Science is a human pursuit and the history of its ideas, like all human history, is messy; the bigger the idea, the messier its history tends to be. No idea that anyone has had since, say, Muhammad founded Islam, has had more impact than Charles Darwin’s grand notion of evolution by means of natural selection, presented to the world in what he regarded as no more than a sketch in On the Origin of Species in 1859. The idea had its roots in natural history, of course, but also in politics, economics, metaphysics and religion, and has been developed by battalions of thinkers – some generous and humble, some jealous and mean-spirited. It takes great skill and scholarship to tell the story well, and Rebecca Stott does it wonderfully.
Consider how many threads there are in Darwin’s grand idea. First there’s the notion – taken for granted by the mid-nineteenth century, but it took a lot of thrashing out – that there is order in nature at all. It’s obvious to us, perhaps, yet many cultures, including some that