Thursday, July 16, 2020

Darwin's Ghosts by Rebecca Stott

Source of book: I own this.


“Masterpieces are not single solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice.” ~ Virginia Woolf

 Thus opens this fascinating book, which looks at the many men of the past who predated Charles Darwin and laid the foundation for his theory of evolution by natural selection. With the exception of a few of Darwin’s contemporaries (many who were obscure even then), nobody put it all together in coherent form the way Darwin did, but they did come up with ideas that had much in common with Darwin. 


Charles Darwin remains a controversial figure in my extended family. My mother is descended from the Josiah Wedgwood family - she actually got a check from the estate of one of the scions back in the 1970s. Both Charles and his grandfather Erasmus were close relatives of the Wedgwoods, and the families intermarried at several points. I am thus related to, although not descended from, Charles Darwin. Because of the embrace of Fundamentalism in the early 1900s, my ancestors were embarrassed about the connection, and I didn’t really hear about it until I was older. This is a shame, because Darwin indeed expanded our understanding of the world in a huge way, and certainly was not the horrible person Fundies claim he was. 

Rebecca Stott also grew up in a Fundie household. Here is what she says about it, from the preface. 

I grew up in a Creationist household. As a child, I often thought about Charles Darwin; I wondered who he was and whether he knew, as my grandfather and the other preachers alleged, that he had been sent to earth to do Satan’s work. It seemed an odd reason to make a man, I thought, but then, in the scale of things, perhaps no more odd than the story of God and Satan tormenting Job or the angels who appeared in Sodom and Gomorrah, no more strange than the pillar of salt that Lot’s wife was turned into, or the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. I also wondered if, as Satan’s man, Darwin might have hooves or scales. But generally, it wasn’t a good idea to ask questions about such things. 

Her grandfather had gone so far as to remove all references to Darwin from the family copy of Britannica. Later, as it turns out, her parents left Fundamentalism and became Anglicans (before her father lost his faith entirely), and she was able to read on her own. She says she never has lost the feeling of transgression. 

The book starts with a quick history of the publication of The Origin of the Species. Darwin had to rush to publish, because a (friendly) rival was also close to publication of similar ideas - and Darwin had been working on them a lot longer. Because of this, he failed to include his intended list of people whose ideas he had built upon. In subsequent editions, the list was added, and changed a bit over time as better information became available. For example, Darwin completely missed a living author who had mentioned natural selection...but this was understandable because the quote was buried in a footnote in a specialized book on forestry that probably only a handful of people had read. Darwin added the name once he became aware of it. 

Stott lays out the history in chronological order after the opening chapter, starting with Aristotle. It would be exaggeration to say that Aristotle was an evolutionist - he wasn’t - but he did spend a portion of his early years collecting and classifying creatures, and noted the similarities. He tried to find common rules, but was puzzled by creatures (like sponges) that appeared to straddle the line between plant and animal. 

Likewise, Muslim biologist (and polymath writer) Jahiz expanded the understanding of related species, but did not make the jump to common ancestry. In this chapter, one of the interesting things was the way that the society of his time valued books, and translated hundreds from Greek to Arabic, preserving a number of works that did not survive in their original forms. The Abbasid Empire was a remarkable example of pluralism and culture, with educated citizens, lending libraries, and a thriving book sale industry. Jahiz died at the remarkable old age of 94, and legend states that he was crushed to death when a wall of books fell on him. True or not, I suspect this might be my cause of death someday…

While there were these ancient predecessors, most of those who got close to the idea of common ancestry were relatively modern. In part, this was because of better technology and better ways of sharing information. In particular, the invention of the microscope enabled humans to see microorganisms for the first time. The world in a drop of pond water was populated with thousands of these “wee beasties” that seemed to be neither plant nor animal, or perhaps both. 

Along with the science also came the enlightenment, which had a huge impact on thought, to put it mildly. For much of this period, you can see a battle between the organized church and the free-thinking sorts who moved science forward. (To be clear, the battle wasn’t exactly between religion and science, but between science and certain politically powerful religious organizations who depended on a literalist view of scripture to maintain their power. Plenty of scientists were religious, just not Fundamentalist.) 

One interesting bit in this vein was the inevitable result of world travel. As Europeans travelled and experienced the world outside of Christendom, they discovered other religious traditions. As it became clear that there were many well-developed religious systems, with often similar rituals and ceremonies - and ethics - it was harder to see the Catholic (or Anglican) Church as the “only true church.” As one religion among many, it lost its infallible authority. 

