A dangerous idea whose time had come?

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Bottom-up thinking … Darwin was fascinated by the origins of coral reefs. Photograph: Mark Conlin/Alamy

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Darwin’s Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists by Rebecca Stott (Bloomsbury)

Reviewed by Richard Fortey

There may be no such thing as originality. In the fourth edition of On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin added a historical sketch to recognise those he considered had anticipated his great evolutionary idea.

In a footnote he remarked on "the manner in which similar views arise at about the same time". He could have been referring to Alfred Russel Wallace, who had independently grasped the elements of natural selection while Darwin was still working slowly on his great book.

Some historians would say that the idea had come of age, distilled out of the intellectual broth at the appropriate moment, the discoverer merely giving expression to what lurked in the zeitgeist. After all, Robert Chambers had anticipated Darwin himself by 15 years: his Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation had caused a sensation.

The scandalised reception of this heretical work slowed down Darwin's pen until Wallace's appearance as a rival propelled him feverishly towards publication. Ideas have their moment, it seems, and revolutions in thought their standard bearers.

Rebecca Stott has delved into the history of the idea of "transmutation" more thoroughly than did Darwin. The supreme observer was no linguist, and nor was he a historian. He thoroughly acknowledged Wallace, Chambers, his grandfather Erasmus, and the great French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, but the rest of his list was a bit like a blunderbuss fired into a flock of possible predecessors, scoring a few rather arbitrary hits.

Stott's list is more interesting. She has revealed an extraordinary batch of free thinkers who dared to consider mutability during times when such ideas might still cost the thinker his head.

Some of these radicals are well known. The encyclopaedist Denis Diderot danced an elaborate pas de deux around the Parisian censor for years by devising cunning literary disguises for notions that were anathema to the Catholic establishment. Leonardo da Vinci (inevitably) had relevant thoughts about natural processes, though wrapped up in the arcane camouflage of his notebooks.

But I knew nothing about Benoît de Maillet, the French consul in Cairo, who already in the early years of the 18th century was synthesising ideas about a great age for the Earth with notions concerning descent of animals from a common origin in the sea.

He disguised himself in publishing as an Indian sage called Telliamed, who was quizzed by an (unnamed) French missionary to reveal these ancient truths. The tail-to-head anagram of the former seems rather obvious, perhaps, but De Maillet died in his bed at a considerable age. Perhaps it was his eyewitness accounts of mermaids that allowed science to forget him.

Nor had I previously encountered Abraham Tremblay, private tutor to the rich and influential Dutch Bentinck family. During the first half of the 18th century Tremblay investigated meticulously and methodically the wondrous polyp – a common pond organism that could regenerate indefinitely from the smallest fragment.

Under his own design of microscope he demonstrated this phenomenon time and again, dispatching samples with instructions to persuade the many sceptics that here was something that seemed to lie halfway between the plant and animal kingdoms.

It made Tremblay famous. But it also blurred categories. It worried philosophers accustomed to clear and inviolable boundaries made by the Creator. The hydra even spawned satirical verses. Would Higgs boson have the same effect today?

Earlier still, in France, a Huguenot potter called Bernard Palissy had been decorating a grotto for Catherine de Medici with brilliant ceramics, modelled from the life, of pond creatures writhing and intertwined in a kind of petrified version of "nature red in tooth and claw".

Stott proves that this was no mere decorative whim. Palissy believed that organisms could be generated in clay ponds by a kind of alchemical brew – a theory curiously similar to some current theories on the origin of life itself...

Richard Fortey is the author of Survivors: The Animals and Plants that Time has Left Behind, published by HarperPress.

Full review in The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/jun/01/darwins-ghosts-rebecca-stott-review

Reviewed in The Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/darwins-ghosts-in-search-of-the-first-evolutionists-by-rebecca-stott-7742066.html

Rebecca Stott on BBC Radio Four: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01fhrhv

The Complete Works of Charles Darwin on line: http://darwin-online.org.uk/EditorialIntroductions/Freeman_OntheOriginofSpecies.html

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