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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
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...
Published on 16 Aug. 2012 by H. A. Weedon

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2 of 7 people found the following review helpful
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. I see other reviewers, on Amazon, of this book, have identified that Stott has just made some things up in 'Darwin's Ghosts'. I can't comment on that with any degree of qualification. But there is a massive concern on my part about this book being...
Published 13 months ago by Dr Mike Sutton


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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 "Mouser" (North Somercotes, Lincolnshire, UK) - See all my reviews
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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.

Over the past 2000 years Christianity has held back the discovery and advancement of truth concerning a variety of things, not least the proven truth concerning evolution. The situation was especially bad in France during the Eighteenth Century prior to 1789 when the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church were paramount. Advanced thinker Denis Diderot, with his beliefs concerning the origins of life, was regarded by the church hierarchy as a particular threat. One can never cease to be amazed and saddened at how often Christianity has been brutally cruel to those it perceives as being a threat to its authority. It seems very likely that, had free thinking not been suppressed by religion over the past 2000 years, the fact of evolutionary development would have been realised much sooner than it was. All told, French thinkers and scientists during the Eighteenth Century made important contributions to our understanding of evolution and how it works.

Then there were two important Scotsmen, Robert Grant and Robert Chambers who were both contemporaries of Charles Darwin who, when still in his teens, met and co-operated with Robert Grant for a short while. Rebecca Stott has a wonderful way of 'getting inside' the persons she is writing about, thus helping the reader to get a real feel of their mindset and what made them think the way they did. This might cause the reader to think she's biased in favour of the man she's writing about. However, when we realise that she does not hang back from revealing everyone's weak points. This is particularly true of Charles Darwin, who comes in for criticism for having failed to acknowledge the contributions to evolutionary truth made by others. When the Reverend Baden Powell, father of the founder of the Scout Movement, pointed out this omission to Darwin, he was chagrined and sought to make amends, causing a list to be included in future editions. Powell, who supported Darwin's thesis, was in a tiny minority among the Anglican clergy, the vast majority of whom were vehemently opposed to the very idea of evolution, which they considered to be contrary to the teaching of the bible. Some Christians today, notably in some denominations in the United States, are still vehemently opposed to it.

The Englishman Alfred Wallace, not to be confused with the revolutionist William Wallace, came to believe in the fact of evolution at around the same time that Charles Darwin did, except he was quicker off the mark, causing Darwin to hastily publish his Origin of Species, something he had hitherto held back from doing through fear of the furore it would cause.

Ms Stott doesn't idealise Charles Darwin. Just as with all the other real life characters in her brilliant book, she presents him to us 'warts and all'. She doesn't conceal his dithering and fear of giving offence. And so it is with all the men she writes about. In fact, she does it all so well, that it's as if they are walking out of the pages and standing before us as we read. Since I'm one of those people who find some famous and well known novelists very hard going at times, Dickens in particular, what a joy it is to read such a work as this that whisks the reader along from one exciting episode to the next. For instance, when Diderot is taken away by the secret police who have arrested him on suspicion of undermining the teachings of the Catholic Church, we ask ourselves: 'Will he ever be let out? What will happen to his wife and child?' And so we read on to find out. Then, just as we think Darwin is the greatest, he does something silly, causing us to wonder how he could have been so daft. In the end we love them all because they're all so human, just like ourselves. It's like sailing through stormy seas until we finally land on the Island of Everlasting Truth.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully written, 16 April 2013
By 
DSS (Turnipshire England) - See all my reviews
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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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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent and very enjoyable book, highly recommended, 13 Oct. 2012
By 
Sebastian Palmer "sebuteo" (Cambridge, England) - See all my reviews
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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.

This collection of polymaths and their stories is one of inspired and inspiring intellectual hunger, and bravery in the face of tradition, conservatism, ignorance and (very strongly) religious dogma, and connects these intrepid men and minds across large expanses of time, ranging from Aristotle in 4th century BC Greece right up to Darwin's contemporaries, such as Wallace. The list of those covered (each line below represents a chapter), in chronological order is:

Aristotle
Jahiz
Da Vinci & Palissy
Trembley
De Maillet
Diderot & d'Holbach
Erasmus Darwin
Cuvier, Lamarck & Geoffroy
Robert Grant
Robert Chambers
A R Wallace

One or two other names, e.g. Buffon and Owen, make numerous appearances without getting chapters of their own.

All these men* deserve wider recognition, and a better/fairer evaluation of their contributions to the evolution of our knowledge and understanding of evolution. Some glimpsed only aspects of the underlying idea so famously distilled by Darwin, others had the big idea down but were fuzzy on the exact details. It ought to be remembered that whilst Darwin kind of had his 'eureka' moments in identifying natural selection (such as the very specific time he recalls when, riding in his carriage, his reflections on Malthus crystallise into the idea of natural selection), his 'theory' still suffered from the yawning gap which the work of Mendel and others in genetics would ultimately fill.

This book helps reiterate the important idea, especially important to a collective and 'progressive' endeavour such as science, that it is by gradual and continual addition to a body of ideas that a community builds useful knowledge. Let's hope this wonderful book helps makes these names better known and appreciated. Certainly it feeds the fires of my curiosity. So much so I've ordered Jenny Uglow's The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future, in order to learn more about Erasmus Darwin and his circle. An excellent and very enjoyable book, highly recommended.

