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Everybody into the gene pool

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 July, 2012, 12:00am

Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution
by Rebecca Stott
Spiegel & Grau

The notion that species can change and evolve was not born in the fertile brain of Charles Darwin. It evolved, if you will, in many questing minds over generations before him. Darwin added the key piece - the mechanism that drove evolution - and pulled it all together in his On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859.

After that publishing landmark, the memory of those characters who went before him - Lamarck, Grant, Chambers, de Maillet, to name but a few - largely disappeared down history's sinkhole.

Darwin openly acknowledged his debt to more than 30 of those pioneers. He 'did not know that within a hundred years almost all of them would have become virtually invisible to history, and that their invisibility would be directly related to his own rise to scientific sainthood', writes Rebecca Stott.

A writer and professor at Cambridge and the University of East Anglia, Stott delved into the history of evolution theory with a storyteller's eye for colour and the apt anecdote. She emerged with Darwin's Ghosts, an engaging account of Darwin's predecessors and how their work touched off fascination, passionate intellectual activity - and outrage - across European social, political and religious circles. Taking a chronological approach, her book gives us a parade of intellectual gadflies passionately driven to answer the big questions: how did life begin, do species change over time? Their motto might have been genius before Genesis, for many were heretics.

Along the way Stott takes us aboard fishing boats with Aristotle, where his curiosity and mania for collecting and observing nature created the tool box of the natural sciences. We travel to 9th-century Iraq under the book-loving Abbasid empire, where camel trains came out of the desert carrying troves of Greek texts that were translated and preserved for posterity - including all of Aristotle.

We briefly visit Leonardo da Vinci, scoffing at Bible-based estimates that the world was only about 6,000 years old. But he scoffed discreetly, for fear of the Inquisition: he wrote his notes backwards, to confound prying eyes. Many of Stott's figures, including Leonardo and Aristotle, did not believe in evolution, but their brilliance helped light the way forward with their dawning understanding of the earth's immense age, the rise and fall of sea levels, and the evidence that species change over time.

Eight of Stott's 12 chapters focus on Europe after 1740 - a turning point in awareness of the laws of nature. Europe's intellectuals and salons were astounded by the discovery that the humble polyp, a bland pond creature, could regenerate itself when cut into two pieces. That set off a sort of mania, as elite salon-goers gathered around microscopes to watch the miracle. 'In Paris and London, Berlin and Rome, microscope sales increased dramatically,' writes Stott. 'The polyp profoundly challenged contemporary beliefs in intelligent design. [If man] was valued by God above all other creatures, why had he not been granted powers of regeneration like the polyp?'

Humble polyps shook the mighty foundations of orthodoxy: 'Now that so many men and women had seen the polyp regenerate, the European imagination could not so easily be reined in,' Stott writes.

The first fully coherent theory of evolution came together in 1809 in the writings of French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Like Darwin, he believed species changed over time in keeping with natural, not divine, laws. But Lamarck's theory, 'inheritance of acquired characteristics', was off the mark, and his story ended sadly: a pioneering zoologist, he died poor, blind and in obscurity.

Many of these men - they're all men - ran terrible risks as they persisted in asking the big questions about life's origins and processes. 'Priests and bishops denounced Darwin's predecessors; police spied on them,' Stott writes. 'They locked their ideas away for fear of bringing disgrace on their families. They deferred publishing ... They went underground. All of them went on gathering evidence just the same, convinced that species were not fixed and that they had not all been created in seven days.'

In pre-revolutionary France, Denis Diderot, the intellectual and encyclopedist, was jailed in 1749. His crime was writing that all higher animals, including man, had 'transformed since the birth of time from 'a multitude of shapeless things'', among other heresies.

For a while after the French revolution, French thinkers were the freest on the continent; Paris was at the heart of exciting developments in natural science. Theories of species transformation were openly discussed and ramped up into endless philosophical speculations.

Across the English Channel, however, such free thinking was viewed in political terms as 'inherently heretical and dangerously French. It struck at the heart of the Christian religion, clerics declared; it contradicted the biblical account of creation,' Stott writes.

Many leading lights of British and French science, such as geologist Charles Lyell, were ferocious opponents of these pre-evolutionary ideas with their political undertones of revolution and upheaval.

When Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, published Britain's first clear evolutionist speculation in the 1790s, he 'appeared in political cartoons as a subversive. Prison beckoned,' Stott writes. He was spared jail, but his poet friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge declared himself 'nauseated' with Erasmus Darwin's writing, preferring 'the History I find in my Bible'.

Little wonder that Charles Darwin declined to publish his findings for years, out of concern for the effect on his family. This book will appeal to most readers with an interest in the history of ideas. Those who root for the underdog will enjoy the bravery and progress of Stott's long procession of iconoclasts.

The writer does a good job of keeping the overall trajectory in sight. If the book has a weakness, it's that some of its characters, such as Lamarck, emerge less distinctly than others from the blur of figures that Stott presents.

The evolution of evolution theory is a moving chapter in the history of the human intellect, driven by the zeal for discovery and learning.

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