Read Recently — April 2016 — Not So Spooky

Darwin’s Ghosts: the secret history of evolution by Rebecca Stott

Shortly after Darwin first published On The Origin of Species, he began receiving letters from angry biologists stating that he had forgotten to mention the work of their favourite historical figure who had obviously influenced Darwin’s work, or worse yet forgotten to mention the letter-writer themselves! And after all their hard work! Many of these people were cranks, of course, but others legitimately felt that Darwin should have mentioned an important historical figure who had said something about evolution in the past, because obviously they had been a big influence on Darwin himself. It was only fair.

Of course, many of them had not been an influence on Darwin because he wasn’t any kind of historian and didn’t even know about the person, or their work. And fear of such a reaction had a lot to do with why Darwin had held back on publishing for such a long time. So he immediately started making and revising a list of everyone mentioned, and publishing it in future editions of the book.

So Stott goes down the list, looking at the various figures mentioned and trying to figure out who, exactly, deserves mention as the forefathers of evolution. There’s a big gap between Aristotle in 344 BCE and the next figures (Muslim philosophers in 850 CE), and after that it sticks mostly to western Europeans. It includes Charles Darwin’s own grandfather Erasmus, of course, and ends with a chapter on Alfred Wallace, the only one to get everything right, and the reason why Darwin rushed into publication in the first place. It’s an informative and interesting read, well-written and decently-edited (I didn’t spot any major errors). Recommended.

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