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Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of…
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Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution

by Rebecca Stott

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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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.… (more)
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Having loved Rebecca Stott's Darwin and the Barnacle (and having read perhaps 200 books on the history of science), I looked forward eagerly to Darwin's Ghosts. Unfortunately, the book's errors and misconceptions make it unreliable as a source. What's more, the book only partially succeeds in its stated goal of tracing the history of pre-Darwinian evolutionary thought. These are strong criticisms, and it pains me to offer them, but sadly, they are justified.

Consider for example the crowning events of the book: in 1858, the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace sent Charles Darwin a manuscript on natural selection, and Darwin faced the prospect of seeing another get credit for the idea. According to Stott (pp. 266- 284), Darwin's friends Lyell and Hooker called an "emergency meeting" of the Linnaean Society to present for publication a 230 page essay by Darwin along with Wallace's brief paper. They then asked the members to "make a judgment as to which man discovered natural selection first;" whereupon the Society "gave their verdict" and declared that Darwin deserved priority for the idea.

However, none of this ever happened. There was no "emergency meeting" engineered by Hooker and Lyell – the venue was the regularly scheduled gathering of the Linnaean Society (see reference 1 below). Darwin's 230 page essay was not presented for publication -- only some excerpts along with others from his correspondence. And members of the society never "voted" on priority nor were they asked to; the question was never raised, and it would have viewed as highly improper if it had been. In fact, Darwin and Wallace's contributions were among several presentations at the lengthy meeting, and from all accounts, it was a tiring affair that engendered no discussion (ref. 2). Stott's version culminates with having Wallace write to Hooker to say that "he didn't mind in the least that Darwin was going to take credit" (p. 6). Again, this is an invention by Ms. Stott -- Wallace said no such thing.

The relevant events have been recounted and discussed in countless sources, and entire websites are devoted to the original documents and correspondence. Darwin's Ghosts significantly distorts the history, and in the process, libels the main subject of her book. One would never know from this book that throughout his life Darwin graciously acknowledged Wallace as a cofounder of the idea of natural selection.

Other errors abound. Fish are presented as a type of "invertebrate" (pp. 202 and 203), an error that no one who has ever cooked or eaten one should have made. The author lends credence to the mistaken claim that the 9th century Arab writer Al-Jahiz recognized a form of "natural selection," thus perpetuating a misconception borne of confusion (see ref. 3). She speculates that Erasmus Darwin (Charles' grandfather) was comforted in his garden by Mrs. Elizabeth Pole, upon the death of "his eldest son, William" from an infection received while at medical school (p. 167). In fact, William was Erasmus' fifth son, an infant who died 19 days after birth. It was his son Charles (uncle to his namesake, the famous scientist) who died of the infection, in 1778. At the time, Mrs. Pole (a married woman with children of her own) lived 20 miles away (quite a distance by horse- drawn carriage), and had no cause or opportunity to visit Erasmus (ref. 4)

The backdrop for Darwin's Ghosts is the well – established fact that ideas about evolution had a history that predated Origin of Species. In the book's 1859 edition, Darwin made no mention of his predecessors, an oversight that he hastened to correct in subsequent editions. These pre- Darwinian ideas have been explored exhaustively in works written for the general public and the professional scientist (ref. 5). Thus, notwithstanding the subtitle of Stott's book, there is nothing whatsoever that is "secret" about this history, and her book covers well- trod ground in providing yet another account of Darwin's predecessors.

Oddly, however, the author misses a number of the key figures, while featuring others whose work bore little or no relationship to evolutionary ideas. For example, Chapter 1 focuses on Aristotle – and not until the end of the chapter does the reader learn that his ideas were entirely antithetical to evolutionary change. Later chapters focus on Leonardo da Vinci, Mary Shelley, and Diderot, peculiar figures for a book on the history of evolutionary thought. Of 15 pre- Darwinian writers that are discussed, only five (Erasmus Darwin, Lamarck, St. Hillaire, Chambers, and Wallace) can be considered as proponents of evolutionary ideas. Meanwhile, other relevant figures, including those named by Darwin, are overlooked. Further, the coverage of each individual too often misses the essence of their ideas in favor of biographical details. For example, the presentation of Lamarck's views is a caricature that overlooks the complexity and metaphysical nature of his ideas. Likewise, important distinctions between Wallace's and Darwin's concepts of selection (e.g., group vs. individual selection; applicability to humans) are never explored. Thus, is lost a valuable opportunity to inform the reader about important differences between the views of these two scientists.

Periodically in the book, the author makes up events and episodes, telling the reader what this or that figure supposedly was thinking or feeling. These episodes are presented as if they are factual when they are nothing of the kind. "Despite his resolutions, Darwin still woke in the night, slipping out of bed so as not to disturb Emma and pacing the floor of his study. How many other predecessors had he forgotten?" (p. 11). "He felt the burden of censure heavy on his shoulders now that he was back in the study, stoking the fire, feeling the heat agitating the itching on the dry and flaking skin of his face." (p. 11) "And there in the light from the fire, Darwin remembered the heretics who had been burned in the market places of England…. Burned because, even under torture and starvation, they would not recant." (p. 12). This is not biography – it is fiction! It owes more to the author's imaginings than to her knowledge of either history or science.

Notwithstanding its problems, this book may help interest the general reader in the fascinating history of evolutionary ideas. The book is entertaining and written in a delightful style. If this book sparks readers' interests sufficiently to lead them to explore the subject further, it will have served some purpose. However, given the author's talent as a writer, the book could have been far better had it been fact- checked by knowledgeable biologists and historians of science. As it stands, it miseducates readers who are not likely to read further on the subject, by misrepresenting important issues of widespread interest.

