Book Review: Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution

Well, it’s sort of a book review. It’s more like a very informal description of a reaction to the book.

Which was: immense enjoyment.

My sister was nearly finished reading it when she left it behind at my house one day. In short order, I ‘accidentally’ forgot to bring it back to her the next time I saw her, or to remind her to take it with her when she came to visit. Perhaps I’m a bad sister, but that’s what she gets when she leaves such a marvelous book behind. Oh, the trials of having excellent taste in reading materials!

Anyway, I picked it up and started browsing through it, since she had already mentioned it to me, and from the start, I could hardly put it down. The long inward struggle that Charles Darwin went through prior to publishing his discovery of the evolution of species (or, rather, the primary mechanism that drives it), is well-known. Yet only the broad outline is really known: no-one can entirely imagine what goes through your mind at a time like that. What tortured thoughts must you wrestle with when you know a truth and believe it’s too important to remain untold, but are also shy, torn by loyalty to family and friends, and fear scorn, notoriety, and persecution?

The book begins with the story of Darwin around this time, just after he published On the Origin of Species, when he had finally been spurred on to do so after another naturalist, Alfred Wallace, made the same discovery independently sixteen or so years later. The book returns often to the story of Darwin’s struggles before publishing, since so many, whose stories are also told in this book, went through similar trials; it first opens with Darwin considering how best to acknowledge and properly credit those whose work contributed most to his theory.

The author proceeds to first takes us on a giant leap far back into the past, to ancient Greece, where the great natural philosopher Aristotle gathered sea sponges and fishes and was the first known to describe them systematically. Then she guides through a history, from Aristotle to Darwin, of the intensely curious, intellectually brilliant, and restless thinkers and observers who gave us modern science. Throughout, I was enthralled. Rebecca Stott tells of awkward, cranky loners who spent most of their time in dusty specimen cabinets or crawling about on hands and knees, meticulously recording the denizens of the natural world, of precocious, highly educated children of privilege who went on to lavish their money and leisure hours in the cause of scientific advancement, of pious priests and moralistic skeptics and atheists who considered the natural universe the most sacred and the most beautiful treasure trove of knowledge available to all, and of many more: a wide variety of people of various temperaments, backgrounds, advantages, types and levels of ability and creativity, are represented in this wonderful history of ideas and of discovery.

Among other scenes in book, I felt myself longing to have had the chance to take part in any, if just one, of those salons of Enlightenment Paris or Edinburgh. Fashionable, educated women and men hosted dinner parties to bring together the best and brightest minds, full of the most original, revolutionary, and fascinating ideas that human minds were creating. But these salons were not where it was all happening: some of the greatest discussions and intellectual achievements at the time happened in ordinary and humble studies, attics, homemade labs, lecture halls, monk’s rooms, coffee shops, and student’s quarters. It was a time when thinking and knowledge was, it seems to me, more widely and more highly valued. Not only familiarity with facts and factoids, but real understanding, was the greatest prize to be sought, the greatest goal in life.

If you want some of the best examples of how to be a part of that great quest, pick up this book and romp through the history of ideas with her. I think you’ll be as glad you did as I was.


Stott, Rebecca. Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution. Random House, New York 2012.

The Little Way of Goodness

Growing up Catholic, my siblings and I were taught many stories of saints and their heroic exploits in their quest to attain union with God. One of these was Thérèse of Lisieux, a young Frenchwoman who became a nun at 16 and died of tuberculosis at the early age of 24. She was an especially beloved saint of my family; one of my sisters is named after her.

Thérèse was a romantic and an idealist, and as a young girl, admired the glorious deaths of Christian martyrs and wished to emulate them. Realizing that she was unlikely to find herself in a situation where she could likewise be killed for the sake of her religion, she devised her own system for attaining heaven. She called it her “Little Way”, in which she would regularly perform acts of holiness in day-to-day life. The trials and tribulations of ordinary life would be elevated and be made important by virtue of their being endured with patience and good grace, and opportunities for sacrificing oneself for the good of others would be seized and fulfilled to their utmost, in imitation of the life of Christ.

am a philosophical naturalist, and as such, I don’t share Thérèse’s enthusiasm for martyrdom, nor do I consider self-denialism a virtue in the way that she did. I believe that the natural world is all that exists and that the wonder of it consists in the fact that everything that does exist operates according to the same laws of nature everywhere throughout the universe. My sense of awe lies the realization that all of existence is intertwined in the complex interconnectedness of all of its parts, in one great cosmic ‘dance’. When I learn about some new amazing discovery or a wonderfully explanatory new philosophical or scientific theory, or spend time outdoors among the plants and animals or under the stars, I am transported as I never was in any religious service or activity I partook in when I was younger. In short, I find Spinoza’s God, unlike the God of Thérèse, the only admirable and wondrous one that has ever been proposed.

