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Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution

3.74  ·  Rating details ·  1,660 ratings  ·  252 reviews
“[An] extraordinarily wide-ranging and engaging book [about] the men who shaped the work of Charles Darwin . . . a book that enriches our understanding of how the struggle to think new thoughts is shared across time and space and people.”—The Sunday Telegraph (London)

Christmas, 1859. Just one month after the publication of On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin received
Hardcover, 396 pages
Published June 12th 2012 by Spiegel & Grau (first published January 1st 2012)
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Average rating 3.74  · 
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 ·  1,660 ratings  ·  252 reviews

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Apr 28, 2012 rated it really liked it
Do you love Darwin? You should, really should. I know everyone loves Einstein because he looks so cute in his iconic pictures; his hair makes him seem a bit like a troll doll. Plus his theories seem so brainy and math heavy as to be almost imponderable. But Darwin? He looks so serious in his pictures, like one of the Smith Brothers of cough lozenge fame. And evolution? It isn't mathematical at all. At face value, it's a theory that anyone with observant eyes could have figured out.

But let me tel
Jan 23, 2013 rated it really liked it
This book describes the lives and discoveries of a number of people who Darwin thought may have had some impact on the theory of evolution. Some of the earliest, such as Aristotle, actually had no concept of evolution. During the 1700's and early 1800's, several people developed ideas about evolution. However, only a couple--most notably Alfred Wallace--developed any concept of the mechanism of natural selection.

It surprised me that Charles Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was also a propon
Jamie Bradway
Jun 14, 2012 rated it liked it
There's a very nice intro and using Darwin's acknowledgments from the second edition of 'Origin' was a nice outro, but most of the in-between bits were uneven, sometimes straying from what I understood to be the purpose of the book.

Each of these chapters were to reveal the contributions of the 'transmutationists' who preceded Darwin, often suffering the wrath of The Church in the process. Several of these chapters focus much more on biographical sketch than on scientific thought, however. And so
Oct 07, 2013 rated it liked it
If we’re not careful, we end up thinking of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution as something completely revolutionary, standing alone, unprecedented and bitterly opposed by a world totally unprepared for it. In some ways, it is true, but Darwin himself knew there had been other theorists before him — even if he didn’t agree with their conclusions — who had seen descent with modification at work and tried to come up with explanations, mechanisms, reasons. Rebecca Stott’s book redresses the recor ...more
May 24, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science, history
A Superb Examination into the Origins of Darwinian Thought

Rebecca Stott’s “Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution” is a masterful overview of the history of science leading up to Darwin’s discovery of Natural Selection as a primary mechanism for biological evolution. Hers is an especially important account, since she places the work of Darwin and his intellectual forebears within the context of the societies and cultures they inhabited, stretching across a vast gulf of time that begins
Maybe I'm being unfair with three stars; it is quite a fascinating book. However, I had trouble paying attention sometimes. I think it's because the format became tedious for me. The book is essentially a series of chronological mini-biographies of men who paved the way for Darwin to be able to publish his famous book and subsequently become the most famous of them all, but he probably could not have done it without them. I enjoyed learning about all these rather radical groundbreakers, who all ...more
A history of ideas surrounding the explanation for the difference of species, before Darwin's grand theory of the origin of species

When Darwin had published his first version of The Origin of Species, he received a lot of letters from people who claimed to have developed the concept of natural selection before Darwin. In his fourth version, he added a list of people who - in his view - had contributed their ideas towards Darwin.

This book is therefore not about Darwin itself, but the people who c
Sep 22, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
I think everyone should be a natural philosopher. Not professionally, of course. No one would be left to build rocket ships and brew seasonal ales for me. I am suggesting an explosion in the number of amateur or hobbyist natural philosophers. I think the world would be a much improved place if more people got lost in the woods, picked through a spade-full of dirt to count all the bugs, or simply looked up at the sky at night and wondered at what they saw.

