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32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Superb Examination into the Origins of Darwinian Thought
Rebecca Stott's "Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution" is a masterful overview of the history of science leading up to Darwin's discovery of Natural Selection as a primary mechanism for biological evolution. Hers is an especially important account, since she places the work of Darwin and his intellectual forebears within the context of the societies and...
Published on June 13, 2012 by John Kwok

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30 of 40 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A very generalized survey lacking in depth
Despite the fact that the book is well-written and easy to read, I am forced to agree with some of the other reviewers who are critical of this book. There just isn't much substance to be found here. Each chapter reads more like a miniature biography of pre-Darwinian individuals who, at one time or another, spent time examining some feature of natural science. Some of...
Published on June 28, 2012 by chefdevergue


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32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Superb Examination into the Origins of Darwinian Thought, June 13, 2012
This review is from: Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution (Hardcover)
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Rebecca Stott's "Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution" is a masterful overview of the history of science leading up to Darwin's discovery of Natural Selection as a primary mechanism for biological evolution. Hers is an especially important account, since she places the work of Darwin and his intellectual forebears within the context of the societies and cultures they inhabited, stretching across a vast gulf of time that begins with the ancient Classical Greeks. It is also an extremely lucid account replete with Stott's vivid, quite descriptive, prose; an account that should captivate and intrigue readers, including those who are unfamiliar with Darwin's life and work or that others, most notably, Lamarck, had proposed evolutionary theories decades before Darwin and Wallace had stumbled upon Natural Selection independently of each other.

Stott begins in earnest describing how Aristotle became an extraordinary field naturalist on the Aegean island of Lesbos, carefully studying the behavior of fishes and marine invertebrates, devoting two years toward trying to understand reproductive behavior of the marine animals he observed, using the insights he gleaned for the rest of his life in shaping his philosophy, while also working on three books, "Parts of Animals", "The History of Animals" and "On the Generation of Animals"; the very first works in zoology and biology ever written. Over a thousand years later, Jahiz, one of the most prolific and versatile writers of the Sunni Islamic Abbasid Empire, would stumble upon an understanding of life on Earth unequalled by anyone until Darwin and Wallace's scientific careers flourished, recognizing that all life was interdependent with other living things, gaining an early understanding of predation and of ecological communities, without conceiving of a suitable mechanism for "descent with modification" - as Darwin described evolution - like Natural Selection. During the Italian Renaissance, Leonardo Da Vinci would recognize the great antiquity of the Earth, understanding that mountains containing the fossils of seashells were once underwater eons ago. Nearly the entire latter half of Stott's impressive tome is devoted to French Enlightenment scientists like Buffon and Cuvier, who were among those pioneering the systematic study of all life on Planet Earth, while remaining dismissive of "transformist" ideas like Lamarck's theory of evolution and in-depth discussions of Scottish zoologist Robert Grant - who would teach a young Charles Darwin how to collect and to preserve marine biological specimens and thus have a lasting impact on Darwin's subsequent field and experimental research in biology and geology - and of the young Alfred Russel Wallace, a dedicated, largely self-taught animal collector, who would begin making important insights into the biogeography of the East Indies, and then, while stricken with an acute case of malaria, would recall his reading and understanding of Thomas Malthus' "Essay on Population", and then stumble, independently of Darwin, on the mechanism of biological evolution which would become known as Natural Selection.
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23 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The social context of the Origin of Species, June 1, 2012
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This review is from: Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution (Hardcover)
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There have been a number of books on the historical context of the Origin of Species. Some, like Mayr's 'Growth of Biological Thought' and a number of Gould's volumes, focus closely on variations of the scientific and philosophical approaches of eminent scientists, why these were in error and Darwin, finally, correct. Darwin himself had not acknowledged these forebears as in expected in the scientific literature and was suffciently motivated by this criticism to add an 'Historical sketch' (included as an appendix) to subsequent editions.

