This site uses cookies to deliver our services, improve performance, for analytics, and (if not signed in) for advertising. By using LibraryThing you acknowledge that you have read and understand our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your use of the site and services is subject to these policies and terms.
Hide this

Results from Google Books

Click on a thumbnail to go to Google Books.

Darwin's Ghosts: In Search of the First…

Darwin's Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists (edition 2013)

by Rebecca Stott (Author), Lisa Renee Pitts (Narrator)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
3732245,641 (3.7)24
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)
Title:Darwin's Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists
Authors:Rebecca Stott (Author)
Other authors:Lisa Renee Pitts (Narrator)
Info:Audible Studios for Bloomsbury (2013)
Collections:Your library

Work details

Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution by Rebecca Stott

Recently added byToreKes, arborschool, AnnaHernandez, private library, Lylee, tjhistorian, Naschkatze, michtpollard



Sign up for LibraryThing to find out whether you'll like this book.

No current Talk conversations about this book.

» See also 24 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 24 (next | show all)
Review by: Stuart Firestein
Science, New Series,
Vol. 338, No. 6106 (26 October 2012), p. 471

Arguments over attribution are among the most contentious in science. From authorship on papers, to correct cita­tions of the preceding literature, to the choice of only three winners of a Nobel Prize, there is always disagreement about priority, contribution, and significance. Of course, attribu­tion encompasses more than often seemingly petty arguments over order in the author list; it speaks to deeper issues in the history and philosophy of science---where do "new" ideas come from, and what constitutes a "new" idea.

Darwin's new idea (also Wallace 's, of course) was arguably the most seminal, world-altering, paradigm-shifting conceptual leap in modern science, certainly in the life sciences. But did it spring 'de novo' from Darwin's mind?

Were there precedents? Was it "in the air"? How much of it was his and his alone? What, if anything, did he owe to predecessors? It is on this worry, one that plagued Darwin through continuously revised editions of the Origin, that Rebecca Stott masterfully hangs Darwin's Ghosts---a beautiful tapestry of the scientific and philosophical search for the answer to how life came to be the way it is on this planet. The book begins with Darwin constructing a list of possible sources that he had unwittingly failed to acknowledge (the ghosts of the title), at first wide ranging and then, as he crosses names off and adds new ones, more focused. Track­ing them down, Stott weaves a story that proceeds through ancient Greece, the Middle East, medieval Europe, radical Enlight­enment France, 19th-century Edinburgh, Malaysia (where Wallace caught a fever in the throes of which evolution by natural selection came to him), and of course Down House, Kent. Her account provides a view of Darwin and evolution quite different from the hero narratives we have become accustomed to and all the more fascinating for its sniffing out the bits and pieces of an idea so long on the verge of discovery.

The book offers a gripping narrative tension. One after another, great thinkers grap­ple with the notion that species cannot possi­bly be immutable, as the dominating biblical story says, but can't quite see through to the crucial idea of natural selection working its undirected way through multitudes of mutations. So many were so close for so long, you find yourself wanting to scream to Lamarck or Diderot or a host of others, "No, no, just look a little bit over here and all will be crystal clear." But of course hindsight is always easy, and the importance of appreciating the state of knowledge (or rather of ignorance) that prevailed prior to the moment of discovery is too often for­gotten. All great leaps one day become common knowledge.

I was especially taken with a short digression on the young Darwin in the years he spent in Edinburgh, apparently failing at his medical studies. Have you ever wondered what motivated Darwin to go off on the Beagle voyage? I've always supposed it was for more or less superficial reasons: getting out of England and away from his father, travel is what other young men of means were doing at the time, the romance of voy­aging, and other such simple youthful motives. And then, being a careful book­
keeper, the evidence just kind of piled up until, lo and behold, the idea of evolution by natural selection came to him. That is a story with more miraculous overtones than I think Darwin would have preferred.

Stott's discussion of Darwin's friend­ ship with Edinburgh physician Robert Grant suggests
alternatives. She tells us of Dar­ win's adventitious meeting with the radical Lamarckian, a
seashore naturalist who, aided by a small club ofboys, collected sponges and logged vast amounts
of information about the marine animals that either washed up or were brought in by fishermen.
This was after Grant had spent his inheritance on studies at the Museum of Natural History in Paris
and travels in Europe to collect specimens and visit marine invertebrate specialists, librar­ies, and collections (another possible motive for Darwin's desire to travel). It was from Grant that Darwin picked up the habit of talk­ ing to locals, fishermen or their wives selling the creatures in the market, and extracting remarkable bits of intuitive knowledge from them. That investigative strategy appears in the Origin as his discussions with pigeon fanciers and domestic breeders of all sorts. It may have been Grant, through his amaz­ ingly detailed experiments and observations of sponges in search of an understanding of species mutability, who introduced Darwin to the method ofusing a detailed problem to ask and answer a big question (think barnacles, worms, and carnivorous plants)--to this day, the way much of biology progresses. Grant and Darwin fell out after a couple of years, and Grant died in obscurity. Stott brings deserved attention to this remarkable charac­ter and his influence on a young Darwin.

Grant's engaging story is one of many recounted in Darwin s Ghosts. Every chapter seems a travelogue in scientific history and culture, full of interesting material you didn't know or only thought you knew. Stott gives us a fascinating view of the evolution of one of the biggest ideas ever---evolution.
By Gillian Beer
The Guardian
07 May 2012

'What a fellow that Darwin is for asking questions!” remarked John Henslow, professor of botany at Cambridge, about his young walking companion Charles Darwin. Darwin was then still an undergraduate but he already had medical experience and he was fascinated by beetles, stones, marine creatures, plants and birds. Everything raised questions in his mind: a few years later in his notebook he was asking “Does an oyster have free-will?”

