Book Report: Darwin’s Ghosts

Posted by on November 1st, 2019

It seems safe to say that we all know the name Charles Darwin. Widely credited with proposing the theory of natural selection, Darwin is considered one of the fathers of evolutionary theory. In the Galapagos Islands, where his travels as a young man led him to many of his theories, his name and story are everywhere.

Charles Darwin (photo by Herbert Rose Barraud, 1881)

Rebecca Stott’s engaging “Darwin’s Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists” examines some of Darwin’s scientific and academic predecessors, whose prior works and discoveries influenced his famous theory. Stott opens by presenting us not with Darwin, the scientific pioneer, but rather with Darwin, the anxious and insecure historian. Darwin did not, according to Stott’s portrayal, mean to claim exclusive rights to the idea that species changed over time; rather, he had assembled a “Historical Sketch” as an appendix to On the Origin of Species, crediting numerous others with similar theories and discoveries. As it turned out, that appendix was not nearly enough to prevent complaints, mockery, and even charges of plagiarism.

Stott takes Darwin’s Historical Sketch and expands upon it, choosing influential evolutionary thinkers and creating a compelling narrative about them that spans centuries – and the globe. Like Darwin, her choices could be called subjective. Anyone well-versed in the history of evolutionary theory probably has strong opinions about the thinkers who were left out of the tale, or whose contributions were only briefly mentioned. Regardless, her examination of evolutionary philosophy and, later, evolutionary science, is fascinating and wide-ranging.

The book is far from perfect. There were a few moments where Stott’s dramatic portrayals felt slightly over-the-top, and it’s not a comprehensive chronology of pre-Darwinian evolutionary theory. Regardless, it’s an interesting and highly readable exploration of how a theory often primarily associated with one man actually developed over a long period of human history. If you’re headed to the Galapagos Islands, a place that has influenced evolutionary thinking for a number of notable scholars, this might be the perfect book to tuck into your travel bag.

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