It is tempting to see Charles Darwin as a genius who, with the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, solved – unaided – the mystery of how life came to be. Certainly, his concept of the survival of the fittest by natural selection was revolutionary (although not unique, as Alfred Wallace had the idea contemporaneously), but the idea that the earth, and the species on it, were in flux wasn't new at all. Darwin quickly regretted the lack of credit he gave to his intellectual forebears – "My health was so poor, whilst I wrote the Book, that I was unwilling to add in the least to my labour," he wrote to one critic – and compiled a hasty, and often wildly inaccurate list of them, for later editions.
Rebecca Stott's beautifully written and compelling book is the story of some of the men – and they were all men – who came before, and how the evolution of their ideas mirrors the evolution of species. Many were persecuted, in mortal danger because of their views: even now, 150 years after Darwin, their ideas are accused of mocking God's perfect creation.
Darwin's Ghosts draws vignettes of these remarkable thinkers: from Aristotle in the fourth century BC, urging his acolytes to witness the order and beauty of nature on Lesbos, to Benoît de Maillet, a lonely French consul in Cairo, daring to suggest that all land animals had evolved from the sea without divine intervention, to Denis Diderot in Paris, preaching subversion under the noses of the secret police, to the naturalists of the Jardin de Plantes, finding evidence for evolutionary change in the natural history collections stolen during the Napoleonic wars: there are mummified birds, dusty cabinets, curious fossils, even a cameo performance from the hydra, a freshwater organism related to the jellyfish that caused a sensation in the mid-18th century because of its remarkable capacity to regenerate. It was sent by post all over Europe and chopped repeatedly in half in the name of science.
There's always a danger of a beguiling teleology in a history of ideas, but Stott recognises that incremental progress towards the truth is an illusion: "The story of the discovery of natural selection is a story of meanderings and false starts," she writes, "of outgrowths, adaptations and atrophies, of movements backwards as well as forwards, of sudden jumps and accelerations and convergences."
These mavericks and heretics put their lives on the line. Finally, they are getting the credit they deserve.