Purva Variyar reviews Darwin’s Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists authored by Rebecca Stott.
Edited by Rebecca Stott
Published by Bloomsbury
Paperback, 383 pages,
Price: Rs. 499
“The imperceptible earthworm that wriggles in the mud is perhaps on his way to becoming a large animal.” reads a line. When we think of evolution, we think of Charles Darwin, the genius who explained the eternally hanging questions of the origin of species.
But even before it came to be known as ‘evolution’, there were others who had thought about it. These people, who dared to think, often referred to it as ‘transmutation’ and ‘transformism’. But those revolutionary thinkers, who lived before Darwin’s time, were often termed infidels, heretics and mad men by society, for having the audacity to believe in anything but a supreme being who created all life and to doubt that life on the planet is immutable. It was a dangerous time to be an atheist, reformist or a radical questioning the ruling elite and the Church’s doctrines. Those few who chose to develop or discuss their own ideas on the origin of man were served severe punishments, and subjected to humiliation.
It is about these men that author Rebecca Stott writes in her book. Darwin’s Ghosts begins with a disturbed Darwin, who holds a letter from Baden Powell for taking credit for a theory that had been proposed by many others. What troubled Darwin was not just the repercussions of the radical views that he held, but the guilt of not having adequately acknowledged the intellectual predecessors whose theories had laid the solid foundation of mutability of species and upon which he built and proposed his own. The book crafts the stories of all those early evolutionists, right from great Greek philosopher and scientist, Aristotle, to Leonardo da Vinci; all the way to the brilliant Alfred Wallace who came the closest to putting a finger on natural selection, even almost beating Darwin to publishing it.
Stott’s exemplary research cannot be understated, and more importantly, her own experiences as a child that she narrates in the preface show, how only recently, the world has become more accepting of the radical nature in which we evolved from apes and the knowledge that we share a percentage of our DNA with chimpanzees and other primates.
This book is an engaging and meticulous compendium of histories of those great individuals who understood, appreciated and revelled in the beauty of nature, convinced that there is an intricate regularity and unity in every creation. And that undying, ever-growing urge to find the ties led them closer towards the unravelling of the natural process of mutability in species. Transformation is the essence of nature’s evolutionary dynamics.
Reviewed by Purva Variyar
First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, February 2016.