* At a talk she gave on this book Stott mentioned that she was sad to have no women she could write about. I should've asked why she chose not to mention Mary Anning: okay, Anning wasn't a theorist as such, but her discoveries of fossilzed ichthyosaurs and the like along the south coast nonetheless fed into the story of evolution. To fill this lamentable gap Stott felt moved to invent her own scientific heroine, the central character in her novel The Coral Thief,
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Superb Examination into the Origins of Darwinian Thought, 14 Jun. 2012
By 
John Kwok (New York, NY USA) - See all my reviews
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. Over a thousand years later, Jahiz, one of the most prolific and versatile writers of the Sunni Islamic Abbasid Empire, would stumble upon an understanding of life on Earth unequalled by anyone until Darwin and Wallace's scientific careers flourished, recognizing that all life was interdependent with other living things, gaining an early understanding of predation and of ecological communities, without conceiving of a suitable mechanism for "descent with modification" - as Darwin described evolution - like Natural Selection. During the Italian Renaissance, Leonardo Da Vinci would recognize the great antiquity of the Earth, understanding that mountains containing the fossils of seashells were once underwater eons ago. Nearly the entire latter half of Stott's impressive tome is devoted to French Enlightenment scientists like Buffon and Cuvier, who were among those pioneering the systematic study of all life on Planet Earth, while remaining dismissive of "transformist" ideas like Lamarck's theory of evolution and in-depth discussions of Scottish zoologist Robert Grant - who would teach a young Charles Darwin how to collect and to preserve marine biological specimens and thus have a lasting impact on Darwin's subsequent field and experimental research in biology and geology - and of the young Alfred Russel Wallace, a dedicated, largely self-taught animal collector, who would begin making important insights into the biogeography of the East Indies, and then, while stricken with an acute case of malaria, would recall his reading and understanding of Thomas Malthus' "Essay on Population", and then stumble, independently of Darwin, on the mechanism of biological evolution which would become known as Natural Selection.
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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
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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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Informative and enjoyable, 19 April 2013
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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 contribution of each of them to the theory of evolution, but also giving an outline of the time and the societies in which these people lived and acted.

I could not help but notice, though, a few mistakes such as the capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1204 (the Ottoman occupation took place in 1453, 1204 is the year of the siege of Constantinople by the crusaders), or the description of Herodotus as Roman historian (he was a Greek historian lived a long time before the Roman period). Apart from these minor mistakes (which I hope they will be corrected in subsequent reprints) the book remains informative and enjoyable.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars shining with intelligence, 29 May 2013
This review is from: Darwin's Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists (Paperback)
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. I learned so much about a host of remarkable characters before Darwin and was drawn into every story: from Aristotle wandering round Greek islands looking at shore line life to Diderot fooling his opponents by finding ways to say what he wanted about evolution and yet still avoid the wrath of the church. I read it almost a year ago but remember so much of it so clearly. When a book stays with you it is always a sign of a great read. Highly recommended.
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5.0 out of 5 stars On the Shoulders of Others, 22 Feb. 2014
This review is from: Darwin's Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists (Paperback)
Darwin is held to be responsible for one of the greatest ideas ever to have occurred to the human mind. What Rebecca Stott has done is to explore, in a series of brilliant vignettes, the many others who, over the course of centuries, became convinced of the mutability of species. Ms Stott has done all of the necessary research to uncover the crucial details of each story and then shaped each tale with a novelist's skill into the most vivid narratives.
I’m a biologist and school teacher with a background in Genetics, so Darwin and Wallace have long been good company. However, I am always trying to get my students to realise that Science is not a hermetic world somehow separate from Literature or History or (indeed) all other aspects of human life; but intimately intertwined with them all. This book has joined the dots and provided a wonderfully lucid story linking numerous figures who were often merely names to me. Or, in many cases, not even that. The sensational tale of Trembley’s Polyp was a complete revelation and the story of the background to the publication and reception of “Vestiges of Creation” added so much to what was an unjustly perfunctory episode in my imagination.
The great insight of Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace (in one of the most engaging chapters of the book) was the understanding of the force of Natural Selection in driving this process of evolutionary change. By the time you reach this point, you will have a far greater understanding of the personal stories and social contexts of these historical figures and what it cost them to make and publish their profound insights.
The research necessary for this book must have been a huge labour of love and I can only say that it has provided me with hours of delight and stimulation. Read this book!
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4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting account of the intellectual antecedents of evolution, 3 Feb. 2014
By 
F Henwood "The bookworm that turned" (London) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Darwin's Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists (Paperback)
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. It does take a bit of time to get in its stride and the first two chapters, on Aristotle and Jihaz (who lived in 9th Century Baghdad) did not seem to merit including these thinkers as among the first evolutionists. Aristotle did not believe that the species changed and Jihaz seemed to be too wrapped up in mysticism to be counted as a proto-scientist. It starts to warm up when the get to Leonardo, who knew from the fossils he collected – sea creature s found on mountain peaks - that the literal biblical account of creation could not be true. And the book really begins to pick up in the subsequent chapters, which include people like Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus, who were undoubtedly Darwinists before Darwin. Overall, despite a shaky start, an entertaining, accessible history of the intellectual antecedents of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
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4.0 out of 5 stars A Fascinating Read, 7 Oct. 2013
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This review is from: Darwin's Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists (Paperback)
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 philosophers to enable him to draw his conclusions.
Cleverly researched, this serious subject is never made dry by a fluid writing style.
A fascinating and enjoyable read.
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Darwin's Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists
Darwin's Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists by Rebecca Stott (Paperback - 9 May 2013)
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