Darwin’s Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists, Rebecca Stott
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.
I got access to Zealot from Netgalley before the now famous interview on Fox (which you can view here), though that interview did make me more interested in reading the book. There have been responses to that interview since that somewhat cast doubt on Reza Aslan’s integrity in that interview, stating that he doesn’t have the qualifications and background he claims to have, etc. I’m not really going to refer to those, but here’s a link to one of them in case you’re interested.
It might also be helpful to note that I’m not a Christian, I’m a Unitarian Universalist, and I think that the gospels are for the most part a beautiful story which can help teach us how to live. The “real” Jesus needn’t even have existed to be an example. I have a fairly literary take on scriptures of all stripes, so Reza Aslan isn’t stepping on my toes here.
I approached Zealot with some doubt, in any case, because it sounded too wonderfully inflammatory to be really an unbiased scholarly attempt. I actually liked Aslan’s writing style, and this felt less like a scholarly work, closer to a semi-fictionalised biography or something of that sort. If it was a story, it was somewhat dry; if it was a scholarly work, it was too informal. I also very much missed the presence of footnotes: there are some notes at the end of the book, but in the ebook they’re not easy to access and they seem to contain almost as much commentary as the original chapters!
There is a separate bibliography which is extensive and clearly laid out, but… overall, I can’t shake the feeling that we are being presented Reza Aslan’s personal convictions about what research he has done, not meticulous careful and, what’s more, original research. The actual areas where he quoted something and explained why it helped form his views seem actually quite few and far between, and his judgements on their reliability a bit patchy.
An interesting read, and a well-written book, but not something I can place too much faith in.