[Marxism] Darwin's ghosts
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:
The very first sentence of your book is: "I grew up in a creationist
household." How much did that drive your interest in Darwin?
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
You've written about Darwin before. What led you to concentrate on this
aspect of his story?
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
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?
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.
Aside from Wallace, who came closest to scientifically (as opposed to
metaphorically) figuring out natural selection before Darwin?
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.
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
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.
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?
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
The polyp is a small organism that plays a large role in the story. What
about it captured people's imaginations?
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?
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?
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
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