Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History Of Evolution, by Rebecca Stott
This book isn’t a very good one on several levels, but it does at least have one important thing going for it that makes it a worthwhile read if a sometimes frustrating and very biased one. What this book has going for it is a recognition that successful (if mistaken) ideas have a lengthy history behind them and the tendency among readers and historians is to neglect that lengthy history and context and to focus on the end product. The author does heroic effort in seeking to find every kind of evolutionary precursor possible, even though even she has to concede that many of the insights provided in the past came from a belief in design rather than accidental mutations amounting to dramatic change over time, and as someone who is by no means a friend of evolutionary thought, this admission undercut a great deal of what the author was attempting to accomplish. Readers will come to a book like this with plenty of bias, and given my own perspective, there is no way that I am the ideal or friendliest reader to a book like this and in no way am I the intended audience for this book.
After a preface that discusses the author’s own anti-Creation bias, the author begins the book discussing Darwin’s list of intellectual forebears that he was aware of (1), which is provided as a whole in an appendix. Then the author turns her attention to Aristotle’s insights on creation (2) as well as the curiosity of Jahiz in Abbasid Iraq (3). The author then turns to the writings of Leonardo da Vinci (4) as well as Trembly’s polyp (5) and the investigations of the French consul of Cairo (6). The author discusses freethinking French philosophers (7), Erasmus Darwin (8), and more French speculations (9). The author looks at an eccentric English philosopher (10), a Scottish Encyclopedist (11), and Alfred Wallace (12), before providing an epilogue that seeks to turn the specific case of evolution’s hidden intellectual history into a more general case. The book ends with the usual acknowledgments, notes, bibliography, and index, and certainly leaves a lot of room open for others to write the two sorts of books that are necessary follow-ups to this one, namely books that properly frame insights into design as being separate from mistaken evolutionary speculations, and books that show the intellectual history of other insights like relativity and the Big Bang, for example.
There are definitely people who will get something out of this book. The author does a good job at laying the intellectual history that allowed Darwin to make his famous and mistaken leap of speculation about the possible role of small mutations in leading to big changes, and if such a leap was ultimately mistaken it allowed for intellectual respectable atheism and that is something that the author appears on board with. The story of the various thinkers who had various insights about design and the unity of creation in the philosophical world, Islam, Christianity, and among various “freethinkers” is genuinely interesting and the author proves that Darwin’s thoughts had a pedigree and were not his own alone. This demonstrates the fact that creativity itself is a recursive process and that people build on the insights of those who came before them and do not come to their understandings completely de novo. We tend to forget that when we award those whose thoughts and creations draw attention to a finished product and neglect to remember all of those who provided the necessary context and investigation that allowed those final steps to be taken. At least in Darwin’s case he did not attempt to hog the credit, as the author graciously points out.