst of which likened it to an abortion to be stepped on. In the end, however, it acted like a shield. Darwin walked under it into the public’s presence, and started a conversation too compelling to ever stop.