The Evolutionist: The Strange Tale of Alfred Russel Wallace by Avi Sirlin

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Reviewed by Peter Hobson

The Evolutionist is a novel which aims to bring an important scientist in the development of the early scientific theories of evolution to a wider audience. We have all heard of Charles Darwin but Sirlin’s (correct) thesis is that Alfred Wallace is the forgotten co-father of the overarching theory of evolution, and this novel is his attempt to rectify that situation.

Historical fiction is a widely appreciated genre, Wolf Hall being an obvious and successful recent exemplar, but historical fiction applied to scientific discovery is a rarer animal and Sirlin is certainly to be congratulated on using this approach with Wallace. There is no doubt that there is a great deal of good material to base the novel on. Wallace was widely travelled in the early to mid Victorian era and not only did he make a number of important discoveries of new species, but he also suffered many trials and tribulations during his journeys into some of the most remote regions of South America and Malaysia. He was also a prolific writer and, given the era, a lot of primary source material is available to a novelist.

The Evolutionist starts with a dramatic scene in which Wallace loses all of his specimens and some of his precious field notes when the ship he is travelling on goes up in flames. After this we jump back in time to set the scene of his early life and to explain to the reader why it is that Wallace is exploring in Brazil and collecting animals and insects, before moving forwards again into the Amazon. This narrative device is used on a number of occasions in the novel and I suspect that it might divide readers but overall I felt it worked.

The science is played out faithfully as far as I can tell (although this is very far from my own area of expertise) and some, but not all, of the encounters with other scientists of the time, Darwin included, are supported by historical evidence. Sirlin tells a good story and I am sure that by the end of the book the reader will have learned a great deal about the perils and joys of field science and the difficulties of making a name for yourself amongst much better connected and higher born scientists in London. Wallace in this novel comes across as humble and somewhat in awe of Darwin and perhaps over eager to give the great man the lion’s share of the credit. Sirlin also narrates to us the strange obsession that Wallace developed with séances which in the end diminished his reputation and perhaps accounts for his relatively low profile amongst the general public today.

If you have any interest in science, and surely there is no one who is not fascinated by evolution, and fancy an exciting adventure story well told then this is a book to put on your short list. It was interesting to read it after finishing two non-fictional books by the palaeontologist Richard Fortey on the subject of evolution and to compare the different approaches to making the subject of evolution accessible to the non-expert like myself. Read Sirlin first and then Fortey and you will be surely an enthusiast for this subject!

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Peter Hobson is an aging physicist who posts on his weblog “Morgana’s Cat” from time to time when he isn’t trying to understand the properties of the top quark.

Avi Sirlin, The Evolutionist (Aurora Metro Press, London, 2014). 978-1906582531, 366pp., paperback.

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