If we’re not careful, we end up thinking of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution as something completely revolutionary, standing alone, unprecedented and bitterly opposed by a world totally unprepared for it. In some ways, it is true, but Darwin himself knew there had been other theorists before him — even if he didn’t agree with their conclusions — who had seen descent with modification at work and tried to come up with explanations, mechanisms, reasons. Rebecca Stott’s book redresses the record somewhat, engaging with various different theories which glimpsed a part of the truth which Darwin, in the end, really managed to explain and prove.
This is not so much a book which proves evolution or explains Darwin’s theory, although it does cast light on it. Jerry A. Coyne’s Why Evolution is True might be more what you’re looking for, explaining the nuts and bolts of the theory. Stott’s book is more about historical context and the scientific framework Darwin had to work with when he wrote On the Origin of Species.
Stott did well at explaining some of the diversity of opinion and thought before Darwin, and without sounding patronising about the theorists who were, after all, wrong. In some cases, it’s even apparent there were aspects which they got right (Lamarck, for example, may have been wrong in scale, but the existence of epigenetic modifications to DNA shows he was not all wrong). I did find the book dry at times, and it felt more like history than science — very accessible on a scientific level, and somewhat biographical about the people mentioned. A lot of it was not new to me, which might have been part of why I found it dry.