Darwin’s Ghosts

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Darwin was famously troubled by his discovery of evolution by survival of the fittest, which set him at odds with a great many people and institutions, including his own wife. In this zestful and entertaining work, Rebecca Stott shines light on one aspect of his unease which is underplayed – the debt he owed to a motley assortment of predecessors, natural philosophers of all kinds, from Aristotle to the gracious Alfred Wallace, who, at various times and in various places, grasped some elements of the evolutionary process and laid the groundwork for Darwin.

While Stott demonstrates a thorough grasp of her material in the lucidity with which she shows how these theories evolved, each formed by the limitations of human thinking in their period, the focus of her book is more populist than scholarly. She blends historical fact with informed speculation to produce very readable sketches of characters such as the Iraqi Jahiz, interviewing the Caliph’s zookeepers about the breeding habits of their charges in ninth century Baghdad, or the French Huguenot ‘Sheherezade’, Bernard Palissy, potter to Queen Catherine de’ Medici, whose lectures on how life evolved from mud blended with generative salt kept him out of the Bastille in the wake of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Lamarck and Wallis are there, of course, but also Leonardo puzzling over fossilised seashells found high up in the Dolomites, and Abraham Trembley causing a sensation in salons all over Europe with his self-replicating polyps.

This is an excellent read for anyone interested in the history of science but without a necessarily scientific mind, and an elegant, informed reminder of the wonders of our natural world and the persistence, courage and originality of those who revealed it to us.

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(US) $27.00
(UK) £25.00

ISBN
(UK) 9781408809082

Format
Hardback

Pages
383 (UK), 416 (US)

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