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Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution Hardcover – Deckle Edge, June 12, 2012

4.3 out of 5 stars 100 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“Absorbing…Stott’s narrative flows easily across continents and centuries…her portraits evoke vividly realized and memorable characters…Stott captures the breathless excitement of an investigation on the cusp of the unknown…[a] lively, original book. Darwin’s Ghosts unfolds like an enjoyable and informative TV series, each episode devoted to a fascinating character who provides a window into the world of ideas of his time….it [helps] us see the necessity of bold and ambitious thinking. And right here, right now, it has additional value. Stott reminds us that even if evolution is currently fought over more brutally in the United States than elsewhere, this fight has a long and stubborn ancestry, one that is by no means peculiarly American or entirely modern.”—The New York Times Book Review

"Stott gives personality to her historical characters, introducing their families, their monetary concerns, their qualms about publishing so-called heretical theories, and the obsessions that kept them up at night. She also brings her settings and secondary characters to life, from the deformed sponge divers Aristotle consulted in ancient Lesbos to the exotic animals in the caliphate’s garden that inspired Jahiz in medieval Basra to lost seashells found by Maillet in the deserts outside 18th-century Cairo. Stott’s focus on her settings makes her narrative compellingly readable, and it also reminds us that even as animal species are shaped by their environment, so intellectuals are shaped by their societies….Stott’s book is a reminder that scientific discoveries do not happen in a vacuum, that they often stem from incorrect or pseudo-scientific inquiries, and that they are constantly changing, mutable concepts as they meander towards something that might eventually be called the truth.”—Christian Science Monitor

“Mesmerizing, colorful, and often moving…richly drawn…This many-threaded story of intellectual development – of different discoveries and enquiries into fossils and polyps, of tropical birds and the curious properties of sponge, of men scouring seashores and caves, and trying to work new ideas around the fixed, immovable pillars of religion – is hypnotic….The subject is science, but Stott has a novelist’s confidence, and there are vivid tableaux…This is a sympathetic examination of the innate human qualities of curiosity and inquiry, the helpless compulsion every generation has to probe further and further into the structures of creation.”—The Telegraph (UK)
“This extraordinarily wide-ranging and engaging book rediscovers evolutionary insights across a great span of time, from the famous, such as Aristotle and the Islamic scholar Al-Jahiz, to the 16th-century potter Palissy, the 18th-century merman-believer Maillet and the transformist poet and botanist, Rafinesque – as well as from Diderot, Lamarck, Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus and his contemporary Wallace. And these are just a few of the figures who emerge from the dark into the glow of Stott’s attention. Each of them is evoked with an intimacy that is also clearheaded about the way ideas get stuck, or prove wrong-headed, but can’t be parted with. Stott can make the nuances of ideas emerge in descriptions that suddenly bring the person close…. Gripping as well as fair-minded… Darwin’s Ghosts is a book that enriches our understanding of how the struggle to think new thoughts is shared across time and space and people.”—The Sunday Telegraph (UK)
“Stott's research is broad and unerring; her book is wonderful…. An exhilarating romp through 2,000 years of fascinating scientific history.”—Nature
“Impressively researched... A gripping and ambitious history of science which gives a vivid sense of just how many forebears Darwin had.”—The Times (UK)
“[Stott] has revealed an extraordinary batch of free thinkers who dared to consider mutability during times when such ideas might still cost the thinker his head….Every character that Stott introduces has a riveting story to tell, and all their histories are told with style and historical nous….Stott has done a wonderful job in showing just how many extraordinary people had speculated on where we came from before the great theorist dispelled all doubts.”—The Guardian (UK)
“A fascinating history of an idea that is crucial to our understanding of life on earth.” —The Independent (UK)
“Beautifully written and compelling…These mavericks and heretics put their lives on the line. Finally, they are getting the credit they deserve.”—The Independent on Sunday (UK)

"Stott provides the lucid intellectual genealogy of evolution that the great man could not."—New Scientist (UK)

“Stott does a superb job of setting the scene for her protagonists, whether on the island of Lesbos, 18th-century Cairo, or revolutionary Paris. But her real strength lies in intellectual history. She demonstrates conclusively that evolutionary ideas were circulating among intellectuals for many centuries and that, for most of that time, those who promoted these ideas found themselves under attack by religious and political leaders. Darwin’s scientific breakthrough, therefore, did not occur in a vacuum, but rather provided the most fully conceptualized theory. Stott has produced a colorful, skillfully written, and thoughtful examination of the evolution of one of our most important scientific theories.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A lively account of the ‘pathfinders, iconoclasts, and innovators’ who were Darwin's spiritual kin…. Stott masterfully shows how Darwin, by discovering the mechanism of natural selection, made a unique contribution, but he did not stand alone—nor did he claim to.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“The history of science comes alive as a drama of vibrant personalities wrestling with a dangerous idea.”—Booklist

“Charles Darwin provided the mechanism for the evolution of the exquisite adaptations found in plants and animals, but the awareness that species can change had been growing long before him. With wonderful clarity Rebecca Stott traces how ideas about biological evolution themselves evolved in the minds of great biologists from Aristotle onward. Darwin would have loved this brilliant book—and so do I.”—Sir Patrick Bateson, president of the Zoological Society of London
“Clever, compassionate, and compellingly written, Darwin’s Ghosts interweaves history and science to enchanting effect. The evolution of the theory of evolution is a brilliant idea for a book, and Rebecca Stott has realized it wonderfully.”—Tom Holland, author of Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic
“From Aristotle onward, evolutionists have—thank God—always been a quarrelsome lot, and not much has changed. Rebecca Stott shows how dispute, prejudice, and rage have accompanied their science from the very beginning. Darwin’s Ghosts is a gripping history of the history of life and of those who have studied it, with plenty of lessons for today—perhaps for today’s biologists most of all.”—Steve Jones, author of Darwin’s Ghost: The Origin of Species Updated
“The concept of evolution was not created fully formed and placed in the garden one day for our delight and terror but, as Rebecca Stott demonstrates in her inspiring book, evolved as much as we did. Darwin’s Ghosts is a beautiful tribute to the buried tradition of curious, courageous observers who, before Darwin explained how evolution worked, witnessed the mutability of species for themselves and recorded what they saw.”—Jonathan Rosen, author of The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature

About the Author

Rebecca Stott is a professor of English literature and creative writing at the University of East Anglia and an affiliated scholar at the department of the history and philosophy of science at Cambridge University. She is the author of several books, including Darwin and the Barnacle and the novels Ghostwalk and The Coral Thief. She lives in Cambridge, England.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Spiegel & Grau; First Edition edition (June 12, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400069378
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400069378
  • Product Dimensions: 6.7 x 1.3 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (100 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #476,061 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By John Kwok HALL OF FAME on June 13, 2012
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
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.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
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.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
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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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
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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