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Darwin’s Ghosts

[Well, this is frustrating. I had this post mostly written when, because of an accidental mouse swipe, I lost it all. WordPress’s in-progress saving mechanism is not the greatest. It asks if you want to leave the page or not, if you mistakenly hit a back button or swipe backwards, but when you say no, it just spins and spins, having no real way, apparently, to stay put. So, I’ll see what I can reproduce, but this is always such a painful exercise.]

A week ago, I wrote about how my recent reading journey from the Baltic through the Black Sea to Central Asia, back to the Black Sea via the Caucasus, and on to Hapsburg Austria had consistently skipped over the Balkans. To fill this gap, I turned to Mark Mazower’s The Balkans: A Short History, which is so short that at its conclusion, I needed more. So it was that I downloaded his more narrowly focused and detailed examination of a single Balkan location, Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950.

As enjoyable as Mazower’s introduction to Salonica’s history is, the press of other events kept me from getting very far. When I saw a review of Rebecca Stott’s Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution in the Wall Street Journal just over a week ago, I thought perhaps I should put the Balkans aside temporarily and dip into some scientific history and biography. The reviewer, Laura Snyder, is herself the author of a well-received work of scientific history/biography, last year’s The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World, which presented itself as another attractive option.

Regarding the Darwin book, Snyder explains:

The conceit of Ms. Stott’s project is that men she considers Darwin’s predecessors—including a number not included in his “Historical Sketch”—were his “ghosts.”

Ms. Stott describes the lives and work of these ghosts of Darwin: the Greek philosopher Aristotle, the ninth-century Arab scholar Al-Jahiz, the 15th-century artist-scientist Leonardo da Vinci, the 16th-century potter Bernard Palissy and, in the 18th century, the microscopist Abraham Trembley, the French natural historian Benoît de Maillet and the philosophe Denis Diderot. These chapters—focusing on men not part of the standard histories of evolutionary theory—are followed by chapters discussing evolution’s “usual suspects”: Erasmus Darwin, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Robert Grant, Robert Chambers and Alfred Russel Wallace.

In telling the stories of these men, Ms. Stott—who is also a novelist—writes with a novelist’s flair.

[snip]

From Aristotle to the great inductive philosopher Francis Bacon in the 17th century and on to William Whewell and John Herschel, the 19th-century writers who were such great influences on Darwin, a vision of science arose that privileged observation and experiment over axiomatic deduction or wild speculation. … Darwin and the “ghosts” so richly described in Ms. Stott’s enjoyable book are the descendants of Aristotle and Bacon and the ancestors of today’s scientists.

Last night, still having made little progress in Mazower’s Salonica book, I was browsing online in the NYT Sunday book review that will appear tomorrow when I discovered that it contained its own review of Stott’s book, by anthropologist Hugh Raffles. He had some criticisms, but represented the book as most enticing.

Stott’s narrative flows easily across continents and centuries. Her history of evolutionary ideas is the story of a varied set of philosophers, naturalists and, eventually, scientists (all men here — “To my frustration,” she writes, “I found no women who published evolutionary ideas before ‘Origin’ ”), pitting themselves on the side of enlightened knowledge, boldly challenging established wisdom and obscurantist doctrine in the name of truth and, in many cases, suffering terrible consequences. …

Stott, the author of two well-received historical novels and an earlier book on Darwin, stages sharply drawn encounters and depicts domestic lives and social worlds in rich and convincing detail.

[snip]

It’s one of many good stories, well told, in this lively, original book. “Darwin’s Ghosts” unfolds like an enjoyable and informative TV series, each episode devoted to a fascinating character who provides a window into the world of ideas of his time.

I downloaded the book last night, turning straightaway to the Preface and first chapter, which discusses Darwin’s realization after the 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species that he had erred by not including a historical discussion. With that, we begin Stott’s own history, jumping back 2200 years to Aristotle.

Which means, by the way, that I find myself once again in the Balkans, what with Aristotle being Macedonian. Central to Stott’s story is the tension between Athens and Macedonia, Aristotle’s own close family connection to Philip of Macedonia (father of Alexander the Great), the awkwardness of his presence in Athens, and his ultimate need to depart. Of course, we won’t be in the Balkans for long, but I’m enjoying this overlap of interests, and enjoying as well Stott’s already evident narrative flair.

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