Did Charles Darwin directly make a request to Alfred Russel Wallace to relinquish their partnership in proposing evolution by natural selection? In this historical fiction, Darwin says to Wallace, “[W]e remain two parents of a precocious and beautiful child. We each clasp her by the hand and wish to lead her safely into adulthood. Instead, I fear she will be torn asunder.” Wallace gently asks, “You wish for me to let go?” and Darwin replies, “We speak of my life's work. You have many fields of study, many causes, many prescriptions.” This conversation takes place following the trial of medium and spiritualist Henry Slade for fraudulent activity; Wallace had testified in Slade's favor. Spiritualism was one of Wallace's many fields of study, causes and directions that put him at odds with the scientific community and threatened the nascent proposal of evolution by natural selection.
Sirlin's story captures the events, between 1852 and 1876, that set the stage for this imagined exchange which encapsulates Wallace's place in scientific history. The tale opens with 29-year-old Wallace boarding a ship to England after four years in the Amazon. His personality and scientific explorations begin to be revealed when disaster strikes. The ship catches fire and sinks in the mid-Atlantic with his priceless specimen collection and source of income. All on board are set adrift in two lifeboats for seven harrowing days until rescued by a passing vessel. During this time, through Wallace's thoughts and his storytelling to the sailors, we get flashbacks of his life leading up to, and including, his time in the Amazon. Maps of his Amazon and Malay expeditions for quick reference are absolutely necessary at this point, along with an index with chronological lists of dates, places, and key events of Wallace's life.
Although each of the 27 chapters is titled by date and location, I found myself constantly distracted from the story to search for locations and characters. The author states that “characters other than minor ones are real with the exception of Ramsey Newcastle based on Joseph Hooker Jr.” However, which characters are minor? A list of historical figures Wallace interacted with could more smoothly help readers follow Wallace's development as a scientist and clearly place some influential figures of the time.
In crafting the personalities of Wallace and his contemporaries to realistically provide a story of the scientific and social culture of the time, the author is not completely successful. Characters and conversations seem awkward or stilted, leaving the reader unconvinced about behaviors. This often interferes with immersion in the novel, especially during its first half. Sirlin does build Wallace as at least an equal to Darwin as a broad scientific thinker, a very perceptive field biologist, and an activist of his times. The author also offers what might be perceived as fatal flaws that contributed to Wallace's unrecognized role in proposing natural selection. Wallace believed that his fellow scientists had his same unbridled curiosity, and he showed an inability to fully interpret interpersonal interactions and know when tempering his actions might gain him influence.
Weaving these aspects of Wallace's personality into his little-known scientific endeavors did enhance the story, especially his ethnobiology research. When Wallace presented a paper (“On the Insects Used as Food by the Indians of the Amazon”) to the Entomological Society, “He felt confident of a rapt audience. However when Mr. Newman announced the title of his paper silence fell upon the room. Wallace imagined his audience's intrigue as he stepped to the podium.” Sadly, his colleagues did not see any relevance to the research and showed contempt for what they considered savage practices and an opening to ridicule Wallace. He also used his prominent position as president of the Biology Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science somewhat naively. Because Wallace thought that spiritualism could be investigated scientifically, he organized a presentation on mesmerism and spiritualist phenomena, which was not well received and proved a liability for his influence and place in the scientific community. As readers, we ponder who – Darwin or Wallace – was more perceptive about the strategy of convincingly introducing new scientific proposals?
The Evolutionist will allow you to go beyond Darwin as the only person making observations and accumulating vast bodies of evidence that lead to the proposal of the mechanism for evolution. The number of insects and other specimens that Wallace observed, recorded, and collected is mind boggling; sample size was not an issue. The book squeezes the scientific and social climate of the mid-1800s into a relatively short read and provides numerous jumping-off points for examining the process of science on several levels. In conjunction with this novel, I would strongly encourage including Wallace's (1858) short and readable essay “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type,” which is easily found on the Internet.
I rate this book “three frogs” because it is not a smooth read on several levels: the way the characters interact, confusion about the timeline, locations, and fictional and nonfictional characters. The Evolutionist is worth reading because Wallace's personal story showcases the depth and breadth of the scientific process through Wallace's perseverance, skill, and intellect.