darwin’s footstools


Given the apparent serenity of the photographic portraits for which he sat, it is difficult to imagine Charles Darwin fretful. But only a month after the publication of his Origin of Species in 1859, he became very anxious – not, as one might expect, about reviews of his book, but about a letter chastising him for failing to acknowledge his predecessors, the men who had published evolutionary ideas before him. Haunted by the ghostly presence of those who had struck out before him but who had since disappeared into oblivion, Darwin decided to write a proper acknowledgment, in the form of a list of his scientific forebears. He already knew the names of some of them: the Comte de Buffon, who flirted with evolutionary speculation in the 18th century; Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, the professor of invertebrates at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris who first made his evolutionary claims publicly in 1800; his own grandfather Erasmus Darwin, who had slipped evolutionary ideas between the lines of his poetry and his medical treatises at about the same time; and then there was the anonymous author of a bestselling book of 1844 entitled Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Here his list began to break down. There were “some Germans”, he wrote, and “an American (name this minute forgotten)”.

more from Rebecca Stott at The New Statesman here.