Book review: Darwin’s Ghosts

IN THE wars over God and Evolution which have raged in the early years of the 21st century as they once raged at the end of the 19th, Charles Darwin often seems to be more idea than man.

Richard Dawkins’ combative Darwinism is steely, unforgiving, and capable of grinding religion into dust. As Rebecca Stott’s scholarly Darwin’s Ghosts reminds us, the real Charles Darwin was much less certain than his modern followers would allow.

Equivocal, self-doubting, bullied into publishing On The Origin Of Species by his friends after he learned that Alfred Russel Wallace might steal his thunder, the Darwin of 1859 was an embattled and uncertain figure. Much of his uncertainty focused on his predecessors: had he sufficiently acknowledged his intellectual debts and paid tribute to those who had gone before?

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In a letter to the Reverend Baden Powell, the Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford who had written to him charging him with failing to acknowledge his predecessors, Darwin wrote: “My health was so poor, whilst I wrote the Book, that I was unwilling to add in the least to my labour.”

But as the attacks on his book and theory mounted, Darwin attempted to make good the error. The problem was that most of the historical predecessors were lost in the mists of time and contemporary proto-evolutionists started to come out of the woodwork, each one charging that Darwin had overlooked “their” discovery of evolution.

Stott’s book makes good Darwin’s omission and in a series of vivid portraits, explores the insights of those who saw hints of evolution before Darwin. She explores how Aristotle, without a microscope or a scientific laboratory, seems to have glimpsed evolution through the glimmering tales of fishermen on the island of Lesbos. She tells how Leonardo da Vinci searched for fossils in the mines of the Tuscan hills, his curiosity piqued by the discovery of oyster shells embedded in the rocks at the top of the mountain. And she explores the passion for fossil hunting displayed by Erasmus Darwin, Charles’ grandfather.

But Stott’s book is not purely an intellectual voyage of discovery. In the preface she describes growing up in a Creationist household where all mention of Darwin, let alone discussion of his theories, was forbidden. This careful meditation on Darwin’s intellectual progenitors is a personal as well as a scholarly inquiry.

Darwin was aware that once he had identified one precursor, others appeared who seemed to have an equal claim. Scottish readers might have expected a mention of James Burnett, Lord Monboddo, the Scottish judge whose belief that man descended from apes (he seemed to think orang-utans were a form of human being) made him a much celebrated and much ridiculed figure in 18th century Edinburgh. Monboddo’s proto-evolutionary theories were acknowledged by Erasmus Darwin but not by Charles Darwin, or Stott.

But that is a minor omission in a book which is elegantly conceived and beautifully written, and serves as a corrective to the idea that the theory of evolution sprang fully formed from the mind of its one true creator. Appropriately it evolved too, as Darwin acknowledged, and Stott convincingly explores.

Darwin’s Ghosts: In Search Of The First Evolutionists

Rebecca Stott

Bloomsbury £25