Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution

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A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK

“[An] extraordinarily wide-ranging and engaging book [about] the men who shaped the work of Charles Darwin . . . a book that enriches our understanding of how the struggle to think new thoughts is shared across time and space and people.”—The Sunday Telegraph (London)

Christmas, 1859. Just one month after the publication of On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin received an unsettling letter. He had expected criticism; in fact, letters were arriving daily, most expressing outrage and accusations of heresy. But this letter was different. It accused him of failing to acknowledge his predecessors, of taking credit for a theory that had already been discovered by others. Darwin realized that he had made an error in omitting from Origin of Species any mention of his intellectual forebears. Yet when he tried to trace all of the natural philosophers who had laid the groundwork for his theory, he found that history had already forgotten many of them.
 
Darwin’s Ghosts tells the story of the collective discovery of evolution, from Aristotle, walking the shores of Lesbos with his pupils, to Al-Jahiz, an Arab writer in the first century, from Leonardo da Vinci, searching for fossils in the mine shafts of the Tuscan hills, to Denis 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. Evolution was not discovered single-handedly, Rebecca Stott argues, contrary to what has become standard lore, but is an idea that emerged over many centuries, advanced by daring individuals across the globe who had the imagination to speculate on nature’s extraordinary ways, and who had the courage to articulate such speculations at a time when to do so was often considered heresy.

With each chapter focusing on an early evolutionary thinker, Darwin’s Ghosts is a fascinating account of a diverse group of individuals who, despite the very real dangers of challenging a system in which everything was presumed to have been created perfectly by God, felt compelled to understand where we came from. Ultimately, Stott demonstrates, ideas—including evolution itself—evolve just as animals and plants do, by intermingling, toppling weaker notions, and developing over stretches of time. Darwin’s Ghosts presents a groundbreaking new theory of an idea that has changed our very understanding of who we are.

Praise for Darwin’s Ghosts

“Absorbing . . . Stott captures the breathless excitement of an investigation on the cusp of the unknown. . . . A lively, original book.”The New York Times Book Review

“Stott’s research is broad and unerring; her book is wonderful. . . . An exhilarating romp through 2,000 years of fascinating scientific history.”Nature

“Stott brings Darwin himself to life. . . . [She] writes with a novelist’s flair. . . . Darwin and 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.”The Wall Street Journal

“Riveting . . . 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.”The Guardian (U.K.)


From the Hardcover edition.
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About the author

Rebecca Stott is a professor of English literature and creative writing at the University of East Anglia and an affiliated scholar at the department of the history and philosophy of science at Cambridge University. She is the author of several books, including Darwin and the Barnacle and the novels Ghostwalk and The Coral Thief. She lives in Cambridge, England.
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Additional Information

Publisher
Spiegel & Grau
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Published on
Jun 12, 2012
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Pages
432
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ISBN
9780679604136
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Language
English
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Genres
Science / History
Science / Life Sciences / Evolution
Social Science / Anthropology / Cultural & Social
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Eligible for Family Library

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A Cambridge historian, Elizabeth Vogelsang, is found drowned, clutching a glass prism in her hand. The book she was writing about Isaac Newton’s involvement with alchemy–the culmination of her lifelong obsession with the seventeenth century–remains unfinished. When her son, Cameron, asks his former lover, Lydia Brooke, to ghostwrite the missing final chapters of his mother’s book, Lydia agrees and moves into Elizabeth’s house–a studio in an orchard where the light moves restlessly across the walls. Soon Lydia discovers that the shadow of violence that has fallen across present-day Cambridge, which escalates to a series of murders, may have its origins in the troubling evidence that Elizabeth’s research has unearthed. As Lydia becomes ensnared in a dangerous conspiracy that reawakens ghosts of the past, the seventeenth century slowly seeps into the twenty-first, with the city of Cambridge the bridge between them.
Filled with evocative descriptions of Cambridge, past and present, Ghostwalk centers around a real historical mystery that Rebecca Stott has uncovered involving Newton’s alchemy. In it, time and relationships are entangled–the present with the seventeenth century, and figures from the past with the love-torn twenty-first-century woman who is trying to discover their secrets.
A stunningly original display of scholarship and imagination, and a gripping story of desire and obsession, Ghostwalk is a rare debut that will change the way most of us think about scientific innovation, the force of history, and time itself.


