Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Darwin had to walk in earlier evolutionists' footprints
BRITISH academic and novelist Rebecca Stott has produced a masterfully written collection of engaging vignettes of naturalists who contemplated the order of the natural world before Charles Darwin.
Like Newton on gravity (1687) and Einstein on relativity (1905), Darwin on evolution, first published in Origin of Species (1859), granted scant mention to any predecessors.
Darwin was quickly reprimanded for this lacuna, and it clearly disturbed him, for over the next decade he compiled a list of thinkers who put forth ideas similar to his -- an inventory that grew from 10 to 38.
This list is the starting point of Stott's book. In 11 chapters that chronologically survey the pre-Darwin proto-evolutionary world, she tells her compelling tales, borrowing some names from Darwin's list and adding those of her own.
Stott begins with Aristotle, who was first on Darwin's list. However, Darwin's sources for interpreting passages in Aristotle as presaging evolution were erroneous, as Stott points out.
Drawing on modern scholarship, she shows that Aristotle's view was squarely based on a static view of the order of nature. Strange then that she included him on her list.
The next chapter leaps over a millennium to the golden age of Islamic culture and the ideas of al-Jahiz on living beings. Stott rightly reveals that, contrary to some claims, al-Jahiz's ideas did not foreshadow Darwin's natural selection.
True, his careful observations of plants and animals focused on their interconnectedness, and he went so far as to emphasize how species feed on other species. But this is a far cry from the 19th-century war of nature that set the stage for Darwin, since al-Jahiz's overview is one of stasis and design revealing God's wisdom.
This example shows how the search for predecessors is fraught with the problem of anachronism -- erroneously reading the present into the past, by taking things out of context.
The problem haunts the next essays on Leonardo da Vinci, Bernard Palissy and BenoÆt de Maillet, whose ideas are more literary flights of fantasy than an augury of evolution.
Another problem is the lack of a transparent distinction between the idea of evolution and the mechanism of evolution, an important differentiation that is commonly ignored in historical discourses on evolution, but which would have been valuable for assessing each forerunner's relevance to the theory of evolution.
As she reaches modern Europe, stories of the usual pre-Darwin suspects -- Erasmus Darwin (Charles's grandfather), Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Jean Lamarck, Georg Cuvier, Robert Chambers, Alfred Russel Wallace and others -- are told in her engrossing way with words.
Each vignette is a brief scientific biography. Although Stott is knowledgeable in the history of science, she primarily is a professor of literature (she has published two literary novels), which becomes apparent in the lack of deep deliberations on the internal and technical aspects of science.
Nonetheless she balances this with extensive documentation on social history, as she weaves tales of each scientist's life and times in her lucid prose.
Contrary to the subtitle, this story is well-known and documented in scholarly publications on evolution, as confirmed by a perusal of Stott's sources alone. Indeed, the book's first subtitle in the U.K. edition was In Search of the First Evolutionists, a more accurate but less catchy one than the North American, The Secret History of Evolution, which was obviously a marketing ploy. But it is untrue -- there is no secret.
David Topper is senior scholar at the University of Winnipeg. His next book, How Einstein Created Relativity, is being published in the fall by New York-based Springer Publishing.
The Secret History of Evolution
By Rebecca Stott
Spiegel & Grau, 415 pages, $32
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 4, 2012 J7
(1 of 23 articles for this week)