Darwin's Ghosts, by Rebecca Stott

Approaching the end of this book I felt deeply satisfied. I felt much more intimately connected to the stages leading up to the discovery of evolution than I had before. Stott is a gifted storyteller/historian. Other books had informed me of the thinking of each of Darwin's forerunners individually, but Stott's book conveyed a sense of what obstacles precluded the emergence of the idea at each stage and how those obstacles could be surmounted only as knowledge increased.

The impression I was left with was that living creatures having evolved from one another simply could not be perceived until people were able to deal with time and place on the scales at which evolution operates. Resistance from ecclesiastical authorities played only a secondary role, delaying the discovery and the broadcasting of it by mere decades. The big story is that mankind took 5000 years from the origin of civilization to reach the point at which this great truth could be comprehended. Scouring the ancient world for anticipations of this discovery is fruitless.

Stott structures her book around a list that Darwin compiled of the "ghosts" who preceded him in coming up with part or all of his thinking on evolution and natural selection. I found this satisfying, though I missed mention of John Locke's examination of paradoxes concerning souls, such as whether Siamese twins have one or two. And there's little mention of Linnaeus, who surely provided the essential discourse through which people could measure and discuss relations of species in time and space. Linnaeus seems to me symptom, sign, and agent of the approaching realization, the pivot on which the story tilts.

France's lead role in the discovery of evolution is described at very satisfying length. Clearly, in academic circles at least, evolution is out of the bag in France and widely acknowledged, and would almost immediately be so in Germany. Despite Cuvier and opposition from the Church, surely, there could be no going back. Today's conceptions of how life evolved would be arrived at in further stages, perhaps with minor variations among the various mainland European countries.

Maybe so, but we don't find out from Stott's book. Once we meet Grant the story turns to England, as it must if she is to confine her story to the emergence of natural selection. Suddenly the book speeds up and rushes to a conclusion, leaving me somewhat less stisfied when I closed the book than I had been by what came before. Implicitly Stott endorses the common impression that the main line of thinking on evolution worldwide passes through the announcement of natural selection. End of story.

I was left feeling cheated by the absence of any reflection on the merit of the idea of natural selection, as if announcement of it marked the end of the possibility of further reflection. Yet by the end of the century natural selection had been virtually abandoned. Did England turn back to the Continent for inspiration?

I insist of separating the assumption that we evolved from consideration of the mechanism involved. I see evolution as consisting of the observation that new species typically appear in the location of the existing species they most resemble. That one leads to the other is a reasonable inference. That the French seem to have arrived at first, and conclusively. That we are a stage in civilization when the mechanism involved can be identified I doubt. I think natural selection can be given historial context just as much as other ideas connected to evolution such as that fossils were placed in the Earth by God to test our faith, or that the Earth is some six thousand years old.

Stott ignores the mechanisms proposed by others, such as Lamarck and Chambers, so we can't judge why Darwin's is better. Chambers retained God as Creator, fashioning the first embryo fully capable of developing into any creature up to and perhaps even beyond humans, depending on the conditions it encountered. Darwin found the idea wanting by seeing no reason why such an embryo encountering conditions on the Galapagos could not emerge as a mammal. Given how ignorant we are of how life works, I see no reason for expecting evolution to be accountable for through pre-Victorian science (for example, Darwin in 1838) than other aspects of development or homeostasis, most of which we still don't understand today.

Perhaps the writing of a book on the history of thinking about evolution involves more skills and experience than any one person has today. Meanwhile this book remains a wonderful account of the context of thinking about evolution up to the death of Lamarck.

Below, microdata:

Evolution for the Humanities
Darwin's Ghosts charles darwin