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Darwin's Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists [Hardcover]

Rebecca Stott
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)

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Book Description

10 May 2012

Christmas, 1859. Just one month after the publication of On the Origin of Species, Darwin received a letter that deeply unsettled him. He had expected criticism. Letters were arriving every day like swarms, some expressing praise, most outrage and accusations of heresy. But the letter from the Reverend Powell was different. It accused Darwin of failing to acknowledge his predecessors, of having taken credit for a theory that had already been discovered by others, Baden Powell himself and Darwin's own grandfather among them.

For all the excuses that leapt to mind - publication had been rushed; he hadn't been well - Darwin knew he had made a grave error in omitting to mention his intellectual forebears. Yet when he tried to trace these natural philosophers, he found that history had already forgotten them...

In Darwin's Ghosts, historian and novelist Rebecca Stott rediscovers Aristotle walking the shores of Lesbos with his pupils and Leonardo da Vinci searching for fossils in the mine shafts of the Tuscan hills; Diderot, in Paris, under the surveillance of the secret police, exploring the origins of species, and the brilliant naturalists of the Jardin de Plantes first recognising proof of evolutionary change in the natural history collections stolen during the Napoleonic wars.

Darwin's Ghosts is a masterful retelling of the collective daring of a few like-minded men who had the imagination to speculate on nature's ways and the courage to publish at a time when to do so, for political as well as religious reasons, was to risk everything. More than a tale of mummified birds, inland lagoons, Bedouin nomads, secret police files, microscopes and curiosity cabinets, Darwin's Ghosts is the story of an idea that would change the modern world.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (10 May 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1408809087
  • ISBN-13: 978-1408809082
  • Product Dimensions: 3.8 x 15.3 x 23.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 183,640 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Extraordinarily wide-ranging and engaging ... 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 ... She draws on an array of scholarship and assembles it into an intricate sequence of stories and investigations that are her own ... Gripping (Gillian Beer, The Sunday Telegraph)

Riveting ... told with style and historical nous ... 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 any doubts (Richard Fortey, Guardian)

A fascinating history of an idea that is crucial to our understand of life on earth (Ziauddin Sardar, Independent)

***** Mesmerising, colourful and often moving ... a richly drawn exploration of the key figures on Darwin's list ... this many threaded story of intellectual development is hypnotic. The subject is science, but Stott has a novelist's confidence ... this is a sympathetic examination of the innate human qualities of curiosity and inquiry (Daily Telegraph)

Thrilling ... impressively researched ... A gripping and ambitious history of science which gives a vivid sense of just how many forebears Darwin had; even if none of them can match the man himself (Sunday Times)

Rebecca Stott's beautifully written and compelling book is the story of some of the men - and they were all men - who came before, and how the evolution of their ideas mirrors the evolution of species ... These mavericks and heretics put their lives on the line. Finally, they are getting the credit they deserve (Independent on Sunday)

Clever, compassionate and compellingly written, Stott has interwoven history and science to enchanting effect. The evolution of the theory of evolution is a brilliant idea for a book, and she has realised it wonderfully (Tom Holland)

Stott's research is broad and unerring; her book is wonderful ... An exhilerating romp through 2,000 years of fascinating scientific history (Nature)

From Aristotle onwards, evolutionists have - thank God - always been a quarrelsome lot; and not much has changed. Rebecca Stott shows how dispute, prejudice and rage have accompanied their science from the very beginning. Darwin's Ghosts is a gripping history of the history of life and of those who have studied it, with plenty of lessons for today - perhaps for today's biologists most of all (Steve Jones)

A masterful retelling of the collective daring of a few like-minded men who had the courage to publish their speculations at a time when to do so, for political as well as religious reasons, was to risk everything. It is the story of an idea that would change the modern world (Observer)

Impressive scholarship and compelling narrative; a fine book (Brenda Maddox)

Charles Darwin provided the mechanism for the evolution of the exquisite adaptations found in plants and animals but the awareness that species can change had been growing long before him. With wonderful clarity Rebecca Stott traces how ideas about biological evolution themselves evolved in the minds of great biologists from Aristotle onwards. Darwin would have loved this brilliant book - and so do I

