Darwin’s Ghosts

By Rebecca Stott

In writing the intellectual genealogy of evolution – “the best idea ever,” as it’s been called – one can’t avoid addressing the vital interaction between tradition and the individual talent. The most significant scientific paradigm shifts are often the product of ideas that have had a long cultural gestation, their birth assisted by a whole village of midwives. Sometimes, scientific revolution is simply “in the air.” Isaac Newton’s invention of the calculus was the remarkable achievement of a true genius, but Leibniz came up with it at the same time. At other times extended ancestries have been discovered for even the most game-changing breakthroughs. We often speak of a Copernican revolution, for example, but the idea that the earth orbits the sun was entertained by the ancient Greeks. And of course Darwin himself was goaded into publishing On the Origin of the Species precisely because a young researcher on the other side of the world had worked out the theory of natural selection on his own.

So we might say that in 1859 evolution was an idea whose time had come. Indeed, immediately upon its publication there were questions about just how original Origin of Species was. Hadn’t people been saying something similar since the days of Aristotle? Certainly among Darwin’s contemporaries there were plenty of people claiming that they had got there first. Many of these were cranks, though others weren’t so easily dismissed. Patrick Matthew, for one, a Scottish fruit farmer, wrote to Darwin to inform him that he had published his own discovery of natural selection in 1831. Upon looking into the matter, Darwin had to agree, and could only offer an apology to Matthew for his “entire ignorance of his publication.” (In Darwin’s defense, it appeared in the appendix to an obscure book entitled Naval Timber and Arboriculture.) Accepting Darwin’s apology, Matthew’s response is worth taking note of:

To me the conception of this law of Nature [natural selection] came intuitively as a self-evident fact, almost without an effort of concentrated thought. Mr. Darwin here seems to have more merit in the discovery than I have had; to me it did not appear a discovery.

Stung by charges of scholarly plagiarism, Darwin added a “Historical Sketch” to the fourth edition of Origin of Species, recognizing some of his forebears and placing his own work in context. In Darwin’s Ghosts Rebecca Stott has expanded on this sketch with a novelistic histgory of the theory of revolution that mainly works to re-establish the primacy and uniqueness of Darwin’s own contribution.

These two points are both strengths and weaknesses. Darwin’s Ghosts is novelistic (Stott is a professor of creative writing and has written two novels) in that its historical vignettes are dramatically rendered and highly readable. But it is also the kind of non-fiction that frequently leaves you wondering how much of it is being made up. Stott’s account of Aristotle on Lesbos may be a plausible reconstruction from what is known, but then so is much of Annabel Lyon’s Golden Mean. Of course any historian seeking to “bring history to life” in narrative form has to do a bit of this, but here I think it goes a bit too far.

Then there is the matter of defending Darwin’s breakthrough. This is a case that certainly can be made, but at times Stott seemed to me to have her finger on the scale. For Aristotle, the idea that species were “unchangeably fixed for all time” has to be shaded somewhat. Aristotle’s concept of progressive complexity and specialization of function in organisms can be seen as proto-evolutionist. (I am also wary of Stott’s grasp of classical matters, based on her claim that Herodotus was a “great Roman geographer.”) A more contemporary example of the same sort of gentle bias occurs in the chapter on Erasmus Darwin, whose own ideas on species adaptation is said in a footnote to be “closer to Lamarckian ideas” than they are to natural selection. Again, there is some room for interpretation here and I’d be inclined to come down on the other side and note the familial intellectual resemblance.

The formulation of natural selection as the engine of evolution was an idea that was also born of other developments. There were preliminary pieces that had to be set in place before evolution could come on stage, notably the work Lyell and Malthus (both of whom influenced Darwin greatly). In all of this we have to accept the “discovery” of evolution as taking place over a historical continuum, neither beginning nor ending with Darwin. Before Mendel, for example, not even Darwin understood the mechanism by which evolution worked. Indeed the basic theory was incomplete until the mid-twentieth century’s Modern Evolutionary Synthesis. Nor has it stopped evolving, and expanding, in our own time, as the continuing activity of Darwin’s bastards in the cultural and political realms attests. Darwin has always been with us, and always will be.

Review first published online July 2, 2012.