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.

More good books

February 26, 2009 • 7:57 am

by Greg Mayer

In an earlier post, Jerry called Janet Browne’s two-volume work the best of Darwin biographies, calling it “magisterial and engagingly written.”  I concur, and some of our readers have mentioned it approvingly in the comments.  But, at 1200 + pages, it may be a bit daunting as a starting place.  Let me offer two other starting places for the Darwin enthusiast.  Charles Darwin, by Tim BerraThe first is Charles Darwin: The Concise Story of an Extraordinary Man, by Tim Berra, an ichthyologist from Ohio State.  In this slim (144 pp.), well illustrated, volume Berra covers most of the highlights of Darwin’s life, work, and death, and includes a handy annotated list of Darwin’s books and chronology of his life.  There is a nice section of color plates (many by Berra himself of the Galapagos and Down House, Darwin’s home), including my favorite, a painting of 32 breeds of domestic pigeon, one of Darwin’s favored study animals. An afternoon’s read, it is a good place to start.

For a broader view of the science of evolution, but, like WEIT, aimed firmly at the general reader, I highly recommend The Discovery of Evolution, The Discovery of Evolution, by David Youngby David Young of the University of Melbourne. Richly illustrated with both color and line art from contemporary scientific publications, and covering a broad sweep of history, from John Ray and Francis Willughby in the 17th century through to the Modern Synthesis, with a quick tour of more recent developments, it is one of the finest books I’ve ever read not just on the history of the field, but on evolutionary biology itself.  It achieves this distinction by introducing and explicating, in chronological sequence, not just the ideas and historical figures, but the evidence on which the major discoveries of evolutionary biology are based.  It is refreshing and, indeed, exciting, to have these discoveries and attendant scientific debates addressed through the evidence adduced by the discoverers and debaters.  Thus, for example, the phenomenon of natural extinction,  which we today take for granted, is presented as the lively debate it was at the time, and we see it is resolved not by some textbook fiat (as too much of science education seems to be), but by careful anatomical, biogeographic, and geological research, with the great Georges Cuvier’s work on elephants, mammoths, and mastodons playing a major part in the resolution.  The entire book is replete with such examples, and is itself an edifying model of how science should be taught and learned: by direct consideration of the evidence.