From the Hardcover edition.
A Cambridge historian, Elizabeth Vogelsang, is found drowned, clutching a glass prism in her hand. The book she was writing about Isaac Newton’s involvement with alchemy–the culmination of her lifelong obsession with the seventeenth century–remains unfinished. When her son, Cameron, asks his former lover, Lydia Brooke, to ghostwrite the missing final chapters of his mother’s book, Lydia agrees and moves into Elizabeth’s house–a studio in an orchard where the light moves restlessly across the walls. Soon Lydia discovers that the shadow of violence that has fallen across present-day Cambridge, which escalates to a series of murders, may have its origins in the troubling evidence that Elizabeth’s research has unearthed. As Lydia becomes ensnared in a dangerous conspiracy that reawakens ghosts of the past, the seventeenth century slowly seeps into the twenty-first, with the city of Cambridge the bridge between them.
Filled with evocative descriptions of Cambridge, past and present, Ghostwalk centers around a real historical mystery that Rebecca Stott has uncovered involving Newton’s alchemy. In it, time and relationships are entangled–the present with the seventeenth century, and figures from the past with the love-torn twenty-first-century woman who is trying to discover their secrets.
A stunningly original display of scholarship and imagination, and a gripping story of desire and obsession, Ghostwalk is a rare debut that will change the way most of us think about scientific innovation, the force of history, and time itself.


From the Hardcover edition.
A father-daughter story that tells of the author’s experience growing up in a separatist fundamentalist Christian cult, from the author of the national bestseller Ghostwalk

Rebecca Stott grew up in in Brighton, England, as a fourth-generation member of the Exclusive Brethren, a cult that believed the world is ruled by Satan. In this closed community, books that didn’t conform to the sect’s rules were banned, women were subservient to men and were made to dress modestly and cover their heads, and those who disobeyed the rules were punished and shamed. Yet Rebecca’s father, Roger Stott, a high-ranking Brethren minister, was a man of contradictions: he preached that the Brethren should shun the outside world, yet he kept a radio in the trunk of his car and hid copies of Yeats and Shakespeare behind the Brethren ministries. Years later, when the Stotts broke with the Brethren after a scandal involving the cult’s leader, Roger became an actor, filmmaker, and compulsive gambler who left the family penniless and ended up in jail.
 
A curious child, Rebecca spent her insular childhood asking questions about the world and trying to glean the answers from forbidden library books. Only when she was an adult and her father was dying of cancer did she begin to understand all that had occurred during those harrowing years. It was then that Roger Stott handed her the memoir he had begun writing about the period leading up to what he referred to as the traumatic “Nazi decade,” the years in the 1960s in which he and other Brethren leaders enforced coercive codes of behavior that led to the breaking apart of families, the shunning of members, even suicides. Now he was trying to examine that time, and his complicity in it, and he asked Rebecca to write about it, to expose all that was kept hidden.
 
In the Days of Rain is Rebecca Stott’s attempt to make sense of her childhood in the Exclusive Brethren, to understand her father’s role in the cult and in the breaking apart of her family, and to come to be at peace with her relationship with a larger-than-life figure whose faults were matched by a passion for life, a thirst for knowledge, and a love of literature and beauty. A father-daughter story as well as a memoir of growing up in a closed-off community and then finding a way out of it, this is an inspiring and beautiful account of the bonds of family and the power of self-invention.

Praise for In the Days of Rain

“A marvelous, strange, terrifying book, somehow finding words both for the intensity of a childhood locked in a tyrannical secret world, and for the lifelong aftershocks of being liberated from it.”—Francis Spufford, author of Golden Hill

“Writers are forged in strange fires, but none stranger than Rebecca Stott’s. By rights, her memoir of her father and her early childhood inside a closed fundamentalist sect obsessed by the Rapture ought to be a horror story. But while the historian in her is merciless in exposing the cruelties and corruption involved, Rebecca the child also lights up the book, existing in a world of vivid play, dreams, even nightmares, so passionate and imaginative that it helps explain how she survived, and—even more miraculous—found the compassion and understanding to do justice to the story of her father and the painful family life he created.”—Sarah Dunant, author of The Birth of Venus
As everybody knows, oysters are the ultimate aphrodisiac. Casanova is said to have eaten 50 raw oysters every morning with his mistress of the moment, in a bathtub designed for two. Whether oysters truly have exciting properties is open to debate, but like all seafoods, they contain high amounts of phosphorus and iodine, which are believed to be conducive to stamina. Author and food expert M.F.K. Fisher wrote: "There are many reasons why an oyster is supposed to have this desirable quality . . . Most of them are physiological, and have to do with an oyster’s odour, its consistency, and probably its strangeness."

As well as an aphrodisiac, the oyster has since the earliest times been an inspiration to philosophers, artists, poets, chefs, gourmets, epicures and jewellers. It has been pursued by poachers and thieves, and defended by oyster-police and parliaments.

In Oyster, literary historian and radio broadcaster Rebecca Stott tells the extraordinary story of the oyster and its pearl, revealing how this curious creature has been used and depicted in human culture and what it has variously meant to those who have either loved or loathed it: the Romans carried much-sought-after British oysters across the Alps on the backs of donkeys to be eaten as delicacies at banquets in Rome, whilst by contrast Woody Allen once famously said "I will not eat oysters. I want my food dead – not sick, not wounded – dead."

Using many unusual images and anecdotes, Oyster will appeal to oyster lovers and haters everywhere, and for those too who have an interest in the way animals such as the oyster have woven themselves into the fabric of our culture.
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