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Darwin’s Ghosts, 2

Five weeks ago, I wrote about Rebecca Stott’s new book Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution, which had received strong reviews in the WSJ (by historian of science Laura Snyder) and the Sunday NYT (by anthropologist Hugh Raffles). Although I was only a chapter into the book, I was enjoying it so far.

Assorted events intervened, bringing book reading to a halt for a few weeks. When my reading resumed, I moved on to two other books, Michael Sandel’s philosophical examination of recent trends in capitalism, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, and Martin Walker’s crime novel of rural France, The Devil’s Cave (newly out in the UK but not yet available here). Tuesday night I returned to Darwin’s Ghosts, finding it even more engaging than I remembered and finishing it Friday night.

The opening chapter of Darwin’s Ghosts treats Darwin’s concern about identifying and giving proper credit to earlier scholars who in some way anticipated the ideas he published in 1859 in On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection. Each of the eleven chapters that follow focuses on one or a small handful of such people, ones Stott has chosen to tell us about, not necessarily those whom Darwin had identified. We start with Aristotle 2200 years earlier, jump 1100 years to the Islamic scholar Jahiz, who lived in Basra and later Baghdad and wrote the Book of Living Things. Another jump takes us to Renaissance Italy and France, after which the pace slows down and we focus on a series of scholars in France and Britain. These include Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus; the great French trio of Cuvier, Lamarck, and Geoffroy; the Scot Robert Chambers; and finally, inevitably, Alfred Wallace.

Each chapter functions as an independent piece, the book resembling a linked collection of short stories. And indeed, each chapter has the narrative drive of a short story, with the historical setting and secondary characters economically yet marvelously sketched. One on-going theme is the importance for all of Darwin’s predecessors of close study of animals and fossils. Only through detailed empirical examination could they gain new insight. In this way, the chapters double as case studies on the development of scientific method.

What emerges as well is the enormous value of collections, not as a random assortment of curiosities, but as the source of new knowledge. The Cuvier-Lamarck-Geoffroy chapter is especially informative on this point, conveying the significance of Paris’ Jardin des Plantes and the establishment within, by the revolutionary government in 1793, of the Museum of Natural History. This is a good reminder, today as well, that beyond the exhibits one sees when one visits such museums lie vast collections that form the basis of fundamental scientific research.

It perhaps goes without saying — but I’ll say it — that another continuing theme is the ever-present and complicating role of religion, as both encourager of the study of animal anatomy, physiology, and species differentiation as a means of appreciating God’s wonders and discourager of new ideas that point toward the long history of the earth and the continual appearance (seemingly obvious once one looks at the data) of new species.

Coincidentally, just after I finished Darwin’s Ghosts, the NYT published excerpts from an interview with Rebecca Stott. Here are three of the questions and her answers.

Q. The very first sentence of your book is: “I grew up in a creationist household.” How much did that drive your interest in Darwin?

A. Darwin was described as the mouthpiece of Satan in the fundamentalist Christian community in which I was raised. His ideas were censored, and of course censorship can act as a kind of provocation to curiosity. The school library had a good encyclopedia with several pages on Darwin. I can’t say I understood much of his ideas back then, but I understood enough to be mute with fascination. It was extraordinarily different from the biblical version of how things had come to be – but no less strange.

Q. Aside from Wallace, who came closest to scientifically (as opposed to metaphorically) figuring out natural selection before Darwin?

A. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck was one of the first men of science to have access to enough fossil and living animal specimens and bones to really gather the weight of evidence that would be needed to understand the ways in which species evolve. Lamarck worked in the Museum of Natural History in Paris, which in 1800 had the most remarkable collection of natural history specimens in the world – Napoleon Bonaparte had stolen hundreds of famous European natural history collections during the Napoleonic Wars and brought them all to Paris.

Q. You start in 344 B.C. Then you hop forward to A.D. 850. And then to the late 15th century. What accounts for such large gaps between periods of progress in this subject?

A. I wish I knew. Perhaps certain thinkers or schools of thought have been lost to history. Perhaps in the West it was due to the dominance of Christianity, and particularly Catholicism, over intellectual inquiry. Some of the periods of acceleration in the history of evolutionary thought were caused by material changes – the development of the printing press or of the microscope, growth in literacy rates, the gradual opening up of libraries and natural history collections to the public – but it always strikes me as salutary that one of the greatest periods of acceleration in evolutionary speculation took place in post-Revolutionary Paris between 1790 and 1815, when the priests had been banished and the professors had been given license to pursue any question they liked. That’s when evolutionary ideas really came into their own.

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