Darwin’s Ghosts

August 19, 2012 • 1:44 pm

by Greg Mayer

A new history of evolutionary biology before Darwin, Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution by Rebecca Stott, appeared earlier this summer, and an interview with the author appeared in yesterday’s New York Times (it was posted to the Times‘ website several days earlier).

Darwin in 1881, already looking a bit spectral. From the first American edition of The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin (1887).

I must admit that the subtitle made me a bit wary– I imagined some impassioned plea for the priority of On Naval Timber and Arboriculture— but the review in the New York Times by Hugh Raffles, and yesterday’s interview, show it is no such thing.

As is well known, spurred on by Alfred Russel Wallace’s Ternate paper, Darwin completed an “abstract” of his big species book. This abstract was the Origin, and it was rather long for an abstract: 513 pp.!  Because he thought of it as an abstract of a much longer work to come, and completed it hurriedly, Darwin did not include the footnotes and citations that were typical of scholarly practice of the time, and indeed, of his other works (see, for example The Descent of Man). In response to criticism that he had slighted his sources and predecessors, Darwin wrote a “Historical Sketch” for later editions. R.B. Freeman, in his monumental bibliography of Darwin’s work (1977, p. 78; now carried on and extended by John van Wyhe), explains

The third [British] edition [of the Origin] appeared in April 1861, 2,000 copies being printed. The case is the same as that of the two previous editions, but again differing in small details. It was extensively altered, and is of interest for the addition of a table of differences between it and the second edition, a table which occurs in each subsequent edition, and also for the addition of the historical sketch. This sketch, which was written to satisfy complaints that Darwin had not sufficiently considered his predecessors in the general theory of evolution, had already appeared in a shorter form in the first German edition, as well as in the fourth American printing where it is called a preface; both of these appeared in 1860.

Stott takes the sketch as her starting point and writes about the history of evolution and natural history from Aristotle to Darwin. I’ve not read it yet, but Raffles liked it, and it seems good based on his review and yesterday’s interview, and it will probably be of interest to WEIT readers.

The Discovery of Evolution, by David YoungThe standard academic history of the grand sweep of evolutionary biology, from the ancients to today, is Peter Bowler’s Evolution: The History of an Idea, now in it’s 3rd edition. My favorite history of evolution is The Discovery of Evolution, by David Young of the University of Melbourne. It covers less time than Bowler, starting with John Ray and Francis Willughby in the 17th century, but it is very well illustrated, and presents not just the history, but the biology as well, so you learn not just what ideas were propounded, but the evidence for those ideas as well. I strongly recommend it.

And, don’t confuse Stott’s book with Darwin’s Ghost: The Origin of Species Updated, by Jerry’s friend and colleague Steve Jones. Like WEIT, it’s an account of the evidence for evolution, in this case structured around Darwin’s chapter topics. Coincidentally, I just bought a copy last week.


Bowler, P. 2003. Evolution: The History of an Idea. 3rd  ed. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Darwin, C. 1861. On the Origin of Species. 3rd ed. John Murray, London. (full text: the ‘Sketch’ is on pp. xiii-xix; it was revised in later editions)

Darwin, C. 1871. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. John Murray, London. (full text)

Darwin, C.R. 1887. The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Including an Autobiographical Chapter. F. Darwin, ed. 2 vols. D. Appleton, New York. (full text of British edition)

Jones, S. 2000. Darwin’s Ghost: The Origin of Species Updated. Random House, New York.

Matthew, P. 1831. On Naval Timber and Arboriculture. Longman, London. (full text)

Stott, R. 2012. Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution. Spiegel and Grau, New York.

Young, D. 2007. The Discovery of Evolution. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

12 thoughts on “Darwin’s Ghosts

  1. In my memory, the Historical Sketch started with about 20 names but ended up with more than thirty by the time of the fourth edition. All of these people were deemed to have said something substantive about evolution in general or natural selection in particular, although often in obscure places. I haven’t yet read my copy, but I welcome Stott’s book because it seems that modern evolutionary biology sometimes goes a bit overboard with its Darwin-worship (and I say this as someone who has read the Origin in detail with student honors groups six different times). Even Lamarck is remembered for his mistakes rather than his substantial contributions (his tome was published the year Darwin was born). I sometimes tell students that, had Darwin never lived, we would by now probably know just as much as we do about evolution (ditto for Watson and Crick, etc.). Darwin deserves his praise but it is a disservice (and telling) for even biologists to describe current evolutionary biology as “Darwinism.” This only adds fuel to the creationist fantasies that evolution was just the nutty idea of a single person, and implies that we have learned little since the 1860s.

    1. Your comment resonates sharply with what I’ve gleaned over the years, almost entirely from secondary sources (articles and reviews).

      I haven’t done the hard work of reading original works — it’s not my field and I find the language forbidding.

      So, shame on you for so concisely adding confirmation to my biases (whose general location is given by Willisism).

  2. I have read Stott’s book. In the adverts it purports to tell the stories of those who have been lost to time yet contributed to the development of the theory of evolution. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really cover that much “new” material. Almost everything in the book has been covered in previous publications, and anyone familiar with the history of evolution will find little in here that hasn’t been covered in either textbooks, or historical reviews. It reads well, but I didn’t really learn much that was new. The subtitle includes the word “Secret”. Not much secret at all involved here. For those who have not done a lot of reading on this topic, I would recommend it as a good intro to the history of the development of evolutionary theory.

  3. Although I have read a lot of history on evolutionary history this book looks like a nice narrative. Will be interviewing Rebecca next month on the radio should be a good read and interview.

  4. The subtitle “The Secret History of Evolution” was added by the publishers of the US edition to replace the subtitle of the original English edition, which was “In Search of the First Evolutionists”. No doubt this was to make it sound more controversial in order to promote sales. I gather from the reviews the original subtitle was a more accurate representation of the contents.

    I haven’t read the book yet, but I am waiting for my library reservation of it to come in. It will be interesting to see how her eclectic background in coming from a fundamentalist Christian family (in England a rara avis, though that makes it easier to lose one’s faith), being both a novelist and literary academic.

    Her novels sound interesting and relevant to the history of science so I think I will try reading them too.

  5. Steve Jones’s book was Like a Whale in the UK. The Stott is in one of my voluminous piles! She also wrote about Darwin’s barnacles.

  6. Sounds interesting!
    I recently bought a kids/young persons intro to Darwin, which has a very nice “explorer-like” look and feel to it. I’ll translate bits and pieces of it to my son in the coming months. It’s John van Wyhe’s “Darwin – The Story of the Man and his Theories of Evolution”
    (Sorry if this is a thread-derailment)

  7. Agreed, Stott’s book is good and very readable. About half of it was completely unfamiliar to me, and every chapter had something interesting to say.

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