Stott’s narrative moves from ancient Greece, where Aristotle obsessed over sponges and other animal forms; to medieval Basra, where author Jahiz studied ecosystems and animal adaptation; to the 18th-century Hague, where a regenerating polyp discovered by a tutor electrified European intelligentsia and caused them to question longheld beliefs about life and the primacy of humans; to the British Isles in the mid-1800s, where a book written anonymously by publisher Robert Chambers permanently awakened British curiosity about species origins.
Her narrative concludes on a star-shaped island off the coast of Indonesia, where specimen collector Alfred Wallace, wandering through the fever dreams of malaria, juxtaposed Malthus’ theory of population control with theories of evolution to finally, independently of Darwin, understand natural selection.
Some of Stott’s historical figures did not even believe in evolution; Aristotle, for example, believed staunchly in the fixity of individual forms. And other characters made important discoveries while holding dubious beliefs. For example, although his book galvanized English thought about evolution, Chambers got many of his facts wrong. And while 18th-century French counsel Benoît de Maillet firmly believed man had evolved from sea creatures, he also believed that a secret race of fishmen still existed.