This book takes a somewhat different approach to the thinking leading up to the Origin of Species. It looks at a number of scientific events and people that were influential in the history of thought, and, most importantly, how these ideas rippled through society at the time. It starts with coverage of Greek (Aristotle) and Persian (al-Jahiz) thinking about the diversity of biological organisms. Neither of these authors come close to an understanding of what we now call evolution, but had some surprisng insights about the similarities among the various organisms they were famliar with.

What makes this book so unique is that it goes well beyonds specific scientists and explores the thinking of contemporaries and how their ideas spread thoughout the world. As explorations of the world uncovered new and wildly different organisms, questions of their relatedness grew even more demanding on science. (Darwin, Huxley, Hooker, and Russell were all on such voayages of discovery.)

But what sets this book apart from others is the superb coverage of social and religious responses to natural philosophy. Many political leaders invested in museums and science research; there was competativeness to be the best. Yet in many cases, such establishments fell to the pushback of the political and religous communities, whose dominance might change through revolution or fundamentalism.

Darwin was plagued by mysterious medical issues which have been thought by some to be a form of anxiety, and by others to be some rare illness contracted on his Beagle voyage. After reading this book, I think the former is most likely. So many of Darwin's forebears and contemporaries suffered major career setbacks due to ideas in conflict with the church. The chapter that centers on the life and times if Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, really shed a great deal of light on the issue in England, and in Darwin's family specifically.

The idea that modern organisms evolved from earlier forms was widely acknowledged by scientists for many decades. None was able to provide a mechanism for this that stood up to scientific review. Once Darwin and Russell, and their contemporaries, especially Huxley, were able to bring scientific facts to prove this mechanism,the substantial criticism from the Churh of England lasted only a few years.

Most readers will appreciate that many of the issues encountered and overcome by Darwin in 1859 are still, unfortunately, being played out in many parts of the world.

Would like to give more than five stars... the book is well written, highly engaging, and adds important context and understanding to the societal aspects of modern biological thinking.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Pleasurable Read in History of Science, June 11, 2012
This review is from: Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution (Hardcover)
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While I am not sure I don't find the title and sub-title here a little misleading, I am sure that I find the book itself a pleasurable and useful read. A nice companion piece to Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, which focuses a bit more on the science, here Stott focuses more on the history, and to our benefit. Her writing is clear, concise and aimed at the interested layman. As such, this is a nice introduction to the writers, thinkers, scientists and philosophers who preceded Darwin in the quest for a the theory and mechanisms to how life changes over time.

Stott takes us from Aristotle up through Wallace, the "ghosts" who came before (or in the case of Wallace, slightly after) Darwin put his massive evidence together to posit how life came to be how and where it is today. Her short biographical sketches and vignettes provide a glimpse into the lives and times of those who fell a little short, pitched a little off to the side, or otherwise aimed, but missed the mark in one way or another. Her thumbnail portraits of these men, and the worlds they lived in, are pithy, interesting and, in several cases, sent me in search of more information about them. To me, that is a job well done. I certainly recommend this to those with an interest in the history of science and ideas. A quick and engrossing read, light, but not lightweight.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent history of Darwin's theory, June 24, 2012
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DragonWing "Digger's Domain" (Cheyenne, WY, United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution (Hardcover)
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Ch 1, Darwin's List, was an interesting prelude to an interesting book - after Darwin published his On the Origin of Species, folks came out of the woodwork claiming they'd thought of natural selection first (although only Alfred Russel Wallace really had), or at the very least claiming that they should have got *some* acknowledgement of their efforts in his book.

Author Stott lists all the folks whom Darwin listed - people who had gone before, and so on. (But really, if Darwin had never read any of their work, did they deserve credit for coming up with the same ideas? It was the *mechanism* of how natural selection worked that is really Darwin's claim to fame).

So we get an insight from the very beginning of how Precedence and Ego worked (and work) in scientific advancement.

The rest of the book tells us the history of the theories of evolution (or transmutism, etc), from those who had gone before - from Aristotle to Leonardo to Erasmus Darwin to Alfred Wallace himself.