It's that last bit that is precious to me
David West
This book had a lot of interesting history. In the 4th edition of The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin included over 30 names of men who had contributed to the field of natural philosophy and science. The author looks at some of these men and compares/contrasts their work with that of Charles Darwin, starting with Aristotle and ending with contemporaries of Darwin. Of particular interest to me was the theories of Erasmus Darwin the grandfather of the Darwin we know so well. I also found it inte ...more
Darwin's Ghosts is a series of colourful and engaging portraits of several naturalists mentioned in Darwin's "Historical Sketch," a prefatory list of acknowledgements that Darwin added to the fourth edition of the Origin, in 1866. The sketch lists all the naturalists whom he credited with having considered, in one way or another, the mutability of species prior to the publication of the Origin. Some were relatively unknown scholars who wrote to Darwin indignantly demanding credit for ideas that ...more
Bob H
Oct 10, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, science
Here are the intellects that preceded Darwin and his Origin of Species. Stung by a criticism that his Origin of Species was not, in effect, original, he would put a "Historical Sketch" in his third edition to show who proceeded him. What this author has done was to investigate all the theories and scholarship that addressed natural diversity, evolution ("transmutation" it was often called), and natural selection. The author found a wider college of thought than the "Historical Sketch" did, from ...more
Peter (Pete) Mcloughlin
An artist matters. If Beethoven never existed we would never have had his seventh symphony. However as this book illustrates in science things are very different. If Darwin never existed we would be deprived of his beautiful book Origin of Species but we would definitely still today be talking about the theory of Evolution. Ideas in science are more impersonal than art and don't depend on individual genius but are usually floating around in the culture until someone clever enough comes up with t ...more
Jeanette Lukens
Dec 31, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Great book, basically a short biography about Darwins predecessors. Some I had already heard of but knew little about their biological research, like Aristotle, but most I had not heard of, And I liked learning about them and the research they did.

My only complaint about the book, is really the title and part of the preface where the author implies that Darwin was a radical. I don't really think someone who did in depth research and then waited decades to publish it out of fear of shaking things
With a solid introduction and an ‘outro’ using Darwin’s own acknowledgments from the second edition of his Origin of Species, Stott has managed to pull together a series of ‘miniature biographies’ of those who formed the basis of the what is considered, by many, to be the first and certainly the most famous, theories on evolution and natural selection.

Following moments from Aristotle through William Wallace, from transmutation theory and those who philosophized about it – often running afoul of
Laura Anne
I thought this book was very imaginative in its telling of Darwin’s predecessors of evolutionary theory. Specifically in taking the reader back in time to places far off and exotic. From the isle of Lesbos in 344 BC, to the port city of Basra in 850 CE, and eventually Paris in 1749. I like one book that can teach and inform the reader of so many separate places and eras.
If you want a book to get lost in and you’re a nonfiction junkie let me encourage you to go pick this book up from your local
John Pollard
Mar 17, 2020 rated it it was amazing
5 stars, it was amazing, not because it was my ideal book (it was slightly hard work at times), but because of the impressiveness of Rebecca Scott, in her research (assuming it is mostly accurate). She makes it feel she was there, with Aristotle, de Maillet and the rest. The book really brings home the conservative entrenched attitudes of the Church and their influence and power, forcing these scientists to hold back publication, water down and/or publish anonymously.
Aug 15, 2018 rated it liked it
3 and 1/2 stars. Well researched, scholarly, but (to me) plodding book on thinkers who preceded (and in one case, matched) Darwin in approaching the idea of evolution. I did not read every word.
Jose Zapata
Oct 13, 2020 rated it really liked it
If you love science, evolution and theory this is IT
Stephanie Griffin
Mar 17, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2020-rwc
Once again I’m amazed at what I wasn’t taught in school. The history of the theory of evolution goes way, way back before Darwin. Even Aristotle made note of it. I recommend this book to all of my biology-reading friends!
Emmanuel Gustin
This account of the achievements (and errors) of evolutionary biologists before Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace highlights the struggle of early scientific observers to understand what they saw. As one commentator put it, "the theory of evolution explains the fact of evolution." Many of the people described in this book understood that both living species and fossils showed evidence that species had changed in a way that made them better adapted to their environment, but they did not understan ...more
Jan 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
With a title like this, it seems blatantly obvious this book would attract readers interested in science and history; but, actually you don't need a scientific background to appreciate and enjoy reading this book. I do not have a scientific background, but the book reviews and reader comments published on Goodreads piqued my interest. Most of the comments were positive; the negative comments referred to the book's length and excessive details. After reading the book, I disagree that the length a ...more
G Hodges
May 27, 2012 rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
I can’t say I thought this was a worthwhile read. I was1/3 through before I learned something I didn’t already know. I didn’t really get the point of the book. Was it that people were involved in empirical thought before Darwin? Knew that already. Was it to tell us people thought of the evolution concept before Darwin? Knew that already. That Darwin expanded the ideas of others? We knew that. Was it an attempt to put together Darwins intellectual forebears? If so, it was not well realized. In fa ...more
Sep 11, 2016 rated it it was ok
Charles Darwin and evolution are my most favorite subject. This book started well for some 10 pages, noting the when Darwin was rushed into print with the first edition, he received complaints that he had not acknowledged earlier writers who had pointed out that species had changed over time.
The subject of this book then is who are those earlier writers, The Ghosts.
She then goes into several hundred pages, starting with Aristotle, discussing earlier writers. They did write about animals but not
D.J. Butler
May 06, 2012 rated it it was amazing
It's not clear how haunted Darwin was by these other men -- by Stott's account, he seems to have mostly been ignorant of their work.

