The Evolution of Evolution

Article excerpt

Reviews of: Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution by Rebecca Stott;

Spiegel and Grau, 2012.

$27.00 416 pps.

ISBN-13: 978-1400069378


American Genesis: The Evolution Controversies From Scopes to Creation Science by Jeffrey P. Moran;

Oxford University Press, 2012.

$29.95 216 pps.

ISBN-13: 978-0195183498


Darwin the Writer by George Levine.

Oxford University Press, 2012.

2011. $35.00 272 pps

ISBN-13: 978-0199608430



A while back I decided to plug a hole in my literary education by reading Charles Dickens's novel Martin Chuzzlewit, first serialized from 1843 to 1844. Near the end of the first chapter, in which Dickens relates the sometimes sordid history of the Chuzzlewit family, I came to this:

   At present it contents itself with remarking,
   in a general way, on this
   head: Firstly, that it may be safely asserted,
   and yet without implying any
   direct participation in the Manboddo
   [sic] doctrine touching the probability
   of the human race having once been
   monkeys, that men do play very
   strange and extraordinary tricks.

Though I had for some years taken a semi-professional interest in evolutionary biology, the name of Monboddo was new to me. Certainly I was aware that the notion of common descent among species, including the shared ancestry of humans with apes, long predated Charles Darwin. Still, despite having read several histories of evolutionary thinking in biology, I had not encountered any mention of Monboddo. A few moments with Google revealed that he was a Scottish judge who, while better known for his contributions to linguistics, speculated about the possibility of evolution by natural selection.

You can therefore imagine my slight disappointment when I discovered that Rebecca Stott, a professor of English literature at the University of East Anglia, chose not to discuss Monboddo in her own history of evolutionary thought, Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution. That, however, is my only criticism of this excellent book, which paints vivid portraits of some of Darwin's most notable predecessors.

Upon publishing On the Origin of Species, Darwin knew to expect criticism both from religious authorities and from a hidebound scientific establishment. He was especially stung, however, by a charge leveled by the Reverend Baden Powell, then a mathematician at Oxford. Powell was generally supportive of Darwin's views, but he was very critical of Darwin's failure to recognize the long history of the evolutionary hypothesis. Darwin rectified this by including an historical essay in later editions of On the Origin of Species.

Stott's history begins with proto-evolutionary thinkers such as Aristotle, the 8th century Muslim writer Jahiz, and Leonardo da Vinci, and eventually concludes with Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles), Jean Baptiste Lamarck, Robert Chambers, and Alfred Russel Wallace. Common to all of these thinkers was the realization that nature defies most attempts at drawing sharp lines of demarcation. Even fundamental distinctions between plant and animal become murky when you consider sea sponges and polyps. The concept of "homology"--the appearance of the same anatomical structures across widely different species (the similar arrangement of bones in the forelimbs of humans, bats, birds and whales being a classic example)--was known already to Aristotle. Careful study of nature reveals continuity and smooth gradations, precisely as we would expect in an evolutionary world.

A second recurring theme is the lengths to which our heroes frequently went to avoid running afoul of religious authorities. Since evolutionary thinking has been heretical in most times and places, scientists pursuing such investigations were forced to be circumspect in expressing their views. …