Anyone interested in the history of science, and/or the history of scientific theories and of the march toward evolutionary theory, will enjoy this book.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Not Commonly Known History of Evolution, August 15, 2012
This review is from: Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution (Hardcover)
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First of all, this may not be the fault of the author, because sometimes, titles of books are chosen by publishers in order to be sensationalistic. One can imagine someone at the publishing house dreaming up ways to even grab the attention of knuckle-dragging anti-evolutionists with this title. I'm sure "ghosts" is simply a literary device, but the subtitle suggesting secrets in the closet of Evolution could be misconstrued easily. So easily, I almost did not want to read this book, thinking it was possibly a screed against evolution.

It is with relief that I write I was pleasantly surprised to find in the description that the author is simply dredging from the past all the other people that had views similar to Darwin.

This brings up a most important point. It wouldn't hurt many people to read this book, so they can realize that Charles Darwin is not the one that originally thought of evolution as explaining the distribution and extent of species that now exist. His greatest contribution to biology is that he deduced the MECHANISM BY WHICH IT OCCURS -- NATURAL SELECTION. Probably his next greatest contribution is the detail with which he was able to explain this mechanism and give scads of evidence for the occurrence of evolution by natural selection, not to mention artificial selection.

It wouldn't hurt many people to read ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES, either, come to think of it. Darwin was an excellent writer, and an extremely detailed reasoner, most convincing in his arguments. It is no wonder his contribution has fared so well for over 150 years.

I do not consider this book a must read, but if you know anyone, including yourself, that has the impression that Darwin "invented" evolution, that person would be a great candidate to read this book.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Those Who Came Before Darwin, June 14, 2012
This review is from: Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution (Hardcover)
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Darwin didn't just "come up" with Evolution one day. Yes, he was smart and put this theory together on his own, but he studied, read, talked, traveled, and collected to get his theory. This book is about those who came before Darwin. His elders so to speak, or those who paved the path so that Darwin could become famous.

Rebecca Stott does an excellent job of weaving a story with many of those who laid a path for Mr. Darwin. She starts with Aristotle, a known philosopher, but continues with those not know, such as Jahiz, and Benoit de Maillet. The biographies of these men were woven together when they interacted. Ms. Stott explains it with talented writing. They are Greek, French, British, German, American, Italian, Russian, Austrian, Estonian and a Belgian. The languages to cross and translate these new and challenging thoughts were a determined effort by all involved.

This is an exciting book. I learned a great deal about the marching forward of ideas, and how sometimes it takes a great deal of effort to make a major change. It is an inspiring book that I highly recommend.
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30 of 40 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A very generalized survey lacking in depth, June 28, 2012
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chefdevergue (Spokane, WA United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution (Hardcover)
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Despite the fact that the book is well-written and easy to read, I am forced to agree with some of the other reviewers who are critical of this book. There just isn't much substance to be found here. Each chapter reads more like a miniature biography of pre-Darwinian individuals who, at one time or another, spent time examining some feature of natural science. Some of them pondered ideas which might be considered similar to evolution; others, not so much. A lot of what is discussed has next to nothing to do with natural science, and when the science is discussed, the discussion will do little to expand the reader's knowledge.

The reader moves from one pocket survey to another, and the end result is a minimally informative, not all that interesting book. I would have been much more interested in a truly in-depth examination of the competing theories which immediately preceded Darwin's, and the war of words which accompanied them. These naturalists could get pretty nasty. Sadly, the book offers us only the smallest nibble of that. What a shame.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating and scholarly, July 1, 2012
This review is from: Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution (Hardcover)
The title of the book is unfortunate, not only because it echoes that of another recent -- and much less satisfying -- book, but also because it suggests the common misconception that Charles Darwin originated the idea of evolution. However, a reading of the book makes it clear that the author understands perfectly well that Darwin's fame rests on his theory of natural selection, and that of all his predecessors only Patrick Matthew has any claim to have thought of the idea first. However, as he published it in an utterly obscure place, in an appendix to a work on naval architecture, it would certainly be completely forgotten today if it had not been for Darwin's recognition of the priority once it was drawn to his attention.

