Young, Robert C. MD
Each fall the scientific world is abuzz with anticipation about the upcoming Nobel Prize announcements. When first announced there is a burst of excitement about those individuals selected and importantly about the science itself. This wave of enthusiasm is sometimes followed by more critical commentary about those left off the Nobel committee's list. Voices from many fronts make cases, some self-serving and some quite persuasive, that worthy individuals have been deprived of their rightful place in scientific history. What Rebecca Stott makes clear in this book is that scientific territorialism existed long before Alfred Nobel created his sought-after prize. Her book explores the collective contributions made by others to evolutionary theory.
When Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859 there was an immediate eruption of criticism directed not just to the theory itself but also to Darwin's failure to acknowledge those who had contributed earlier to the ideas expressed in his book. Darwin, who was not a particularly comprehensive scientific historian, had developed a small list (historical sketch) of 10 individuals he planned to mention in the book, but in his haste to publish, he said, he neglected to include the list. Subsequently, he added a constantly evolving list of references to each new edition.
His notions of evolution had incubated for most of his life and he first wrote about natural selection in 1844. However, he rushed into publication because of a startling essay by a colleague, Alfred Russel Wallace, which not only espoused similar evolutionary concepts but more significantly, suggested a mechanism for evolution through natural selection.
In Darwin's Ghosts, Stott provides a fresh look at some of the most interesting characters in evolutionary theory history. While some might argue with her selection or focus, each chapter explores the contributions of one or more individuals. She writes skillfully and with considerable scientific insight while maintaining a very readable mixture of lively and entertaining stories.
She begins with Aristotle in 344 B.C., and points out that although he was not an evolutionist and did not believe that species were transmuted from earlier forms, he recognized the importance of scientific observation and rejected supernatural or mythical explanations of natural phenomena. He recognized that the world was constantly changing and that seashells were not placed in rock formations by the deity but rather, by the changing relationships over time of the land and sea.
She then introduces the reader to a 9th century Iraqi named Al-Jahiz, who wrote The Book of Living Things in about 850 A.D., which illustrated the intricacies involved in life in ways that foretold evolution and natural selection.
However, Jahiz never suggested that the huge diversity he observed was anything other than divine creation and intelligent design. No one would come close to his ideas for the next 1,000 years. But Darwin never saw his work, didn't read Arabic, and as with many other early contributors, Jahiz's work was lost as written records and translations were sparse and civilizations withered and collapsed.
Almost 900 years later an eccentric French consul stationed in Cairo, Benoît de Maillet, in 1697 produced work so controversial that he wrote it as conversations between an Indian philosopher and a French missionary, with the largely accurate concepts of evolution attributed to the Indian mystic. Alas, though many of his ideas were correct, de Maillet was ultimately discredited by including as proof reported sightings of sea dogs, sea people, and other nonsensical creatures.
Stott peppers her text with interesting personalities from all walks of life including Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus Darwin; Baden Powell, the father of the founder of the Boy Scouts; Leonardo da Vinci; Josiah Wedgwood of Wedgwood china fame, and many others. All made legitimate contributions to the tapestry of the history.
No matter how inclusive, though, with a canvas as rich as this one, some contributors will be left out. So in a sense Stott and Darwin struggled with the same problem. Stott makes no mention of Empedocles, who probably had more evolutionary ideas than Aristotle, nor does she mention Kant or Goethe. That said, she does choose selectively but wisely, and the collection is both insightful and comprehensive.
One of the Most Remarkable Stories
Perhaps one of the most remarkable stories is that of Alfred Wallace, a trained biologist who went to the South Seas to understand the “progressive development of species.” While collecting biological specimens in the Malay Archipelago in 1858 in the midst of malaria-induced febrile hallucinations, Wallace hits upon natural selection as the central mechanism driving evolution. He later attributed his discovery in part to the works of Thomas Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population and Daniel Defoe's History of the Great Plague.
He shared his treatise “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type” with both Darwin and his geologist colleague Charles Lyell and both recognized the similarity of their conclusions and both Lyell and a biologist colleague, Joseph Hooker, urged Darwin to publish. Both knew of Darwin's earlier work and sent Wallace's paper of 1858 and Darwin's 230-page essay of 1844 to the Linneaus Society for publication establishing Darwin's precedence. Wallace, in behavior we could all hope would be more frequently seen in science, apparently accepted this gracefully and was actually delighted to have “pushed” Darwin to finally publish his work.
This is a book for both science buffs and for the lay reader. Stott is a gifted story teller and the text is well crafted and charmingly readable with a clever balance of science, history, and eccentric personalities.
It is worth mentioning that the controversies surrounding Darwin's publication continue to this day and represent the clash between science, religion, and politics as they have throughout this 2,000-year history of evolutionary thought.
SPIEGEL & GRAU, 2012, HARDCOVER, 416 PAGES; also available in KINDLE and AUDIO EDITIONS, ISBN 1400069378
© 2012 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.