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

92%

12 Critic Reviews

...conjures up the spirits of Darwin's scientific predecessors in this excellent follow-up to Darwin and the Barnacle (2003).
-Kirkus

Synopsis

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.)


From the Hardcover edition.
 

About Rebecca Stott

See more books from this Author
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.
 
Published June 12, 2012 by Spiegel & Grau. 432 pages
Genres: Other, Science & Math, Political & Social Sciences, Professional & Technical. Non-fiction
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Critic reviews for Darwin's Ghosts
All: 12 | Positive: 11 | Negative: 1

Kirkus

Excellent
Reviewed by Kirkus Reviews on Mar 15 2012

...conjures up the spirits of Darwin's scientific predecessors in this excellent follow-up to Darwin and the Barnacle (2003).

Read Full Review of Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret H... | See more reviews from Kirkus

NY Times

Good
Reviewed by Hugh Raffles on Jul 13 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.

Read Full Review of Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret H... | See more reviews from NY Times

Guardian

Excellent
Reviewed by Richard Fortey on Jun 01 2012

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.

Read Full Review of Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret H... | See more reviews from Guardian

WSJ online

Excellent
Reviewed by LAURA SNYDER on Jul 04 2012

In telling the stories of these men, Ms. Stott—who is also a novelist—writes with a novelist's flair.

Read Full Review of Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret H... | See more reviews from WSJ online

The Independent

Excellent
Reviewed by ZIAUDDIN SARDAR on Jun 02 2012

The result is a fascinating history of an idea that is crucial to our understanding of life on earth.

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The Telegraph

Excellent
Reviewed by Sinclair McKay on Jun 17 2012

Stott conveys the frustrations and the zeal, the wrong-turnings and the glimmers of larger truths, the theories of deep time and geology forming like hardening volcanic rock...

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The Telegraph

Excellent
Reviewed by Gillian Beer on May 07 2012

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...

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Christian Science Monitor

Excellent
Reviewed by Emily Cataneo on Jun 12 2012

Stott’s book is a reminder that scientific discoveries do not happen in a vacuum, that they often stem from incorrect or pseudo-scientific inquiries...

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Washington Independent Review of Books

Excellent
Reviewed by Josh Trapani

The book’s strength is in Stott’s gift for situating readers in different places and times, so we can understand both the significance of the discoveries and what drove the discoverers.

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New Zealand Listener

Excellent
Reviewed by BERNARD BECKETT on Aug 18 2012

So Stott offers us the Holy Trinity of popular science writing: the story of a great theory, enlivened by arresting anecdote and wrapped in religious/ political intrigue.

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Cosmos

Excellent
Reviewed by Selina Haefeli on Jul 01 2012

This historical narrative is rich in factual detail, but Stott always keeps it light-hearted and entertaining. I found it an easy but educational read...

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Fyrefly's Book Blog

Below average
Reviewed by fyrefly on Sep 17 2012

Unfortunately, something about Stott’s writing style never really grabbed me. I could see where she was trying very hard to bring the subjects of each chapter-long biography to life...

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