And as a member of an intelligent, hyper-social species, I also believe daily acts of generosity and kindness are not truly instances of self-denial but are a natural product of our psychology. Not only are we are at our best and happiest when we are good to one another, but our very survival is enhanced and more assured. Since we depend for our well-being and our very lives on the cooperation and respect of our fellow humans, kindness and generosity end up, naturally, being self-directed acts as well as acts performed for the sake of others, and vice-versa. I also believe that is wrong to throw away one’s life for the sake of an ideal: not only is life the most wonderful and precious ‘gift’ of the universe to be preserved and treasured, but it doesn’t belong only to oneself. One’s life also belongs to friends, family, and colleagues, and to a lesser but very important extent, to the rest of humanity and other living things. Our lives are not really our own to give, but to live, and I believe there are only very few circumstances in which it is best, or right, to self-immolate. The longer we live, the more opportunity we have to do good in this amazing universe we find ourselves in. That’s my ideal.

Yet I also think that Thérèse hit on something vital. Like Aristotle before her, she realized that habit is essential to the practice of virtue. The more we do good, the more likely we are to do more good. 

In this way, virtue or goodness-as-habit is analogous to the essential role of exercise and nutrition in sculpting and maintaining a strong, healthy body. While we are born with the ability to process food into tissue, to build muscle, to increase endurance, to prolong our lives (some of us with greater genetically-given potential for these than others), these abilities are only expressed and persist based on our daily practices. If they are not maintained, they are lost, and if they are not built up, they languish. For our bodies to perform well, we must exercise, eat nutritious food and not too much of it, drink enough water, moderate our intake of potentially toxic substances, and so on. Without these good health-building and health-sustaining habits, our bodies weaken and gradually wither away; if we have not maintained regular healthy habits, we find ourselves hard-pressed, if at all able, to perform acts of vigor and strength when suddenly called upon to do so. Likewise, a person who is not habitually generous, kind, patient, amiable, companionable, and so forth, will more likely react to daily circumstances much more poorly than if they had made it a habit to act well. 

So I propose that we take the best wisdom of Thérèse, combine it with that of Aristotle and the findings of modern evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and human psychology, and devise a new Little Way. Here, we can substitute ‘goodness’, with our focus on the flourishing and happiness of ourselves and those around us, for ‘holiness’, which is God-centered. We can consciously make goodness a habit, by doing our best to go through daily life choosing to do each thing the best way we can, to be kind, patient, and generous with one another in all the opportunities that daily life presents to us, and to take care of this beautiful world we find ourselves in.

Like Thérèse and I’m sure like many of you, dear readers, I often have idealistic longings to perform admirable, heroic exploits. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to play an essential role in finding the cure for cancer or malaria, or to solve the problems of child poverty, domestic violence, or world hunger, or to liberate women in societies that still subjugate and oppress them? Most of us, sadly, don’t have the money, time, or prodigious talent to accomplish these great tasks. We have the responsibility to earn money for ourselves and for our families, to keep ourselves mentally and physically healthy according to our needs, and to protect, nourish, and support the communities we find ourselves in. So for the most part, we must be content with living more or less ordinary lives.