Slightly off-the-mark title aside, this is a terrific story, written in highly readable narrative prose. It's about Darwin's predecessors (and, in the case of Alfred Wallace at least, the man who almost beat him to the punch). Starting with Aristotle (not an evolutionist, but a close observer of fact in the natural world) and working through Leonardo da Vinci and on
Marian Willeke
This was a great little walk-thru of the major influences through people and establishments that led to not only the belief of evolution and acceptance of the theory in science starting with Aristotle, but the keystone as to /how/ evolution occurred. While Darwin may not have known about the ancient influences, Stott provided a clear chain of more local influences between decades and cultures that cultivated the path towards the eruption of evolution in the mid-nineteenth century. This book weav ...more
Harry Hemstreet
Sep 30, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
Less to do about Darwin, more of a tracing of the ideas of evolution and origin of species from the time of Aristotle - the many shoulders that Darwin stood upon to complete his 'Origins'. Amazing how far we have progressed but are still fighting the same prejudices that were fought from the 13th century onward. All of the giants of natural history were in constant fear for their lives and reputations as the church steadfastly defended Genesis - to the point of branding these geniuses heretics. ...more
Dec 13, 2013 rated it it was ok
I have to confess I did not enjoy this book as much I hoped. Whilst the stories and bios of each of the scientists/naturalists listed here are interesting and enjoyable, there is too much extraneous information to hold a reader’s interest for long, never mind the often irrelevant and rather exasperating footnotes to the text that the author provides. I think Ms Stott had excellent motives for writing this book and giving the men (all men!) whose lives she describes their rightful place in the hi ...more
Feisty Harriet
Sep 02, 2016 rated it really liked it
I tend to devour any and all books about Charles Darwin, his theories of evolution and the survival of the fittest, and, in general, the revolutionary era of scientific advancement in which he lived. This book covers the history of Darwin's thoughts, but starting with Aristotle and going right on down to Darwin's grandfather, Darwin's contemporaries, and Darwin himself. Stott spends time detailing scientists and naturalists from around the world and throughout history who have discovered, indepe ...more
Oct 08, 2013 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Although thoroughly researched…ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ…and written in great de-…ZZZZZZZZZZZZ…tail, this book never…never really…ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ…never really seems to hold the reader’s attention.

It is easy to surmise that no grand notion, be it academic or artistic, is truly of unique gestation. What Stott had done here, is exhaustively account for all known predecessors of the nearly sainted man of science, Charles Darwin. Although well written, as the aforementioned Zs’ indicate, it is not just the
Mar 14, 2013 rated it it was ok
Shelves: nonfiction
This is exactly why I don't review books. This was well written, interesting, and important. That said, I didn't like it one bit. I found it boring and slow-paced. I hardly got through it. I'm intensely interested in evolution and the history of science but I hated this book and I don't really have any justification for that.
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Rebecca Stott was born in Cambridge in 1964 and raised in Brighton in a large Plymouth Brethren community. She studied English and Art History at York University and then completed an MA and PhD whilst raising her son, Jacob, born in 1984.

She is the author of several academic books on Victorian literature and culture, two books of non-fiction, including a partial biography of Charles Darwin, and a

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