(Sir Patrick Bateson, President of the Zoological Society of London)

Ms. Stott stages sharply drawn encounters and depicts domestic lives and social worlds in rich and convincing detail ... captures the breathless excitement of investigation on the cusp of the unknown ... a lively, original book (International Herald Tribune)

It takes great skill and scholarship to tell the story well, and Rebecca Stott does it wonderfully. Here is a rich tale indeed. It needs a novelist like Rebecca Stott to get to grips with it; and so she does, triumphantly (The Literary Review)

Stott provides the lucid intellectual genealogy of evolution that the great man could not (New Scientist)

Stott's lively, original history of evolutionary ideas flows easily across continents and centuries (New York Times Notable Books of 2012)

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 (Wall Street Journal)

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

(Wall Street Journal Europe)

Book Description

An electrifying account of the extraordinary untold history behind Darwin's theory of evolution

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully written 16 April 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
A well written & well researched book documenting the history of individuals listed in the preface of Darwins ' Origins of the species ' Darwin thought that these people had stumbled on a similar line of inquiry as himself & he felt obliged out of respect to list them . When you read through this book you realise how brave these people were , to stick your head above the parapet in a time when religious doctrines could not be questioned & if you did you could get yourself in serious trouble . A very interesting book , treat yourself to a very good read . [ Also has a chapter on Alfred Wallace a very important scientist who's hard work & theory are as important as Darwins , he needs more recognition , glad to see the BBC are running a programme on him at the moment ] .
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliantly Written, Factual and a Great Read 16 Aug 2012
By H. A. Weedon VINE VOICE
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a meticulously researched, carefully compiled work of outstanding readability. Rebecca Stott's enthusiasm for her subject is infectious. She has the knack of bringing a fascinating array of deceased scientists back to life in vivid fashion, giving the reader the opportunity to become involved in their discoveries, trials and tribulations.

'Darwin's ghosts' refers to predecessors who had either discovered facts pointing towards the fact of evolution or had actually discerned the truth of it before Charles Darwin had done so. Among this latter group is numbered Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin's grandfather, who was a physician. Fearing that publishing anything about his discoveries would jeopardise his livelihood, Erasmus resorted to concealing his discoveries and beliefs in verse,some of which is extant. Erasmus comes across as a thoroughly likeable character who related particularly well to women and was also a good father.

The first 'ghost' Ms Stott writes about is Aristotle, a Macedonian who lived in Athens and Lesbos during the Fourth Century BCE. Since it was long before the invention of the microscope, his observations were limited. Nevertheless he puzzled over the inter-connectedness of all living things, although without actually formulating any theory of evolution.

Circa 850 CE came Jahiz, a Muslim from Basra, who wrote 'The Book of Living Beings' and came close to formulating something akin to a theory of evolution. Although Charles Darwin has been accused of plagiarizing Jahiz, this is not possible because Darwin knew nothing about him. Jahiz was caught up in dynastic wars and fell foul of the authorities. He also had to be careful not to contradict the Koran.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
By Sebastian Palmer TOP 500 REVIEWER VINE VOICE
This collection of stories about the men* who preceded Darwin, in daring to observe, think and experiment us towards a gradual understanding of evolution, is really fascinating.

Taken to task for not acknowledging his influences and predecessors, as was customary in such works, Darwin did eventually add 'an historical sketch' to The Origin (reproduced in its IVth Edition version at the end of Stott's book), remedying an omission that perhaps resulted from his having been pushed into panicked publication by Alfred Russell Wallace's correspondence with him on natural selection. As Stott notes in her epilogue, Darwin 'did not know that within a hundred years almost all of them [the 34 or so 'fellow travellers' Darwin mentions] would have become virtually invisible to history, and that their invisibility would be directly related to his own rise to scientific sainthood.'

