The evolution of evolution

17May12

If you’re in Bristol and have nothing on this coming Sunday tea-time, May 20, book yourself a ticket for this. STOP  PRESS: Actually, don’t. It’s now been cancelled!

If you don’t know this stuff, you might be under the impression that Darwin’s theory of evolution emerged more or less solely from Darwin’s brain after years of studying and thinking. If you know a bit about this stuff, you’ll know he published Origin of Species in a bit of a hurry on learning that the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace had arrived at the same idea, and that Darwin’s publication consequently turned Wallace into the Pete Best of biology. If you know a bit more, you’ll know that Darwin’s own grandfather Erasmus Darwin, a much more interesting and charismatic personality than this grandson could ever be, was pretty sure himself that life on earth had somehow evolved from the primordial ooze.

The evolution of evolution, though, is actually way more complicated and interesting, and to get some idea how lengthy that process was you need Rebecca Stott’s compelling and beautifully-written book, Darwin’s Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists. In this, she takes us through several individuals who dabbled in, or spent entire lifetimes, studying the origins and development of plants and creatures. From Aristotle bothering the fishermen of Lesbos for samples through a French Protestant potter who made plates representing pond-life and on to Erasmus Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, she introduces us to an astonishingly large cast of Darwin’s antecedents. There may be some danger that historians and scientists alike will get sniffy about her being a novelist and maybe taking a little dramatic licence here and there, but there’s no question it’s a lovely read and if you want to be all serious about the history and/or science this is a superb starting point for further exploration because, like all the best history books, it makes you go, “That’s interesting, I never knew that!” every few pages.

Maybe she’ll be doing the Bristol gig some other time.

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4 Responses to “The evolution of evolution”

  1. Eugene, it appears to be cancelled. didn’t they tell you?

    cheers
    Barbara

  2. Aye, just got home and found out, 2 hrs after blog. Oh well.

  3. Shame, sounded really interesting

    • The book’s well worth a read, Cap’n. I had to read it in my official capacity, and when it arrived I thought it’d be a bit of a chore as, if you’re going to do history of science properly, you end up spending 90% of the time studying failure, but this is a very enjoyable read. And then again, maybe failure is the normal state of humanity anyhow…


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