Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Book Review: "Darwin's Ghosts"

Rebecca Stott's Darwin's Ghosts (Spiegel & Grau, 2012) is a collection of capsule biographies of Darwin's "predecessors," by which Stott means a series of men who wrote about natural history and evolutionary processes before the publication of Darwin's Origin. She takes as her inspiration for this the "Historical Sketch" Darwin added to the third and fourth editions of Origin, in which he discusses these historical forebears. That said, it's worth noting that not all those in Darwin's sketch are covered here, while Stott adds a few names of her own to the list.

I could quibble about why one writer was included at the expense of another (after twenty very interesting pages on Aristotle we learn that he was only included in Darwin's list through an error, and that Empedocles probably would have been the better choice). In several chapters I wished for less biography and more treatment of the person's actual proto-evolutionist writings. But overall, I really enjoyed the book. The chapters fit together seamlessly, Stott's research was clearly extensive and she writes with both precision and passion. I found myself repeatedly glancing at the notes and jotting down titles to look up and add to my reading list (always a good sign).

Stott's short biographical chapters are chock full of fascinating details, from Erasmus Darwin's spelunking trek to Diderot's tactics for avoiding prosecution to an account of Abraham Trembley's experiments with polyps (what we know today as hydra). She does well to make connections between the various writers and between them and Darwin, and her notes and bibliography are thorough and useful (though I will repeat my perennial gripe that notes ought to be indicated in the text).

A fine piece of writing on a thoroughly intriguing subject.

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