British Jacket

American Jacket

Darwin’s Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists (Bloomsbury May 2012; Spiegel and Grau, Random House, US, June 2012)

During the Christmas celebrations of 1860 Charles Darwin sat down to try to assemble a list of his predecessors, the men who had held evolutionary ideas before him. But as he was such a poor scholar of history, he told his friends, he failed to find more than ghostly presences and vestiges of their lives. In this epic chronicle of scientific courage and insight, Rebecca Stott goes in search of those first evolutionists whose intellectual originality and daring have been lost to us and to Darwin. She rediscovers Aristotle walking the shores of Lesbos with his pupils and Leonardo da Vinci searching for fossils in the mine-shafts of the Tuscan hills; Diderot, in Paris, exploring the origins of species while under the surveillance of the secret police, and the brilliant naturalists of the Jardin de Plantes finding evidence for evolutionary change in the natural history collections stolen during the Napoleonic wars. Darwin’s Ghosts is a tale of mummified birds, inland lagoons, Bedouin nomads, secret police files, microscopes and curiosity cabinets, as well as the history of a profoundly dangerous idea.


Interview with George Miller at Blackwells   086_stott_darwins_ghosts

BBC Radio Four’s Start the Week discussion with Rebecca Stott, Philip Ball, Andrew Marr and Peter Carey:

Interview with Susanne Anderson of Future Radio, May, 2012:


‘Mesmerizing, colorful, and often moving… richly drawn…This many-threaded story of intellectual development – of different discoveries and enquiries into fossils and polyps, of tropical birds and the curious properties of sponge, of men scouring seashores and caves, and trying to work new ideas around the fixed, immovable pillars of religion – is hypnotic…. The subject is science, but Stott has a novelist’s confidence, and there are vivid tableaux… This is a sympathetic examination of the innate human qualities of curiosity and inquiry, the helpless compulsion every generation has to probe further and further into the structures of creation.’
— Sinclair McKay, The Daily Telegraph

‘This extraordinarily wide-ranging and engaging book rediscovers evolutionary insights across a great span of time, from the famous, such as Aristotle and the Islamic scholar Al-Jahiz, to the 16th-century potter Palissy, the 18th-century merman-believer Maillet and the transformist poet and botanist, Rafinesque – as well as from Diderot, Lamarck, Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus and his contemporary Wallace. And these are just a few of the figures who emerge from the dark into the glow of Stott’s attention. Each of them is evoked with an intimacy that is also clearheaded about the way ideas get stuck, or prove wrong-headed, but can’t be parted with. Stott can make the nuances of ideas emerge in descriptions that suddenly bring the person close…. Gripping as well as fair-minded… Darwin’s Ghosts is a book that enriches our understanding of how the struggle to think new thoughts is shared across time and space and people.’
— Gillian Beer, The Sunday Telegraph

‘Stott’s research is broad and unerring; her book is wonderful…. An exhilarating romp through 2,000 years of fascinating scientific history.’
— Andrew Berry, Nature

‘Impressively researched… A gripping and ambitious history of science which gives a vivid sense of just how many forebears Darwin had.’
— Bee Wilson, The Sunday Times

‘It takes great skill and scholarship to tell the story well, and Rebecca Stott does it wonderfully. Here is a rich tale indeed. It needs a novelist like Rebecca Stott to get to grips with it; and so she does, triumphantly.’
— Colin Tudge, The Literary Review

‘[Stott] has revealed an extraordinary batch of free thinkers who dared to consider mutability during times when such ideas might still cost the thinker his head….Every character that Stott introduces has a riveting story to tell, and all their histories are told with style and historical nous….Stott has done a wonderful job in showing just how many extraordinary people had speculated on where we came from before the great theorist dispelled all doubts.’
— Richard Fortey, The Guardian

‘A fascinating history of an idea that is crucial to our understanding of life on earth.’
— Ziauddin Sardar, The Independent  

‘Beautifully written and compelling… These mavericks and heretics put their lives on the line. Finally, they are getting the credit they deserve.’
— Mark Wilson, The Independent on Sunday 

‘Stott provides the lucid intellectual genealogy of evolution that the great man could not.’
— Jonathon Keats, New Scientist

‘the ghosts so richly described in Ms Stott’s enjoyable book are the descendants of Aristotle and Bacon and the ancestors of today’s scientists.’
— Laura J. Snyder, Wall Street Journal

‘Charles Darwin provided the mechanism for the evolution of the exquisite adaptations found in plants and animals, but the awareness that species can change had been growing long before him. With wonderful clarity Rebecca Stott traces how ideas about biological evolution themselves evolved in the minds of great biologists from Aristotle onward. Darwin would have loved this brilliant book—and so do I.’
— Sir Patrick Bateson, president of the Zoological Society of London

‘Clever, compassionate, and compellingly written, Darwin’s Ghosts interweaves history and science to enchanting effect. The evolution of the theory of evolution is a brilliant idea for a book, and Rebecca Stott has realized it wonderfully.’
— Tom Holland

‘From Aristotle onward, evolutionists have—thank God—always been a quarrelsome lot, and not much has changed. Rebecca Stott shows how dispute, prejudice, and rage have accompanied their science from the very beginning. Darwin’s Ghosts is a gripping history of the history of life and of those who have studied it, with plenty of lessons for today—perhaps for today’s biologists most of all.’
— Steve Jones