Saturday, October 20, 2012

Darwin's Ghosts

Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution, by Rebecca Stott ( Spiegel & Grau, 2012) is an appealingly written history of Charles Darwin's intellectual predecessors.  The secret of its appeal lies in Stott's cv.  She's a professor of literature and creative writing with two novels and a previous non-fiction work about Darwin to her credit.  Only a novelist could make you want to walk the 4th century BC beaches of Lesbos with Aristotle and his students; or make the scientific issues of 1790's Paris seem to rival in drama the political ones.  And only someone with a life-long fascination with Darwin and his times could piece out the important intellectual developments from the cluttered mosaic of mid-nineteenth century publishing.  If Stott has a fault it is in not insisting her readers note the driving curiosity of those on both sides of the evolution divide (or to use the early 1800's terms "species transformation" or "descent with modification" controversy).  These were people who deeply cared about and respected data.  Interpretation of that data is what they disagreed over.
Respecting facts as they did, the French and English naturalists of the period (most of whom were also clergy) were in accord with what was needed to decide the issue of whether species arose whole and then became extinct when God willed their demise, or whether they changed over time as their environment changed.  They needed a provable mechanism that would cause change--a reason.  Otherwise divine whim would seem as good an explanation for the fossil record as any other.
By the time Charles Darwin tallied up the numbers, the curiosity of over thirty men had contributed to the process of the scientific discovery of evolution.  And, this book shows clearly, it was a process as much as evolution itself was a process.  Beginning with the fascination of of Aristotle and al-jahiz with the seemingly infinite panorama of nature that caused them to ask what animals surrounded them, the inquiry took the form of when had all these species come to life, where they originated, and finally, why so many of them had ceased to exist.   
Both Aristotle and the great Arab scholar al-jahiz were interested in cataloguing the rich living world around them.  The Greek didn't believe in a creator god, and the Arab had no doubt but that Allah brought the world into existence.  It was enough for both of them to organize the dazzling universe they saw into an understandable functioning system.  Even the great Leonardo da Vinci didn't concern himself with the question of species evolution, he was more interested in the fact that sea beds had over eons sometimes risen to become mountain peaks.  It wasn't until Benoit de Maillet, at the start of the eighteenth century that anyone set forward the idea of species mutation over long periods of time.  Denis Diderot in the mid 1700's, and a remarkable group of naturalists working during the upheaval surrounding the French Revolution, Lamarck, Cuvier, and Saint-Hilaire, brought evolutionary science to the very brink of acceptability.
As the European continent descended into war, A series of Englishmen, including Charles Darwin's grandfather Erasmus, brought into focus the essential question:  So, if God doesn't cause species change, what does?  Like their French colleagues they had to tread carefully.  Both the Catholic and Protestant churches thought divine causation was essential to their dogma.  And both sects were willing to destroy the career and livelihood of anyone that threatened that dogma. 
Darwin, who had eleven children to raise, worked out a proof of species evolution by natural selection some twenty years before he published it.  His fear of the Church made him wait.  It wasn't till Alfred Russel Wallace put the pieces together in a flash of inspiration experienced while suffering from a high fever, and sent Darwin a letter asking him to comment, that Darwin rushed to publication.  That rush caused him to omit the introduction in which he had planned to credit the work of his predecessors.  That omission caused him to suffer not only the accusation of heresy, but that of plagiarising the work of others.  It wasn't till the third and fourth editions of his Origins that he put these "ghosts" to rest with a proper acknowledgement of their efforts.  Stott's book is engrossing, not only for its scientific story, but also for its lively description of the men who brought us the theory of species evolution, and the colorful times they worked in.
Note:  I downloaded this book from my local library's ebook catalogue provided by Overdrive, Inc.  If, by any chance, you want to purchase Darwin's Ghosts, be aware that the electronic edition has a number of formatting flaws, chief of which is poorly marked or lacking links between footnotes and chapter notes and the text.  Because of this, the print edition would be a better choice if you want to own a copy.           

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