Book Club: Simultaneous Discovery and Darwin’s Ghosts

Does Darwin deserve the credit for the theory of evolution, knowing what we know now about his predecessors?

By Sarah Reisert | August 6, 2018
A portrait of Charles Darwin by Thomas Johnson

A portrait of Charles Darwin by Thomas Johnson.

Science History Institute

Sarah Reisert here, reporting in with a new dispatch from the Science History Institute Book Club! Our latest selection was Rebecca Stott’s Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution.

When Charles Darwin published his iconic work On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859, it was a phenomenon, and the first print run sold out in one day. Letters started pouring in from readers, some supporting Darwin’s theories and others expressing their outrage. These types of letters he’d expected, but mixed in were letters of a sort he hadn’t anticipated—those from readers pointing out scientists with similar theories who had come before Darwin, scientists Darwin failed to acknowledge in his best-seller, as though the idea of evolution had sprung forth fully formed from Darwin’s brain like Athena from the head of Zeus.

Most scientific publications come with a literature review of some sort, a summary of the current knowledge already out there on a given subject. This is especially important when dealing with controversial claims. But Darwin didn’t include such a review—not even a preface. He had a lot of excuses (the book was rushed to print because he desperately wanted to publish ahead of Alfred Russel Wallace; Darwin considered himself a poor scholar of history, and he was overwhelmed by even the thought of such an attempt), but now, with the book’s publication, the problem needed to be addressed. In the fourth edition of Origin, Darwin included a preface naming thirty-seven people who arguably had a hand in developing the theory of evolution.

Rebecca Stott tackles about a dozen of these in Darwin’s Ghosts and shares with us their worlds and their discoveries. We go to ancient Greece with Aristotle, looking at fish in the lagoons of Lesbos; we go to The Hague with Abraham Trembley, dissecting and regrowing hydras; we even spend some time with Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus as he explored mines in search of ancient shells, wondering about how the earth had changed and how long those changes took. Most of the figures in Stott’s book are closer to Darwin in time rather than farther away, much like the people listed in Darwin’s own preface.

It’s not uncommon for things to be discovered or invented by different people at the same time. Carl Wilhelm Scheele and Joseph Priestley more or less simultaneously discovered oxygen. Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz developed calculus concurrently. Sunspots were simultaneously discovered by four people living in four different countries! A study in 1960 concluded that “the pattern of independent multiple discoveries in science is in principle the dominant pattern, rather than a subsidiary one.” Is that just because knowledge has progressed so far by any given date that certain next steps are inevitable? Are there just ideas whose time has come?

Our book club also discussed the idea of place and its role in science. You don’t have these great thinkers without the environments to produce them: Athens, Basra, Paris, Cairo. True, genius can come from anywhere, but why do we so often see great thoughts coming out of great cities? Is it something about the culture, the resources, the freedom?

So does Darwin still deserve the credit for the theory of evolution, knowing what we know now about his predecessors? Sure, we can say that these early evolutionists had some things wrong so they don’t deserve the credit, but Darwin had some things wrong too. How should we handle this? Should we make a real effort to frame him as just one of many? Or should we give the credit to the one who is most correct at a given moment? In the end, because Darwin specified natural selection in his theory of evolution, our book club is inclined to let him retain the crown.

Here are a few more of our discussion questions to mull over while you read Darwin’s Ghosts:

1. Of the dozen or so scientists/natural philosophers Stott includes in this book, whose story did you enjoy the most and why? And who do you think has the strongest claim to figuring out evolution before Darwin?

2. Darwin included 37 evolutionary predecessors in his preface to the fourth edition of the Origin of Species. Of them do you think Stott picked the correct ones to write about in this book? Why do you think she picked the ones she did?

3. In the epilogue Stott imagines Darwin and his evolutionary predecessors in the present, wandering the universities in Cambridge or California. “Think what they might make of genetics, the genome project, neuroscience, and cloning. . . . But think too, of how mystified they might be, given how well they understood the great strides that are often made as a result of crossing disciplinary boundaries, by the increasing narrowness of scientific specialties; and given that all of them, except Darwin and his grandfather Erasmus, Robert Chambers, and Alfred Russel Wallace, depended financially upon powerful and influential patrons who understood what they were doing and rarely interfered with their work or asked them to account for its usefulness or applicability, they might be baffled to hear about the hours modern scientists spend filling out funding application forms and negotiating complex institutional politics. They might have asked how mavericks or iconoclasts might flourish in such conditions.” There’s a lot to unpack here, but:

a. What do you suppose these scientists would think of science today? Using Frankenstein (our last book club pick) as a touchstone, do you think someone like Darwin would feel that something like cloning is science gone too far?

b. Talk a little about the division of scientific specialties. Have we reached peak specialty? Or are we going the other direction, finding that specialties are more intertwined than we thought?

c. What would these scientists think of the modern fight for science funding?

Reading along with us at home? Our next book is Thomas Levenson’s Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist. See you in September!