Note: The Appendix consists of the famous "Historical Sketch" that Darwin added to later editions of Origin of Species to acknowledge his predecessors. Unfortunately, in being reprinted in Stott's book, the first extended footnote in the sketch was omitted and the others were misplaced. As a result, readers will search in vain to find mention of Aristotle and certain other early figures. Accurate versions of the "Historical Sketch" are readily available online.
__________________________
References cited above:
ref. 1: Janet Browne (2002), "The Power of Place," p. 35
ref. 2: Browne, op cit., p. 41.
ref. 3: As noted by Stott, Jahiz recognized that stronger species prey on weaker ones. This is not natural selection. In the latter, the competition lies between predators, not between them and their prey.
ref. 4: Desmond Hele- King (1999), "Erasmus Darwin," p. 141-145.
ref. 5): Among hundreds of excellent sources are the following: Peter Bowler (2003), "Evolution: History of an Idea;" Edward J. Larson (2004), "Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory;" and Ernst Mayr (1982), "The Growth of Biological Thought" ( )
2 vote danielx | Jan 3, 2020 |
The author reviews the record of evolutionary thought prior to Darwin. Darwin famously said "evolution was in the air", and it was. From the time of Aristotle to the time of Darwin, we see individuals proposing evolution sporadically, though many of these individuals proposed to refute, or simply had a very strange view of evolution. The author writes in lucid prose, avoiding jargon, and telling history like a story rather than a dull recitation of facts. One could take issue with some of the stories, since it is likely that the information presented about thoughts going through the author's head are, at least in part, speculation, but in other cases come from journals or other collected writings. In addition, other than one rather convoluted, awkward, nearly incomprehensible sentence, the book is well edited, without the major grammar, spelling, and syntax errors that have become so common in modern publications. Definitely a worthwhile book for anyone interested in the history of science. ( )
  Devil_llama | Sep 15, 2016 |
დარვინის თეორიამ დიდი ცვლილებები გამოიწვია ადამიანის აზროვნებაში. მისი " სახეობათა წარმოშობა" მიიჩნევა ერთ-ერთ ყველაზე მნიშველოვან და გავლენიან წიგნად რომელმაც შეცვალა წარმოდგენები სიცოცხლეზე, სამყაროზე, შეცვალა სოციალური დამოკიდებულებები, იმოქმედა სახელმწიფო წყობილებების ფორმირებებზე და ა.შ.
მაგრამ დარვინის ბუნებრივი გადარჩევა არ აღმოცენებულა აბსოლიტურ სიცარიელეში. დარვინამდე და მისი მოღვაწეობის პარალელურად იყვნენ ადამიანები ვისაც ანალოგიური ან მსგავსი იდეები ქონდათ. იყვნენ ე.წ ტრანსფორმისტები, რომლებსაც მიაჩნდათ რომ სახეობები და თვით ადამიანიც კი ადრეული სახეობების მუტაციით ჩამოყალიბდა.

ეს არის წიგნი დარვინის აჩრდილებზე, რომლებიც ანალოგიურად ეძებდნენ პასუხებს, რომლებიც ხშირად იდევნებოდნენ ორთოდოქსული შეხედულებების მქონე მეცნიერებისგან და რელიგიისგან.

ბიოლოგიური ევოლუციური იდეების ჩასახვასა და განვითარებასთან ერთად საინტერესოა რომ წიგნი ასევე დამსახურებულად არის სეკულარიზმის, დეიზმისა და ათეიზმის განვითარების ისტორიაც, რადგან ევოლუციურ შეხედულებებს ხშირად თან ახლდა თავისუფალი აზროვნება, რელიგიური ჩარჩოებიდან გასვლა და საყოველთაოდ აღიარებული შეხედულებების უარყოფა.
რეკომენდაციას ვუწევ ყველა მკითხველს ვისაც ევოლუციის და ზოგადად მეცნიერების ისტორია აინტერესებს. ( )
  Misha.Kaulashvili | Aug 22, 2016 |
Joy's Review: The title's a bit silly, but the book is excellent. Each chapter describes someone who wondered, studied and investigated the 'transmutability' of species. All courageous men- since for most of them the religious powers at the time were (and sadly, often still are) scandalized by such theories and studies. I'd read another of Stott's books any time; she is an excellent non-fiction writer, presenting science history as the stories of individuals asking 'why'. ( )
  konastories | Oct 1, 2013 |
Interesting, but goes a bit too far into "you-are-there" history for my taste (describing what Darwin's study looked like or probably looked like--sure, okay, fine; describing Darwin raising his head as the butler brings in a letter--definitely not okay). ( )
  savoirfaire | Apr 6, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 24 (next | show all)
Stott’s history begins with proto-evolutionary thinkers such as Aristotle, the 8th century Muslim writer Jahiz, and Leonardo Da Vinci, and eventually concludes with Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles), Jean Baptiste de Lamarck, Robert Chambers, and Alfred Russell Wallace. Common to all of these thinkers was the realization that nature defies most attempts at drawing sharp lines of demarcation.
...
A second recurring theme is the lengths to which our heroes frequently went to avoid running afoul of religious authorities. Since evolutionary thinking has been heretical in most times and places, scientists pursuing such investigations were forced to be circumspect in expressing their views.
added by jimroberts | editSkeptic, Jason Rosenhouse (Nov 28, 2012)
 
“Darwin’s Ghosts” unfolds like an enjoyable and informative TV series, each episode devoted to a fascinating character who provides a window into the world of ideas of his time. It doesn’t offer a definitive chronological prehistory of Darwinian ideas, but it does help us see the necessity of bold and ambitious thinking. And, right here, right now, it has additional value. Stott reminds us that even if evolution is currently fought over more brutally in the United States than elsewhere, this fight has a long and stubborn ancestry, one that is by no means peculiarly American or entirely modern.
 

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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.
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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.
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