The historian and novelist Rebecca Stott shows some of the same zeal in asking unexpected questions. Brought up in a Creationist household, her imagination was first fired by the forbidden presence of Charles Darwin and his ideas and then by “the shadowy figures behind Darwin, his predecessors, the less well-known rebels”. Why have they been forgotten, she asks, and should or could Charles Darwin have known more about them?

This extraordinarily wide-ranging and engaging book rediscovers evolutionary insights across a great span of time, from the famous, such as Aristotle and the Islamic scholar Al-Jahiz, to the 16th-century potter Palissy, the 18th-century merman-believer Maillet and the transformist poet and botanist, Rafinesque – as well as from Diderot, Lamarck, Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus and his contemporary Wallace. And these are just a few of the figures who emerge from the dark into the glow of Stott’s attention. Each of them is evoked with an intimacy that is also clearheaded about the way ideas get stuck, or prove wrong-headed, but can’t be parted with. Stott can make the nuances of ideas emerge in descriptions that suddenly bring the person close. For example, Aristotle “was the first to see gradation in nature”, “in those dark seabed forms he studied in the lagoon of Lesbos with the sun beating on his back”.

Although the book is arranged chronologically, the ideas pursued did not steadily accumulate nor did the people Stott describes often feed off each other’s knowledge. Insights flourished and were lost. Connections that proved invaluable might seem most far apart, as in the case of the realisation that the polyp can reproduce by splitting, so establishing that sexual reproduction is not universal. A tutor and two young boys in a deserted 18th-century summer residence were at the start of that discovery, which climaxed not only at the French Academy and London Royal Society but in displays all over Europe. Stott’s gifts as a novelist mean that each of her subjects emerges as living in ordinary weather and among objects, family, and political difficulties. So, without sentimentality, we come to feel the value of these often obsessional men (and they all are men, though women figure as patrons, lovers, correspondents).

This is a book that starts out from anxiety, both Darwin’s and his predecessors’. Stott brings out how dangerous the idea of species-change has been across the centuries. It brought prison, unemployment, exile, and even torture to many of those who explored it. It contradicted religious orthodoxy and implicitly did away with any necessity for a god as explanation of the process of creation.

Related Articles
Astonishing sex lives of mites
22 Jan 2009
The Genius of Charles Darwin
02 Aug 2008
Curiosity by Philip Ball: review
02 May 2012

Even Darwin, apparently safe among his friends and family in the Home Counties, reacted with the language of nightmare to the first vicious (pre-publication) review in the Athenaeum: “the manner in which he drags in immortality, & sets the Priests at me & leaves me to their mercies, is base. He would on no account burn me; but he will get the wood ready & tell the black beasts how to catch me.”

Darwin here seems to be feeling with a shudder the fate of some of his predecessors. But as Stott points out, he had another, much more immediate cause for anxiety: who were these predecessors and had he properly acknowledged them? The speed with which On the Origin of Species was written was itself propelled by the realisation that Alfred Russel Wallace had recently lighted on the idea of natural selection, the key idea that Darwin had been researching across a vast variety of fields for 20 years. Shortly after the publication of the Origin more claimants or their advocates began to appear. Darwin compiled a list that he added to throughout the 1860s of all the earlier and some contemporary figures who came to his notice. These lists are the foundation of Stott’s work, which perhaps explains the absence from her discussion of Samuel Butler, Darwin’s later antagonist and accuser on the matter of his predecessors.

Stott has consulted experts in a great variety of fields and fully acknowledges the generous and essential support they have given her. She draws on an array of scholarship and assembles it into an intricate sequence of stories and investigations that are her own. The outcome is gripping as well as fair-minded. She scrupulously assesses the claims and the ideas of figures who might seem very distant from Darwin, as well as close to him, and she often finds that indeed fixity, not change, was at the basis of their thought. But they asked essential questions and their determination presaged the fertile mix of ideas that fed Charles Darwin’s mind.

Darwin was generous-minded, respectful of the special knowledge of practitioners such as pigeon-fanciers as well as the theoretical scope of philosophers. He also had to start again, for himself, struggling through the ordinary ignorance of youth, accumulating his own acute observations on the way to his large realisations. Darwin’s Ghosts is a book that enriches our understanding of how the struggle to think new thoughts is shared across time and space and people.
  meadcl | Aug 30, 2018 |
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.

» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Rebecca Stottprimary authorall editionscalculated
Goretsky, TalCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
You must log in to edit Common Knowledge data.
For more help see the Common Knowledge help page.
Series (with order)
Canonical title
Original title
Alternative titles
Original publication date
Important places
Important events
Related movies
Awards and honors
For Kate and Anna,
and for Dorinda
First words
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.
Last words
(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
Disambiguation notice
Publisher's editors
Publisher series
Original language
Canonical DDC/MDS

References to this work on external resources.

Wikipedia in English (1)

No library descriptions found.

Book description
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.
Haiku summary

LibraryThing Early Reviewers Alum

Rebecca Stott's book Darwin's Ghosts was available from LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

Sign up to get a pre-publication copy in exchange for a review.

Quick Links

Popular covers


Average: (3.7)
1 3
2 2
2.5 1
3 10
3.5 9
4 31
4.5 4
5 7

Is this you?

Become a LibraryThing Author.


About | Contact | Privacy/Terms | Help/FAQs | Blog | Store | APIs | TinyCat | Legacy Libraries | Early Reviewers | Common Knowledge | 140,112,351 books! | Top bar: Always visible