About The Author
Rebecca Stott was born in Cambridge and raised in Brighton, where her family ran a wholesale grocery business. Her father and grandfather were also senior ministering brothers in a fundamentalist Christian sect called the Exclusive Brethren which kept themselves separate from the rest of the world in order to prepare for the Second Coming.
They believed that Charles Drawin had been sent to Earth to do Satan's work. Her grandfather went as far as removing the page featuring him in the family edition of Encyclopædia Britannica. Undeterred, Rebecca was able to pursue her curiosity regarding this sinister figure on her school library, leading to a lifelong interest.
Rebecca now divides her year between teaching, as a Professor of English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, and freelance writing and broadcasting. She is also an Affiliated Scholar at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge.
She is the author of eleven books, including Darwin and the Barnacle, which recounts how Darwin's obsession with a barnacle picked up on the shores of Chile caused him to delay the publication of On the Origin of Species by eight years. She has also written two historical novels, Ghostwalk and the Coral Thief, the latter of which also touched on her interest in the history of evolutionary theory, as an Edinburgh student travels to Paris to study anatomy at the Jardin des Plantes.
Her new book is Darwin's Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists, which takes a fascinating chronological tour through the lists of scientific predecessors that Darwin credited in later editions of On the Origin of Species as of great assistance in understanding of natural selection and the development of the theory of evolution. She begins with Aristotle, who went against the grain in ancient Greece with his direct observations of the natural world, and journeys, via Muslim scholar Jahiz and Leonardo da Vinci, to figures from the decades leading up to Darwin's landmark publication, such as Denis Diderot and Alfred Russel Wallace.
In this exclusive interview for Foyles, Rebecca talks about her childhood realisation that there were alternatives to what Genesis said about the origins of humanity, the impediments to scientific discovery laid down by religion and the patterns in nature recorded by Aristole and Jahiz.
Questions & Answers
You were brought up in a devout household, where the entry on Darwin was removed by your grandfather from the family edition of Encyclopædia Britannica. Was there a moment of insight about evolution or did your realisation come gradually?
Gradually. I wasn't able to grasp the complexities of evolutionary theory when I first looked up Darwin's ideas in the school encyclopaedia as a child but I remained fascinated by the idea that species had changed through long periods of time, that we might have evolved from monkeys and that there might have been an alternative story to the Biblical one about how lifeforms had appeared on this beautiful planet of ours.
In his famous documentary series, Contact, Carl Sagan suggested that the Ancient Greeks' preference for theorising rather than experimentation, and subsequent adherence to their values, put back scientific progress by a thousand years. In Darwin's Ghosts, Aristotle stands out as a notable exception, but would you agree with his general sentiment?
I tend to be a bit wary of making or agreeing with claims as large as Sagan's. It's the detail and complexity of the history of science that intrigues me. In taking myself into ancient Greek science for the first time I was struck by the range of ideas and cosmologies and the amount of disagreement between thinkers. Aristotle was an exception though certainly in that he sought the answers to his questions about life here on this planet rather in grand abstractions.
All the scientists you mention found their ideas condemned as "heretical" by the church. Is it possible to say how much earlier evolutionary theory might have found mainstream acceptance without religious opposition? Did you encounter any examples of how religious belief made a positive contribution towards the development of evolutionary theory?
I found no examples of religious belief making a positive contribution to evolutionary theory. We can only speculate about how much earlier these ideas might have been accepted if the church had not so systematically opposed their investigation but it is no coincidence the period of greatest acceleration in evolutionary ideas took place in Paris between 1800 and 1815 - a period in which the clergy had been expelled from France and the scientists of the Jardin des Plantes were given free rein to ask questions they had not been allowed to pursue before the Revolution.
The ninth century Muslim scholar Jahiz was a classic autodidact - you mention his habit of renting bookshops overnight so he could read there undisturbed. Did his observations on the diversity of species spark any speculation in his own society about how this might have come about beyond a marvelling at the designs of Allah?
It is almost impossible to say. There was no great tradition of zoological investigation in Arabic science. Jahiz was a bit of an anomaly in that respect. He was following Aristotle's lead in gathering facts and observations about animals and trying to find patterns in the design of nature. Of course Jahiz himself did so much more in his remarkable book other than marvel at Allah's design - he saw that there were webs of interdependence and predation (what we might call ecosystems), and he saw that animals were perfectly adapted the habitats they lived in. He saw many of the patterns that would lead to speculation later.