One of the key early men in the modernist tradition of “transformism” was Benoit de Maillet. Beginning in 1697, he wrote a book that was clearly heretical, but couched inside a framing story to distance the author from the ideas. This book, Telliamed, is considered the first ever to posit that species mutated and were not fixed. The book was not published until a decade after Maillet was safely dead and buried. It went on to become a huge seller, as well as a huge scandal. Even fellow heretic Voltaire condemned it in what are now amusing terms: “It was he who, abusing the story of some upheaval that arrived in the world, claims that the seas had formed the mountains, and that fish have turned into men.” This is, ironically, agreed to be an accurate if incomplete account of natural history. We do have mountains which formed in the sea, and the ancestors of fish are indeed our ancestors as well. 

The authorities didn’t take too well to these early scientists. That fatal combination of church and state cannot abide the idea of losing one ounce of authority and power, and sought to suppress the new ideas. For “natural philosophers,” persecution came with the job. Diderot summed it up pretty well:

“He who resolves to apply himself to the study of philosophy [meaning science in this case], may expect not only the philosophical obstacles that are in the nature of his subject, but also the multitude of moral obstacles that will present themselves, as they have done to all the philosophers preceding him. When, then, it shall come about that he is frustrated, misunderstood, calumniated, compromised, and torn to pieces, let him learn to say to himself, ‘It is in my century only, am I the only one against whom there are men filled with ignorance and rancour, souls eaten by envy, heads troubled by superstition?’ I am then, certain to obtain, some day, the only applause by which I set any store, if I have been fortunate enough to merit it.” 

Eventually, the book gets to Erasmus Darwin, Charles’ grandfather, who did much to further science as well. Also, he had a comically soap opera sort of life. Anyway, I did want to mention his work in exploring caves and obtaining fossils from the limestone. One of those was known at the time as Devil’s Arse Cavern, because of the flatulent noises it made when water was draining away. Apparently, Queen Victoria was offended, so they changed the name to “Peak Cavern” for her visit. 

Oh, and he also put the motto E Conchis Omnia on his family crest - the heretical “Everything from shells.”

I also have to mention that Erasmus Darwin’s ideas were suppressed, as was his society of scientists. A judge set up a euphemistically named “Association for Preserving Liberty and Property Against Republicans and Levellers,” complete with a spy network. I note that the language is a lot like that used by our modern-day fascists, who equate “liberty” with their own economic and social privilege. The threat to their “liberty” is equality - those who would raise all men to their level. 

I hadn’t really thought of the role that evolutionary thinking played in egalitarian political structures, but it makes sense. As the author notes, the idea that nature wasn’t fixed, but organisms either adapted and thrived, or died out, struck at the heart of social hierarchies. The enlightened future would belong to those with talent and adaptability, rather than those with money and an old name. That social darwinism (which Darwin did NOT invent or support) would be invented to give a scientific gloss to oppression was predictable, but it wasn’t the original result of Darwinism itself - it was a reaction to disruption of hierarchy. 

While religious persecution of scientists wasn’t limited to England, it did take on a distinctly English flavour by the time Charles Darwin came around. Transformism or any scientific idea that contradicted a young earth was considered to be a “French” heresy. It is fascinating to see that it is still the exact same arguments in use. For example, one of the reasons that Fundies today are infuriated with Environmentalism is that they have a religious dogma that states that the universe exists - indeed was created - solely for humans to enjoy it. The idea that other species exist for their own benefit, not ours, is anathema to them, and thus they are wedded to the idea that we are entitled to kill and destroy whatever we want if it gives us pleasure or profit. I happen to think this is contrary to both reason (we are part of nature and depend on it) and theology (we were tasked with caring for creation, not destroying it.) 

Likewise, there is still a rhetorical argument over what science should concern itself with. Religious authorities have always been jealously protective of their power and authority, and fight against any encroachment. Hence, the claim that Nature’s laws were “forever hidden from man” and thus humans should concern themselves with studying theology instead. 

Darwin’s Ghosts is a fascinating book, full of historical detail, well researched, and well written. For those interested in the history of why a belief in common ancestry was inevitable, this book can really help with that. But the characters which populate the book are delightful as well. Many of these men (no women, sadly, as the author points out), are either obscure now, or known for other things, but their stories are part of the reason we are in the scientific age we are. 

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