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.