The case of Alfred Russel Wallace is different. He certainly arrived at the idea of natural selection, but in parallel with Darwin, not as a predecessor. That part of the story is well known, but many of the earlier scientists who developed ideas of evolution are much less so, and Rebecca Stott has done a fine job of tracing the story from Aristotle 2350 years ago to Darwin in the 19th century. Not only is the story very interesting, with much information that will be new even to knowledgeable biologists, but she writes very well and holds the attention.

Some of the actors, such as Aristotle, Leonardo da Vinci and Diderot, are household names, but others deserving of attention are not, such as Abraham Tremblay, who discovered the self-regenerating capacity of Hydra, and his nephew Charles Bonnet, who discovered and demonstrated parthenogenesis in aphids. All of the accounts are interesting, and the whole book is very well worth reading.

Incidentally, I noticed that the subtitle of the US edition, "the secret history of evolution", is different from the original, which was "in search of the first evolutionists". Presumably the publisher was responsible for this change, but it was not a good decision, first because there is nothing secret about the history, and second because it only goes part of the way to correcting the wrong impression created by the main title.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Learning from Mistakes, August 9, 2012
This review is from: Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution (Hardcover)
The US is a country where people are either right or wrong. Perhaps, it is just human nature and not specific to this country. Attempts are made to disparage those who slip-up when making honest assessments. 'Gotcha journalism' is often criticized, but we seem to live in a 'gotcha society'.

Rebecca Stott has sprinkled science over a fascinating history book, but she's done much more than that. 'Standing on the shoulders of giants' is a commonly used expression, but rarely are those 'giants' presented as flawed individuals. 'DG' was different than any history OR science book that I've read in that it lauds well-meaning people who got it wrong.

Darwin's theory is often praised for it's accuracy; how well it holds up over 150 years of scrutiny. RS maintains that assessment, but she explains the build-up to this 'bulls-eye'. She offers theories ranging from Aristotle (2K years prior) to Alfred Russel Wallace (CD's contemporary) and how each helped shape the 'Origin of Species'. In some cases, direct links could be drawn; in other cases, previous theories seem to float in the stratosphere.

We live in such a competitive world and the Darwin/Wallace battle rages on. RS describes 2 of the world's greatest scientists. Great, in that both seemed more concerned with 'truth' than individual achievement. CD had good reason to claim the theory and ARW admitted to that fact. We CAN believe that CD was the architect, while still crediting ARW and the other builders.

RS explains this dynamic better than any account that I've read, but this 'duel' is only one aspect of her story. 'DG' helped me to understand that we can learn much from well-intentioned scientists; historical figures who did their best to uncover the truth, but missed the target.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Science History At Its Best, July 29, 2012
This review is from: Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution (Hardcover)
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In Darwin's Ghosts, Rebecca Stott tells the story of the people who came before Darwin, great thinkers who struggled to understand the concepts of evolution and the origin of species. Going back as far as Aristotle and following the course of history until the same year that Darwin published On the Origin of Species, the book catalogues the many theories that were suggested to describe the creation, diversity, and patterns between species.

There are no great secrets uncovered here; I think most biologists will be familiar with the names discussed within Darwin's Ghosts. The only person that was new to me was Jahiz, an Arab naturalist and bureaucrat who lived in the 900s. Most people who have studied evolution have read about Aristotle, Buffon, and Lamarck. Luckily, that doesn't affect the quality of the book.

Rather than giving a bland description of each man and his beliefs, Stott focuses on the context of the ideas. Her book explores the cultural, religious, and military circumstances that influenced Darwin's precursors and their ideas. Many of these men were accused of (and sometimes jailed for) heresy and were faced with very real risks simply because of their efforts to understand the natural world. They countered this by publishing their studies anonymously, couching their theories in poetry, or by adding insincere qualifications to their writings.

Stott does an amazing job of weaving together the scientific theories, personal details, and relevant historical facts. Darwin's Ghosts is a thrilling, well-researched look into the history of scientific exploration.
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Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution
Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution by Rebecca Stott (Hardcover - June 12, 2012)
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