Stott's focus, as well as her method and style (her work in fiction spills over stylistically into her historical/factual work, especially as regards her evocative renderings of people, places and times, an approach she explains and justifies in her intro), differs markedly from Darwin's. Where Darwin focusses on briefly acknowledging ideas and names, and especially those closer in time to himself, Stott instead fleshes out their stories, and reaches further back in time, especially in respect of Aristotle, Jahiz and Leonardo da Vinci. I found Darwin's Ghosts a gripping, compelling read: hard to put down, on account of the excitement I felt on learning more of these intriguing figures, who thus far have remained shadowy footnotes in the much bigger and better documented literature on Darwin.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars it wasn't just Darwin 22 May 2012
By ncs
A wonderful book - the story was absolutely fascinating to follow and the book so beautifully written I simply couldn't put it down. It brings the past and the evolution of one of the most significant ideas in history brilliantly to life in such a readable way. It's hard to believe that with that pedigree of past contributors, from so many countries and over so many centuries, the theory of evolution remains not fully accepted ... A remarkable and important book.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Rebecca Stott's "Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution" is a masterful overview of the history of science leading up to Darwin's discovery of Natural Selection as a primary mechanism for biological evolution. Hers is an especially important account, since she places the work of Darwin and his intellectual forebears within the context of the societies and cultures they inhabited, stretching across a vast gulf of time that begins with the ancient Classical Greeks. It is also an extremely lucid account replete with Stott's vivid, quite descriptive, prose; an account that should captivate and intrigue readers, including those who are unfamiliar with Darwin's life and work or that others, most notably, Lamarck, had proposed evolutionary theories decades before Darwin and Wallace had stumbled upon Natural Selection independently of each other.

Stott begins in earnest describing how Aristotle became an extraordinary field naturalist on the Aegean island of Lesbos, carefully studying the behavior of fishes and marine invertebrates, devoting two years toward trying to understand reproductive behavior of the marine animals he observed, using the insights he gleaned for the rest of his life in shaping his philosophy, while also working on three books, "Parts of Animals", "The History of Animals" and "On the Generation of Animals"; the very first works in zoology and biology ever written.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars Dreadful Dysology about the Most Important Ghost of all
This is a very compelling read and provides a reasonably good synthesis of the known literature regarding Darwin's precursors. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Dr Mike Sutton
5.0 out of 5 stars On the Shoulders of Others
Darwin is held to be responsible for one of the greatest ideas ever to have occurred to the human mind. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Ian Richardson
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting account of the intellectual antecedents of evolution
Darwin’s idea had its own ancestry, as we all do. This book traces the intellectual ancestors of Darwin's ideas. It starts with Aristotle and ends with Alfred Russell Wallace. Read more
Published 5 months ago by F Henwood
4.0 out of 5 stars A Fascinating Read
Having often wondered how Charles Darwin came to discover the process of evolution, Rebecca Stott explains how he was able to draw on the writings of a number of earlier... Read more
Published 9 months ago by Robert A J Jones
3.0 out of 5 stars lumping together those who belong apart
This is a beautifully written book, if a bit gushy and pretentious at times. The research appears carefully done, but the whole is a bit disingenuous. Read more
Published 11 months ago by mauricephilippe
5.0 out of 5 stars Absolutely loved this book!
What a cracking good read! I have learnt so much that I did not know by reading this book, and surely that is the point. Read more
Published 11 months ago by sophietrophy
3.0 out of 5 stars Rather dry
Rebecca Stott is cashing in on her research into Darwin and has written a series of resume's about his philosophic ancestors
Published 13 months ago by keithfal
5.0 out of 5 stars shining with intelligence
I cannot claim to be an expert in any of the things this books talk about, but from the minute I opened it I felt in safe smart hands. Read more
Published 13 months ago by dogelauredan
4.0 out of 5 stars Informative and enjoyable
I really enjoyed reading this book. The author has made quite an effort to collate information about each theorist or group of theorists, describing not only the unique... Read more
Published 14 months ago by AlexK
5.0 out of 5 stars A Missed Opportunity
The nineteenth century is a vast repository for historical myths many of which continue to be perpetuated by intellectuals who should know better but prefer fiction to fact. Read more
Published on 10 July 2012 by Neutral
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