[Marxism] Darwin's ghosts

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Aug 18 08:58:27 MDT 2012


NY Times August 8, 2012, 12:44 pm
Natural Selection’s Evolution: Rebecca Stott Talks About ‘Darwin’s Ghosts’
By JOHN WILLIAMS

Soon after he published "On the Origin of Species," Charles Darwin was 
accused of neglecting to mention the thinkers who had helped to shape 
evolutionary theory before him. He scrambled to put together a list of 
predecessors that would be added to future editions of his book. In 
"Darwin's Ghosts," Rebecca Stott tells the story of those predecessors' 
work, from the empirical research of Aristotle to the studies of Alfred 
Russel Wallace, who was piecing together the science around the same 
time as Darwin. In The New York Times Book Review, Hugh Raffles called 
the book an "absorbing account" with a narrative that "flows easily 
across continents and centuries." In a recent e-mail interview, Ms. 
Stott discussed the roots of her interest in Darwin, the reasons Wallace 
played second fiddle without complaint and more. Below are edited 
excerpts from the conversation:

Q.

The very first sentence of your book is: "I grew up in a creationist 
household." How much did that drive your interest in Darwin?

A.

Darwin was described as the mouthpiece of Satan in the fundamentalist 
Christian community in which I was raised. His ideas were censored, and 
of course censorship can act as a kind of provocation to curiosity. The 
school library had a good encyclopedia with several pages on Darwin. I 
can't say I understood much of his ideas back then, but I understood 
enough to be mute with fascination. It was extraordinarily different 
from the biblical version of how things had come to be - but no less 
strange.

Q.

You've written about Darwin before. What led you to concentrate on this 
aspect of his story?

A.

In writing "Darwin and the Barnacle," I had come to respect the kinds of 
risks Darwin took in asking these dangerous questions about the origins 
of species. But I also knew there had been others before him who 
entertained similar ideas, and I wanted to know if they had had to take 
similar risks.

Q.

Alfred Russel Wallace was independently reaching the same conclusions as 
Darwin around the same time, and Darwin felt compelled to rush his book 
to publication to establish his primacy. Wallace responded to the 
situation with incredible equanimity. Why didn't he fight for more turf?

A.

I don't think it occurred to him to do that. There were subtle class 
issues that determined his place in the question of priority for him, I 
think. Wallace had long looked up to Darwin and [the geologist] Charles 
Lyell and [the botanist] Joseph Hooker - they were gentlemen of science, 
whereas he thought of himself as a collector. Other things mattered to 
him more than fame - he was determined to play his part in the 
collection of proof about evolution. He was deeply proud to have been 
part of that, and also probably relieved to be able to slip away from 
the politics and the fuss and get back into the field.

Q.

Aside from Wallace, who came closest to scientifically (as opposed to 
metaphorically) figuring out natural selection before Darwin?

A.

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck was one of the first men of science to have access 
to enough fossil and living animal specimens and bones to really gather 
the weight of evidence that would be needed to understand the ways in 
which species evolve. Lamarck worked in the Museum of Natural History in 
Paris, which in 1800 had the most remarkable collection of natural 
history specimens in the world - Napoleon Bonaparte had stolen hundreds 
of famous European natural history collections during the Napoleonic 
Wars and brought them all to Paris.

Q.

The book's roster of notable predecessors starts with Aristotle. As 
brilliant as he was, that's a very early time for thoughts about 
evolution. What did he know or intuit that makes him a part of this 
intellectual lineage?

A.

What is remarkable about Aristotle is that he was the first to practice 
empirical science, rather than to settle for large-scale hypothetical 
theories about natural laws or cosmologies. He insisted on gathering 
facts; only facts he had verified with his own eyes. By trying to gather 
together all the information on all the animal species in the world, he 
was asking questions about species diversity and adaptation that would 
lead later scientists to evolutionary speculations. But he was not an 
evolutionist. He believed in the fixity of species.

Q.

You start in 344 B.C. Then you hop forward to A.D. 850. And then to the 
late 15th century. What accounts for such large gaps between periods of 
progress in this subject?

A.

I wish I knew. Perhaps certain thinkers or schools of thought have been 
lost to history. Perhaps in the West it was due to the dominance of 
Christianity, and particularly Catholicism, over intellectual inquiry. 
Some of the periods of acceleration in the history of evolutionary 
thought were caused by material changes - the development of the 
printing press or of the microscope, growth in literacy rates, the 
gradual opening up of libraries and natural history collections to the 
public - but it always strikes me as salutary that one of the greatest 
periods of acceleration in evolutionary speculation took place in 
post-Revolutionary Paris between 1790 and 1815, when the priests had 
been banished and the professors had been given license to pursue any 
question they liked. That's when evolutionary ideas really came into 
their own.

Q.

The polyp is a small organism that plays a large role in the story. What 
about it captured people's imaginations?

A.

I am particularly fond of the polyp. It was first "discovered" by a 
Swiss naturalist called Abraham Trembley in The Hague in the 1730s. 
Under a powerful microscope, he found that if you cut the "animal" in 
half, it could regenerate itself. The discovery caused a sensation 
amongst European naturalists, philosophers and theologians because it 
seemed to challenge all natural laws - animals cannot regenerate 
themselves. Why could a simple organism like the polyp have such powers 
and not humans?

Q.

Darwin would add people to a list of acknowledgments, then cross them 
off. He criticized a predecessor in one edition of "Origin" and then 
struck that criticism from the next edition. What drove his anxiety 
about the list and his fiddling with it the way he did?

A.

I am more and more convinced that assembling that list of predecessors 
was a kind of political act as well as a public relations exercise for 
Darwin. He was effectively saying: "Look, I'm not the first. Here are 
the men who have made this claim before me. We are all responsible."  He 
wanted to have sane, respectable, ordinary people on that list to try to 
persuade his readers that evolution wasn't a mad, French, radical, 
anti-establishment idea. So it seems no coincidence that he worked 
particularly hard at finding hard-working respectable people like 
himself to put on his list, and that a large proportion of those people 
are British.




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