But our lives can be meaningful and impactful, all the same. We can make one another that much happier and healthier by doing all those little things that all too often we neglect to do when we forget that each choice we make, each action we perform, can really have a big effect. We can make it our habit give a friendly smile to those who catch our eye as we pass them on the sidewalk. When we go out to eat, we can smile and greet our waiter politely, wait patiently when they’re busy and our food arrives a little late, and tip generously, always dining out according to the maxim that if we can’t afford to tip well, then we can’t afford to eat out (especially since in the United States, at least, people in the restaurant industry are poorly paid and depend on us tippers for decent wages). We can thank the salesperson in the store for trying to help us find what we are looking for, and avoid acting ‘entitled’ by taking our disappointment out on them when we think the price is too high or what we wanted is not in stock or available immediately, and we can avoid making a mess when looking through the racks and shelves. We can forgo frittering away quite so much money on luxuries and trifles (while remembering that treating ourselves sometimes is important to self-care), donating some of that money instead to worthy causes. We can do our best to tear ourselves away from Facebook clickbait or watching too much TV or other less important projects to give our loved one a call or drop them a line a little more often (I beg your forgiveness, by own loved ones, this sort of neglect is one of my besetting sins!). We can get to work a little earlier each day (lateness is another one of my besetting sins) and take some of the burden off our colleagues, and try to be as helpful and patient as we can when things get stressful and hectic. As my poor husband can attest, we can all help with the dishes a little more often (one of my most hated chores, so my beleaguered spouse all too often picks up on my slack in this regard). We can be less ‘trashy’ inhabitants of this beautiful world by bringing our own bags and travel cups when going out, buying less packaged goods, and picking up litter we find while out on a walk, hiking, or camping. We can neuter our pets, feed stray ones when appropriate, and always be kind and respectful to animals, as our fellow inhabitant of this rich and fascinating planet we are so lucky to find ourselves on.

By making goodness a habit in our daily lives, even in the little things, we can end up doing more good throughout our lives than we otherwise might have by focusing just on heroic and exciting exploits. And if we do find ourselves in a situation where more heroic action is needed, we will be ready, willing, and able to meet it, with our moral muscles strengthened, our patience of greater endurance, our energy increased and up to the task. The Little Way of Goodness, turns out, in the end, to be really not so little after all.

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– Dedicated to my sister Therese, our own little flower

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Sources and inspiration:

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by W. D. Ross. 

Kraut, Richard, “Aristotle’s Ethics“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Martin, Marie-Françoise-Thérèse. Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

Nadler, Steven, “Baruch Spinoza“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 

Review: Tierra Mia Coffee

Rode a different way from work today, in hopes of stumbling across a new coffee shop to try out, in my ongoing search of homey, comfy, friendly places to sip and munch while I write, complete with wi-fi. away from the distractions of home.                                                            I’ve been finding this search to be a challenge, since it seems the trend in coffee shops is sleek, overpriced establishments with an edgy, painfully hip, even clinical feel, where apparently it’s a job requirement for baristas to give the distinct impression that they’re too cool for you and everyone else. And these cafes are usually filled to the rafters with affected self-conscious hipster types who pose together, coldly looking you up and down as you enter to see if you’re wearing one of five or so approved hipster uniforms, and that it passes muster.                                                                                   Fortunately, I discovered that the new coffee shop I stumbled upon today, Tierra Mia Coffee, is decidedly not one of these places. It’s roomy and airy, with high ceilings, classic European-style decor, plenty of seating, and a straightforward selection of classic espresso drinks and pastries, along with a wide assortment of pour-over specialty coffees to choose from. Not cheap, but not too expensive either. My mocha Mexicana was rich and delicious, though I was disappointed that it arrived in a paper cup. They do have mugs, you just have to remember to specifically request one. 
The clientele was refreshingly diverse, people from various age groups, socioeconomic statuses, and personal styles, like a cosmopolitan city downtown cafe, just on a smaller scale. That’s how I like it.
I would have stayed longer, but the wi-fi was glitchy. I didn’t hold that against them, though, it’s a common problem that I’m sure they’ll fix soon. I’ll be back next time I need a place to write when I’m in Uptown Oakland..

Who, What, Why, How:

Where: 2001 Broadway, Oakland, CA 94612

When: Mon – Thu 6:30 am – 8:00 pm Fri 6:30 am – 9:00 pm Sat – Sun 8:00 am – 8:00 pm

Perhaps I’ll see you there sometime!

‘Flaunting’ is a Terrible Excuse for Crime

Have you ever heard the argument: ‘Well, she shouldn’t have worn that skimpy outfit / got drunk / flirted at that party. It’s (also) her fault she was raped / assaulted.’?

Compare that argument with this one: ‘Well, he shouldn’t have been wearing that Rolex / Versace suit / driven that Lexus. It’s (also) his fault he was held up / beaten to the ground and robbed.’

These are equally terrible arguments.

While one might have a point saying that a person acted impractically by wearing something in a situation where there might be predators around, that has nothing to do with the fact that it’s entirely the fault of the criminal for committing the crime.