Andrew Berry enjoys a biographical feast that turns the spotlight onto Darwin's forerunners.
It is remarkable that the theory of evolution has come to be associated exclusively with Charles Darwin. Even Alfred Russel Wallace, co-author of the paper that first unveiled evolution by natural selection, has mostly disappeared from view. In Darwin's Ghosts, novelist and science historian Rebecca Stott explores the intellectual origins of the theory of natural selection through scientific biographies of Darwin's antecedents and contemporaries, from Aristotle to Wallace.
The usual suspects are here, including French naturalists Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Georges Cuvier and Georges-Louis Leclerc, Count of Buffon. But so are people whose contributions to the history of evolutionary theory are generally known only in history of science departments, such as Swiss biologist Abraham Trembley and French natural historian Benoît de Maillet. Stott's research is broad and unerring; her book is wonderful.
T. CHARTRAN/WHITE IMAGES/SCALA, FLORENCE
Georges Cuvier (standing) was one of dozens of naturalists who laid the groundwork for Charles Darwin.
On the Origin of Species (John Murray, 1859) was rushed out. In June 1858, Darwin got a letter from Wallace, then in Indonesia, suggesting the idea — evolution by natural selection — that Darwin had been quietly gestating for 20 years. Only intervention by colleagues saved Darwin's claim to precedence. The outcomes were a paper co-published by Darwin and Wallace in the Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society in July 1858, and Origin in November the next year.
After the publication, Darwin's materialistic vision of biological change was, as he had feared, condemned as heretical. But blasphemy was not the only charge laid at his door: some of Darwin's correspondents complained that he had plagiarized their work.
Darwin saw Origin as a quick and dirty synopsis of his ideas, not the planned 'big species book', as he referred to it. One casualty was a review of the literature. As Stott recounts, Darwin dealt with this oversight (and the critical letters) in 1861, by adding a review, An Historical Sketch of the Recent Progress of Opinion on the Origin of Species, to the third edition. Stott's book presents encounters with the inhabitants of this addendum, plus a few who did not make Darwin's cut.
The Sketch was an honest attempt to give credit where it was due. But it is clear that Darwin was keen, by omission, to emphasize his own claim to the theory. Wallace is mentioned just four times in the 490 pages of the first edition of Origin. And in his autobiography, Darwin downplayed the influence of his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, whose evolutionary speculations were both historically significant and part of his family's lore.
In looking beyond Darwin, Stott deals with eye-wateringly complicated material. A three-way chapter on Lamarck, Cuvier and fellow French naturalist Étienne Geoffroy, for instance, describes — with a novelist's eye for dramatic detail — how, in the early nineteenth century, they jockeyed for pre-eminence at the newly formed French National Museum of Natural History in Paris.
More than the story of three careers, this is also about the waxing and waning of friendships, a clash of deeply opposed world views and some of the most exciting and innovative science ever done. And the story is complicated by difficulties in interpreting the documentary record, which is mostly a monument to courtesy. Cuvier long suppressed his unfavourable view of Lamarck, waiting instead to bury both Lamarck's ideas and their author with a single brutal obituary, published in the Memoirs of the Royal Academy of Sciences of the Institute of France in 1835.
Stott highlights the charged moment when Cuvier first examined mummified ibises collected by Geoffroy on the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt. Here was the ultimate showdown between Lamarck's evolutionary ideas, which predicted that ibises should have experienced species change in the 3,000 years since the specimens were alive, and Cuvier's insistence that this was biologically impossible. Were the ancient ibis mummies significantly different from modern birds? No — Cuvier seemed to have been proved right.
Many of the heroes of Darwin's Ghosts ran risks to pursue their evolutionary ideas — in 1749, for example, French philosopher Denis Diderot was imprisoned for subversive writings that touched on species variation. Many thinkers tried to sidestep the charge of heresy: de Maillet, for example, distanced himself by presenting his theories in the form of a supposed conversation with an Indian mystic, 'Telliamed' (de Maillet spelled backwards). Erasmus Darwin, anxious about the impact of controversy on his reputation as a doctor, chose to veil many of his evolutionary speculations behind a cloak of classics-tinged poetry. Scottish geologist Robert Chambers never publicly admitted that he was the author of the anonymous Victorian best-seller Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (John Churchill, 1848).
The lesson of Stott's book is that Darwin and Wallace were not just standing on the shoulders of giants scientifically. They were also at liberty to speculate and publish freely on the topic only because of the risks that these earlier writers had taken.
Stott introduces us to a sparkling cast of characters, but the biographical approach has its limitations. The book fails to illuminate the most remarkable aspect of the story of the discovery of evolution: that this long-sought-after idea was discovered independently, around the same time, by two men who both regarded themselves as pedestrian thinkers.
The Darwin–Wallace story validates the modern insistence that discovery is not about 'great men', but about a confluence of societal and technological factors that collectively make a previously inaccessible idea accessible. Nevertheless, Stott's constellation of biographies is an exhilarating romp through 2,000 years of fascinating scientific history.