Bloomsbury, £25

Darwin's Ghosts, By Rebecca Stott

Before 'Origin of Species', many European and Arabic thinkers had outlined the principles of natural selection.

Charles Darwin was not the first person to observe mutation of species or work on natural selection. Indeed, the notion of evolution was not particularly original in Darwin's time. The idea had existed for centuries.

Numerous scientists had written on the subject; a few had published, with considerable risks to their lives, books that matched On the Origin of Species in scope and brilliance. Rebecca Stott, who grew up in a Creationist household, seeks to shine some limelight on these unsung heroes of evolution.

To begin with, not one but two scientists should be credited with providing a scientific basis for evolution. The young and brilliant Alfred Russel Wallace, who travelled the Malay Archipelago with his servant Ali, had worked out natural selection at about the same time as Darwin. Indeed, Darwin had to rush into publication in 1859 as he feared that Wallace would be seen as the "discoverer" of evolution. The two read their papers jointly at the Royal Society. But Wallace was largely forgotten.

There were other claimants, even during Darwin's time. He was accused of plagiarism in Gardener's Chronicle by Patrick Matthew, a Scottish landowner and fruit farmer. Matthew claimed to have discovered natural selection 28 years before Darwin; he had his book, Naval Timber and Arboriculture, as a proof. Darwin was forced to add a preface to the third edition of Origins giving a line of intellectual descent. It was a list of 30 scientists, including Matthew and Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus. In his Zoomania, published in 1794, Erasmus argued that species had descended from minute aquatic filament swimming in a prehistoric sea.

But the idea of evolution can be traced back much further. On the island of Lesbos, Aristotle observed many different species and tried to discover the patterns behind their apparent diversity. He describes his observation and conclusions in The History of Animals. The cosmos, Aristotle argues, is not ruled by gods but driven from inside itself. While some parts of an animal's body serve a particular purpose, others are simply the outcome of a process. Wherever he looked, Aristotle found evidence of modes of adaptation that ensured the preservation of species.

In contrast to Aristotle, al-Jahiz of Basra, known as "goggle-eyes", was a firm believer in God. That was no impediment to objectivity and critical observation. His The Book of Animals, a massive seven-volume encyclopaedia written between 847 and 867, contains the first extensive study of animals. It comes close, says Stott, to what we would recognise as a theory of evolution and natural selection. Written within a specific genre of classical Muslim scholarship, The Book of Animals combines facts and speculations with poetry, humorous anecdotes, philosophical conjectures, metaphysics, sociology, anthropology and verses from the Qur'an.

What is truly astonishing about The Book of Animals is al-Jahiz's vision of interconnectedness. He constantly uses images of nets and webs. His web of interdependencies foreshadows Darwin's vision of an "entangled web", the extended metaphor Darwin used to distil the key idea of natural selection. Al-Jahiz recognised eco-systems. He observed adaptation, and understood "the survival of the fittest". And, like Aristotle, he believed in spontaneous generation. Then there is Benoit de Maillet, the spymaster of Cairo. In 1697, he published Telliamed or Conversations between an Indian Philosopher and a French Missionary of the Diminution of the Sea, the Formation of the Earth, and the Origin of Men and Animals. Like al-Jahiz's book, this is a grand synthesis of facts, reports and stories from different cultures, all with an accent on natural selection.

In 1749, the French Enlightenment philosopher Diderot claimed that we have emerged from "a multitude of shapeless things" that "could exist themselves and perpetuate themselves" through a "rapid succession of beings". Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, professor at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, argued for organic evolution and developed a coherent theory in a series of books including Zoological Philosophy. The list goes on.

But were these men evolutionists? Perhaps not in the sense that we understand evolution today. Even Darwin did not claim to be an evolutionist. The point of Stott's book is to show that Darwin stood on the shoulders of giants. There were many starts, true and false, towards the discovery of natural selection. But the end product owes something to all of them. The result is a fascinating history of an idea that is crucial to our understanding of life on earth.

Ziauddin Sardar is co-editor of the journal 'Critical Muslim'

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker