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Rebecca Stott – Darwin’s Ghosts

September 17, 2012

LibraryThing Early Reviewers101. Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution by Rebecca Stott (2012)

Length: 396 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, History of Science

Started: 03 September 2012
Finished: 08 September 2012

Where did it come from? LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program.
Why do I have it? History of science! How can I pass that up?
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 13 August 2012.

Darwin is being
haunted by all the ghosts of
evolution’s past.

Summary: Darwin gets all the credit for coming up with the theory of evolution, but that’s a woeful oversimplification. There were a number of scientists and thinkers that came before Darwin that had pondered evolutionary ideas, including the ideas that species can change over extremely long periods of time, and that species may all share a common ancestor. These men (all men, alas) include not only Darwin’s own grandfather, but members of the Parisian botanical garden, a British consul in colonial Cairo, a rogue publisher, a tutor, a ceramicist, and Baghdadi naturalist from 850 CE. While Darwin did what these men (with the exception of Alfred Russell Wallace) couldn’t – provide a reasonable and well-documented mechanism by which species change over time (i.e. natural selection) – he owes them all a historical debt, since they laid the foundations of evolutionary thought which he was to build upon.

Review: I was really excited about the premise of this book. I am getting more and more into the history of science, and while I knew a fair bit about Alfred Russell Wallace (from The Species Seekers), and I knew who Erasmus Darwin and Lamarck and Cuvier were, I hadn’t even heard of most of the other people Stott covers in her book. (Well, I knew who Aristotle was, obviously, but not any details about his scientific pursuits.) And this book was, undoubtedly, well-researched and filled with interesting facts and history and bits of trivia. (For instance, the idea that all species originated in the sea and moved on to land over unimaginably long time periods was around more than a century before the publication of On the Origin of Species. Of course, its major proponent also believed very strongly in the continued existence of mermen. But still!)

Unfortunately, something about Stott’s writing style never really grabbed me. I could see where she was trying very hard to bring the subjects of each chapter-long biography to life, but it rarely worked for me. As a result, a lot of the details of the history didn’t stick in my brain, which makes me wonder what I really retained as a result of reading this book. Also, Stott is a fan of lengthy, complicated sentence structure, which meant that if I wasn’t paying very close attention, I could get lost from one end of a paragraph to the other, and things occasionally felt rather dry. There were also times when I felt like I wasn’t quite getting the point she was making, especially in the early chapters (they’re arranged chronologically), where I couldn’t always see how the people’s ideas about animals really counted as evolutionary. All of this could be entirely idiosyncratic to me and my somewhat distractible brain at the moment, but I’ve read other history of science that I’ve connected with more, and I just didn’t feel like this one was as lively as I wanted it to be. 3 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: It had some interesting bits, but not an unqualified success for me. Other readers may get along better with Stott’s prose than I did, and I haven’t read any other books that focus on the history of evolutionary thought to compare it to (although I’m sure they’re out there.)

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Couldn’t find any. Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: I grew up in a Creationist household.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 10: ““No educated person, not even the most ignorant, could suppose that I meant to arrogate to myself the origination of the doctrine that species had not been independently created…”” – To take or claim for oneself without right; appropriate.
  • p. 43: “The bookstalls, bookbinders, and stationers’ suqs spread out like a labyrinth from the marketplace, with books bound in gleaming leather piled on low tables or arranged on shelves in booths.” – A market, or part of a market, in an Arab city.
  • p. 92: ““I put the two parts in a flat glass, which only contained water to the height of four or five lignes.”” – a unit of length that was in use prior to the French adoption of the metric system, equal to 2.2558291 mm.
  • p. 104: “He and his brother Charles were the two youngest children of the elder Willem Bentinck, who had been adviser to William III, king of England and stadtholder of the Netherlands.” – Formerly, the chief magistrate of the United Provinces of Holland; also, the governor or lieutenant governor of a province.
  • p. 107: “Barques and feluccas ferrying goods from the upper Nile moored alongside them.” – A narrow, swift, lateen-rigged sailing vessel, such as that used on the Nile or in the Mediterranean Sea.
  • p. 119: “A community of loosely networked savants and translators were busy identifying, translating, and reissuing controversial, materialist, and radical books that challenged religious, intellectual, and political orthodoxies.” – A learned person; a scholar.
  • p. 144: ““When, then, it shall come about that he is frustrated, misunderstood, calumniated, compromised, and torn to pieces, let him learn to say to himself, “Is it in my century only, am I the only one against whom there are men filled with ignorance and rancour, souls eaten by envy, heads troubled by superstition?””” – To make maliciously or knowingly false statements about.
  • p. 153: “D’Hémery and his men meanwhile moved against the colporteurs and the middlemen of the trade and spent little time investigating the identities of the authors of such books.” – A peddler of devotional literature.
  • p. 166: “Perhaps in this charmingly entangled bank full of drosera and bog plants and insects he and Mrs. Pole could meet without exciting gossip.” – sundews; any of several insectivorous plants of the genus Drosera, growing in wet ground and having leaves covered with sticky hairs.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. September 17, 2012 2:23 pm

    This probably isn’t the book for me.

    • October 8, 2012 10:31 am

      Kathy – Probably not, but if you ever get in the mood for the history of science, I’m here with recommendations!

  2. September 20, 2012 8:36 pm

    Too bad about the style! it does sound like an awesome premise. Maybe someone someday can do the good version. :p

    • October 8, 2012 10:32 am

      Jenny – Maybe! Of course, style is such an idiosyncratic thing that for everyone but me, this might be the good version.

  3. September 20, 2012 11:56 pm

    The subject itself sounds interesting…

    • October 8, 2012 10:33 am

      Kailana – It is interesting, and I did learn some neat stuff about people I’d never heard about before.

  4. September 21, 2012 6:01 pm

    This topic is fascinating — it’s a shame the writing style wasn’t a bit more straightforward and engaging.

  5. September 22, 2012 3:52 pm

    Too bad it was dry! Did it talk about the Galapagos at all? I want to go there desperately bad and am looking for a book so I can go to it vicariously.

    • October 8, 2012 10:35 am

      Julie – Sadly, no Galapagos, although there was a fair bit of Malaysia in the Alfred Russell Wallace chapter. And, now that I think of it, I’m not coming up with any non-Darwin books that really cover the Galapagos much. If you find a good one, I’d be interested!

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